The Steam Deck is easily one of the most anticipated pieces of PC gaming tech since… well, maybe ever? The promise of carrying the entirety of your Steam library wherever you go on this bulky but well-designed and relatively powerful handheld gaming device is massively alluring, especially to those of us who continuously fatten our backlog with each passing Steam sale. And after a couple of weeks of gaming on Valve’s ambitious handheld PC I can say that a lot of the time it does live up to that hype. In fact, when it’s working at its full potential it’s amazing. When it’s not working as intended, however, it’s a frustrating experience that shines a light on the parts of PC gaming that turn most people off to it.
The Steam Deck has received a lot of updates since it launched nearly three weeks ago, but what I was mainly waiting for is the graphics driver that would allow us to put it through its paces as a standard Windows PC and sidestep the limitations of Valve’s Linux-based SteamOS. We have that now, and the Steam Deck has smoothed out some of its launch issues, too. When the stars align this chunky handheld can do some impressive things, putting a pretty powerful little PC in the palm of your hands. However, given how many popular games just don’t work on Steam Deck right now, it has a long way to go towards achieving the goal of truly letting you take your Steam library anywhere. It never lets you forget that it’s really a PC, and it just isn’t as smooth an experience as a walled-garden console provides.
Steam Deck Images
Steam Deck – Design and Features
As you’ve already seen from the memes, the Steam Deck is pretty massive. It’s 11.7 inches from end to end, which is more than two inches longer than a Switch, and at 1.5 pounds it’s quite a bit heavier. The size difference is enough that going back to my Switch after using the Steam Deck exclusively for a few days makes the Switch feel like a microconsole. There’s no way it’s going to fit in a pocket. Still, the Steam Deck isn’t uncomfortable to hold, and it’s not like my arms got tired from holding it for a couple of hours.
I wouldn’t call it a particularly attractive piece of tech, but it has a futuristic industrial look that fits in well with the overall Steam aesthetic. There are only two colors: black, and touches of light-gray. The case is a matte black with a subtle texture to it, somewhat rougher than an Xbox controller, and it feels good to the touch. The grips on either side bulge out at the edges, making it much more comfortable to hold in my adult-sized hands than a Nintendo Switch. It’s nice to feel safe holding onto something so expensive, and you probably wouldn’t want to have a young kid play with it very much anyway.
The Steam Deck’s LCD screen runs at 1200×800 at 60Hz, and it looks really good. I have no complaints about the resolution – at this screen size there’s a diminishing return on packing in extra pixels. I have to say, though, that the OLED screen on the latest model of the Nintendo Switch has spoiled me on handheld screens, and the Steam Deck doesn’t live up to the vibrance and clarity afforded by Nintendo’s latest update. But it’s still lovely, especially if you aren’t jumping back and forth between this and an OLED screen. Similar to the Switch, the screen is touch-enabled, so you can easily navigate through menus and even control some games with a quick tap here and a drag there.
Near the top are the face buttons and control surfaces. The D-pad is solid but just a little mushier than I like and – this is a minor complaint – I don’t like that it’s positioned to the left of the thumbstick because that means games that use the D-pad for quick menu options feel awkward. The healing gourd in Sekiro is a good example of this; it just feels off, but it’s nothing I couldn’t get used to.
The input buttons, which are marked with the same ABXY letters and configuration as an Xbox controller, are lovely. They feel like little pieces of flawlessly smooth hard candy, with a nice travel and just enough resistance. And while early photos had me worried that the buttons might be spaced too close together, that’s not the case in practice; they’re exactly where I’d expect them to be.
The thumbsticks, though? They rule. They’re perfectly smooth without feeling loose or sloppy, and they revert back to center with a satisfying snappiness. The surface is a matte plastic, and it’s touch-sensitive so the Steam Deck knows when you’ve got a thumb on one without you needing to depress anything. After some time with them, I did notice a slight drop in the smoothness of their action in certain positions, but that’s the same sort of “grittiness” all thumbsticks seem to acquire after a few hours of continuous use. Fortunately, if the problem persists or if new ones pop up, Valve has made it possible to open up the Steam Deck to replace the thumbsticks – although it’s not exactly modular and does require you to disassemble your very expensive and difficult-to-find piece of tech. Still, that helps me sleep easier because the sticks are built right into the Steam Deck, so while on the Switch you could detach and replace a defective Joy-con that wouldn’t be an option here.
