A Pre-Order Nightmare
I haven’t been this excited about a handheld console since the Sony PSP, nor have I been as impressed. There have been many excellent handhelds by Nintendo and various Chinese third-party manufacturers, but nothing quite like the Steam Deck. If you have been living under a rock for the last year the Deck is the most powerful handheld ever made to date. Sporting custom AMD APU hardware and many fantastic and exciting features that make the Deck the next handheld that makes gamers envious.
The Deck was announced at a bad time. With the global COVID-19 pandemic driving sales of popular consumer electronics sky-high thanks to chip shortages and shipment delays, the Deck was a hot-ticket item for scalpers and general gamers alike. I set my alarm and smashed the refresh button on Steam when the pre-order went live. The server crashed and was down for 2 hours after this and I thought all hope was lost. I finally got through and placed my $5 deposit only to realize it was going to be a year or more before I got my unit. When the Deck finally started shipping in late February everyone started pre-ordering more and gamers got greener.
If you want you can check to see when your pre-order will ship thanks to a bunch of community members’ calculator. It’s not 100% accurate but gets more accurate as people input when their Deck shipped. Mine originally said the end of July, but it shipped at the beginning. Check it out here.
I got my pre-order purchase email on July 4th. Right as I hit the bed to go to sleep the email arrived. It took about 9 days to arrive after the purchase. As of my purchase, there are less than 100,000 Steam Decks in the wild (probably not including review units) and I feel incredibly privileged to get my unit so early. I feel the 4.5-month waiting period allowed the Deck to receive a lot of updates and improve some over time.
There are 3,000 “verified” games as of this review with a third of my library being verified. Being Deck verified means the game boots up and launches without any tinkering and has readable text, supports the Deck’s resolution, and can run at default graphics settings. Similar to how you would experience a game on a console. There is a “playable” flag that means it runs fine, but there’s some weirdness like default controls don’t work or the text is hard to read. Another third of my library is playable. The third flag is “unsupported” which means Valve tested the game and the developer needs to work on it more. Anti-cheat systems usually prevent launching or some sort of weird third-party stuff. Or the game doesn’t work with the current Media Runtime files (Valve’s end) or the latest versions of Proton or Glorious Eggroll Proton…yeah, more on that stuff later.
The unboxing experience was odd with the Deck. It almost feels cheap. There isn’t any type of fancy retail box. The Deck comes packed inside a blank shipping box with a paper insert instructing you to plug the Deck in and turn it on in multiple languages. The charger is in a separate box next to the Deck and the Deck itself is just wrapped up in plastic with a cardboard sleeve and inside its case. Yes, every Deck comes with a carrying case which is freaking revolutionary. This needs to be a standard. I’m assuming there will be final retail packaging once these things can be shipped and stay on store shelves after pre-orders are fulfilled.
The upgraded case is well worth it compared to the other two models. The interior cloth is more premium feeling and doesn’t attract as much dust. The strap inside is also black with higher quality material. The outside has a colored Deck logo and white zipper pulls. What really got me jazzed was the underside has a scoop punched into it with an elastic strap over it. This is for the charger! It’s freaking incredible and this should be a new standard for cases. The 512GB model comes with a sinch pouch for it with a Deck tag logo