If I have one complaint with the thumbsticks, it’s how they work with the gyros. The feature can be turned off in the Steam menus, but by default the gyros are activated when the thumbsticks’ touch-sensitive surface detects your thumbs. This means both the thumbsticks and the gyros are active at the same time, so I found myself making movements I didn’t intend to make. That being said, adjusting the settings to either thumbstick or gyro control shows off how well they work. If you’re a fan of gyro aiming, you’re in for a good time. They’re really responsive, moving quickly and where you want them to. It feels very crisp and accurate.
Directly below each thumbstick is a trackpad with a subtle haptic feature you can toggle on or off in the menus. I like the haptics – dragging my finger across the surface feels like moving a mouse across my desk. It even simulates the momentum of a trackball, meaning if you swipe quickly across the trackpad and take your finger off, the cursor glides along in the same way it would if you spun a trackball. It feels good for desktop applications and navigating in the Steam menus – and it’ll feel very familiar to anyone who’s used a Steam Controller. My one problem with the trackpads is a result of their placement: while playing games with thumbsticks I found my thumb would sometimes hit the trackpad and I’d get some unexpected input or camera angle shift. Thankfully, it is possible to turn them off in the menus on a per-game basis.
As for using the trackpad as a mouse replacement in first-person shooters, well, good luck with that. I was able to make it work playing Half-Life 2 once I dialed in a sensitivity I could live with, but for the same reasons the Steam Controller (which attempted to completely replace the sticks with touchpads) never took off, I found myself defaulting to the controller or thinking about connecting a Bluetooth mouse. I had hoped it would bridge the gap between a mouse-and-keyboard setup and playing with a controller, but it feels like the lesser of three possible control schemes.
Shoulder buttons also feel good, although the L2 and R2 triggers are much better than the L1 and R1 bumpers. The bumpers feel alright once you actuate them, and in fact have a lovely little “click,” but to get to that point feels a little softer than I would like. The triggers, on the other hand, are perfect. They’re not quite DualSense-levels of good, but they travel very smoothly and have just the right amount of tension. The way they spring back almost reminds me of the triggers on the GameCube controller, but not quite.
Steam Deck Teardown
On the back of the Steam Deck are four programmable buttons, similar to the button placement you find on the Xbox Elite and other high-end controllers. Sadly, they’re probably my least-favorite inputs of the bunch. The placement is difficult for me to grasp with my larger-than-normal hands and I have to contort my fingers into an uncomfortable claw-shape to press them. On top of placement, they just feel bad: the response is soft and the clickiness is weak. Even if the placement were improved, the tactile feel is off-putting. Because of these limitations I didn’t want to use them for anything in games, which is fine since they’re entirely optional.
On the topic of other controllers, the Steam Deck does have Bluetooth controller support, but thus far I’ve found myself striking out. I’m sure it’s something that will be fixed with a future update, but every time I paired an Xbox controller, everything would be going great until whatever game I was playing got to its first loading screen. At this point, the controller’s vibration would turn on, at full blast, until I pulled the batteries. Until that’s resolved, I wouldn’t expect to treat the Steam Deck like a Switch you can dock and play like a console – though it may in the future and supports USB C-to-HDMI hubs and dongles for that purpose. Valve will be offering an official docking station (sold separately) but it won’t be available until late Spring at an as-yet-to-be-revealed price.
Speaking of dongles, if you’re going to use any wired peripherals, you’re probably going to need one because there’s just one USB-C port on the Steam Deck. Specifically, you’ll want a USB-C hub (and while not required, I’d recommend a powered hub so that you can charge your Steam Deck while you’re using peripherals). If you don’t trust your WiFi, you’ll need to add an Ethernet port to the list of your dongle’s requirements. So that’s kind of a hassle and an extra expense you’ll need to factor in. Valve will be offering an official docking station (sold separately) but it won’t be available until late Spring at an as-yet-to-be-revealed price.
Steam Deck Packaging
That USB-C port is located at the top of the Steam Deck, near the power button. The volume up and down buttons are on the left side, and sitting between them is the Steam Deck’s primary cooling vent. It pumps out a continuous stream of heat, as the fans seem never to turn off while the Steam Deck is in use. In fact, most of the time the fans are running at their highest setting – we measured it to be about 49 decibels, which is louder than a PS5. It certainly makes sense – you can’t cram all that power into such a small space and expect it won’t need a fan. It’s not so loud you can’t hear over it, but it’s impossible to ignore the high-pitched whine.
There’s a performance overlay built right into the Steam Deck software, so you can monitor CPU and GPU usage, frame rate, core usage, memory and temperature. On more intensive games the GPU runs at 99-100% the entire time, while the CPU lives around 70-80% usage continuously. Temperatures for both are in the upper 70s.
The Steam Deck User Interface
The user interface is a modified version of the Steam desktop app you’re used to. Navigation is fairly easy, although I was a bit lost at first until I figured out you have to push the physical Steam button to access your library. Where things get tricky is when you’re in a game, because there are so many menus it’s difficult to figure out where a given setting might be located.
The Steam button on the left and the menu button on the right both bring up overlays, with the menu button having notifications, performance options, and quick settings. The Steam button brings up a more detailed list of sub-menus, including Home, Library, power options and other settings. This is on top of the in-game menus brought up with the pause and select buttons you’re used to using. The confusing part, for me, came when I wanted to turn off the gyro feature in Sekiro. I couldn’t remember: is that an in-game setting, or a Steam setting? I went through all the possibilities and it turns out… it’s none of the above. The gyro function is turned off from the Steam Library screen after entering the launch page for the individual games.
The Steam Deck comes in three different storage configurations: 64GB, 256GB and 512GB. I was sent the 512GB version, and with no games installed there is 457.9 GB of free space available. The upper two storage tiers are NVMe SSD, while the 64GB model is flash memory. I don’t actually know – outside of indies – how 64GB is an acceptable level of storage, but thankfully there is a microSD slot on the bottom of the Steam Deck allowing you to pop in up to 2TB of additional storage. Valve also says you can upgrade the SSD inside, but it’s not easy (which, for a device aimed at PC gaming enthusiasts, sounds less like a warning and more of a challenge). With the prices on NVMe drives dropping while storage sizes keep growing, it’s a tempting road to travel, but even the cheapest 1TB drives are $100, adding to an already sizable investment.
However, even with an NVMe SSD on the highest-end Steam Deck, I was disappointed by load times on some of the games I played. For God of War, going from hitting the “Play” button on the SteamOS menu to the menu screen took almost a minute. For Deathloop, it’s an agonizing two minutes and 30 seconds, compared to about a minute on desktop using a high-end NVMe SSD. In-game loading isn’t any better. Especially now that the new consoles have spoiled me with near-instant loads, that took some of the joy out of my first few days with the Steam Deck. At least when you get a little less ambitious and play older or less intensive games like Hades, Bayonetta, or Stardew Valley it’s more in the neighborhood of 10 seconds.
Another modern console feature that’s missing from Steam Deck is Quick Resume. You can easily navigate to the Home screen from inside a game by selecting the option after pressing the Steam button on the Steam Deck’s face, but loading a second game without quitting the first will cause headaches. I tried to go from Sekiro to God of War and got a warning screen telling me I’d be facing some performance issues in doing so. Rather than suspend Sekiro automatically, I’d instead have to quit it entirely in order to play God of War at acceptable performance levels. Going back to it is like starting any game from scratch: loading, menus, etc. I’ve again been spoiled by modern consoles. If you’re in the middle of a game and you suspend it with the power button, it starts back up again without any problems, just like any good portable system.
However, there is a feature Valve calls “Dynamic Cloud Sync,” which is supposed to let you seamlessly switch between Steam Deck and desktop gaming. Game developers must actively support the feature: it’s not a default setting inside the Steam Deck. It’s also difficult to see at a glance which games support this functionality. I had to reach out to Valve to ask which games have Dynamic Cloud Sync enabled.
Dead Cells and Wytchwood are two that Valve told me support the feature, but it doesn’t work at all like I was expecting. From Valve’s own description of the functionality, I was anticipating a scenario where I could, mid-battle, put the Steam Deck to sleep, jump on my desktop rig and dive right back into the action. That wasn’t the case at all. I put the Deck to sleep in Wytchwood and moved to my desktop, but it started up again from the nearest auto-save point – which is fine, but that’s just a cloud save. Dead Cells didn’t even start me in the game. It booted through its normal screens to the title, and from there I chose to continue from my last save. It’s not exactly the seamless transition I hoped it would be. I don’t actually see how it’s any different from a normal cloud save.
Steam Deck – Performance and Gaming
One advantage consoles have always had over PCs is that developers know exactly what hardware and software you’re running on and can tune their games precisely to run well on that, whereas PCs are all over the place. But since every Steam Deck has the same specs except for storage space, Valve has been able to create a new badge for games that work “great on Steam Deck.” That’s any game that’s been tested by Valve and proven to run well on your device. There are currently more than a thousand that have earned the designation, and the list is growing every day as Valve continues to test. There are icons on each game’s thumbnail telling you, at a glance, its Steam Deck status. Some games have an exclamation mark on a yellow background, letting you know they’ll run but there are known issues (usually small ones). For example, Stellaris runs well but the fonts are tiny on the Steam Deck’s seven-inch screen and it shows keyboard prompts rather than controller buttons. Then there are many, many games that haven’t been tested at all. Those are a crapshoot.
As I played a variety of games, both tested and untested, I was surprised – both positively and negatively – by the results. Playing God of War natively on a handheld device is pretty damn amazing. It looks so much better than it has any right to look, hitting a very acceptable 50fps without any major drops or stutters. In fact, I think I’ve played more God of War on the Steam Deck than I did on the PS4 (I got distracted by Red Dead 2 at the time, okay?). Deathloop also runs well, with the exception that it crashed so spectacularly during my first time playing it I had to do a hard reboot of the Steam Deck. It didn’t have any issues after that, nor did any of the other “Great on Steam Deck” games I played, including Dark Souls III and Sekiro. Even the brand-new Elden Ring ran surprisingly well, holding around 45 fps on default graphics settings. I did notice a massive framerate drop on Dark Souls III while I was in the process of downloading another game, but it cleared up as soon as the download was complete. These kinds of hiccups are a reminder that this is a PC playing PC games.
Before the Windows driver for the AMD chip was released, we ran a few in-game benchmarks and reported rough estimates for the results. Now that we have that driver, I’ve put the Steam Deck through IGN’s full benchmark suite, but these results still come with an asterisk. That is, typically we run benchmarks at 1920 x 1080 resolution, whereas the Steam Deck’s native resolution tops out at 1200 x 800. That said, the Deck isn’t meant to be run at 1080p, nor are any gaming laptops made with 800p screens these days either, so for comparison purposes I’ve included results from the Deck running at its native 1200 x 800 next to a handful of budget gaming laptops and ultrabooks with their standard 1080p results.
As you can see, the Steam Deck outperforms the integrated graphics of the Intel Iris Xe, but falls short of even low-end dedicated GPUs like the Nvidia GTX 1650 – and that’s without accounting for the difference in resolution. That doesn’t sound terribly impressive, but benchmarks are often a poor indicator of the actual experience gaming on a machine, and I can assure you that modern games are plenty playable on the Steam Deck, especially if you’re willing to tweak settings a bit down to high or medium, rather than Ultra like our benchmarks dictate.
For GTA 5, with all the settings turned to their highest and running at 1200 x 800, it ran between 40-50 fps, only dipping down to 30 fps briefly when in heavy traffic. On the small screen, that performance translates extremely well. It looks and feels fantastic to play, and had it not been for the real-time FPS counter I doubt I would have even noticed it dipping down to 30. Even the brand-new Elden Ring ran surprisingly well, holding around 45 fps on default graphics settings.
Borderlands 3, which can really tax a system, was basically unplayable at max settings, but gets a consistent 42-48 fps with all settings on ‘medium’ in SteamOS. The range of variance is pretty big: on the low end, the benchmark dipped to 33, but on the high end it briefly hit 59. Overall, though, it’s extremely playable and looks great on Medium. Running the benchmark in Windows at the same settings as our other laptops (save resolution), Borderlands 3 came in at a respectable 42fps.
I was also impressed by DOOM (2016), which is currently not certified “great on Steam Deck.”. It’s still the fast, ridiculously fun game I love, but in the palms of my hands, running surprisingly well and looking a lot better than it does on Switch. It did hard crash on me once, though, which was a reminder of some of the minor annoyances of PC gaming.
Skyrim Special Edition in SteamOS was a big disappointment. At its lowest settings it ran at a solid 60fps… until I swung my weapon, at which point all sound would cut out and the framerate would drop to the point that it would freeze altogether. A simple battle with some wolves in a forest was completely unplayable because the problems from swinging weapons were amplified by the inclusion of enemies.
There’s also the big problem of certain games, most notably those with installers or anti-cheat implementations, just don’t work in SteamOS. Sorry Destiny players but you won’t be able to join the next raid from your Steam Deck. Same with any games you might own on the Epic Games Store.
Using Windows on Steam Deck
Being able to install Windows cleared up some of those bigger compatibility issues with games that aren’t on Steam. Your Epic Games Store library is totally playable, along with Game Pass for PC, Battle.net, Ubisoft’s uPlay, you name it. It’s a PC, remember? But after booting up Fortnite on its recommended graphics settings, I’m not entirely sure you’d want to play. Even though everything was set to its lowest possible graphical settings with a framerate cap of 30fps, it was still pretty choppy.
Also, the swap is not without drawbacks. SteamOS benefits like system-level gyro control and the ability to suspend your games are gone when running in Windows, and the performance in games is generally slightly worse than in SteamOS. I will say I was impressed by Halo Infinite running in Windows on Steam Deck. Sure, every setting was “Low,” but it still looked great on the small screen and ran surprisingly well.
Another thing to note is that while you now have the option to run Windows or SteamOS, as of right now, you can’t run both. It’s not possible to dual-boot with SteamOS, as its installation just won’t work with a boot manager. Unless you feel like you absolutely need to play Fortnite, Destiny, Call of Duty or a slew of other non-supported SteamOS games, I wouldn’t recommend installing Windows.
It is possible to hack the Steam Deck UI to run over the top of your Windows installation, but it’s extremely watered down. Many of the options available while running natively in SteamOS – like the suspend feature and the ability to turn on the FPS and other performance overlays – just don’t work, and important info like battery life shows 0% in the Steam Deck UI while running in Windows. On the other hand, the Steam Deck UI does regain you the ability to adjust controller settings on a per-game basis. In other words, if you do opt for installing Windows, you’re still going to want to layer the Steam Deck UI on top, even if it’s not as full-featured as SteamOS itself.
Basically, running Windows on Steam Deck is cool, but SteamOS will suit 90% of your gaming needs much better. Since there’s still no Windows audio driver (you have to use a Bluetooth headset), and no easy way to jump from one operating system to the other, just stick with SteamOS.
Steam Deck Battery Life
There’s also a massive problem with battery life while running Windows on the Steam Deck. Even when plugged into power, the battery still runs down while playing games. I even swapped out the default Steam Deck USB-C power brick for the MacBook Pro’s 80w brick and still saw battery drawdown while plugged into power. When running just on battery, playing five minutes (I timed it) of Halo Infinite took the charge from 55% down to 49%. In five minutes of play.
In SteamOS, at least, I never had a problem with the battery discharging while it was plugged in, but battery life still wasn’t great, especially if you aren’t willing to make a lot of sacrifices. On its default settings, God of War chewed through a 100% charged battery in just 90 minutes, which falls short of the minimum two hours Valve advertised. Sure, we’ll be able to tune games to pace themselves a little better than that, such as by limiting them to 30 frames per second rather than 60, but it was surprising how fast it went. Also, it gave me no warning at all that the battery was about to die. It just died.
One thing that’s sorely missing right now is per-game optimized settings to ensure they look good and run well for a reasonable amount of time. I’m sure that will come with time, but it’s such a massive task and Steam Decks are going to be so hard to come by for a while that you’re going to want to be careful when you fire up a new game away from an outlet.
Remember: It’s a PC, Too!
In either Windows or SteamOS here’s something your console can’t do: you can jump out of the Steam environment and – presto – you’re on a full-fledged PC that can do anything you’d expect a PC to do. If you’re like me and you like playing around with Linux, leaving the Steam environment and using SteamOS in desktop mode is instantly recognizable. The most recent version of SteamOS is based on Arch Linux, not Debian, so keep that in mind when you’re trying to figure out why ‘apt-get’ doesn’t work. It’s running the Plasma desktop environment, which I’d never personally used, but it’s very clean and quite responsive on Steam Deck.
Since it’s built on Linux and not a closed, proprietary system, you can run mods as you would on any Windows or SteamOS build. It requires a little extra digging, since the Linux filesystem is configured much differently than Windows. Basically if you can find a Google result for ‘run game mod in SteamOS’ you can run it on Steam Deck. You’ll need to boot into the desktop mode to set it all up, but if you’re comfortable enough to install mods anyway, the Linux filesystem shouldn’t be much of an obstacle for you.
The trackpads work as you would expect them to in SteamOS’ desktop, so you can go ahead and add your favorite browser and visit all your favorite websites, and the on-screen keyboard is much improved from the spotty version when I first published this review in progress. You can use it like you’d use any other device running a Linux distro, without needing to haul around a mouse and keyboard, meaning there’s a whole ecosystem of desktop applications and games out there that will run natively on it. I personally recommend using a physical mouse and keyboard, because the built-in solutions feel a little clunky, but it’s not required. You could write your novel on the Steam Deck or use it to hack the planet. It’s your call.
It’s interesting to contemplate that, with just a few accessories, the Steam Deck could be someone’s only PC and that wouldn’t be a terrible setup. While Linux might seem intimidating, even if you were to run SteamOS in Desktop mode, you’d find it pretty familiar and much easier to use than you might think. Non-gaming applications take respectful sips from the battery, rather than chug it like some electrified frat boy. We got over 8 hours of battery life from PCMark 10 Professional, making it on-par or better than a lot of low-cost productivity laptops. When you factor in all of that vast multi-use capability, the extra cost above a Switch – which to this day still has no web browser or Netflix app – doesn’t seem unreasonable.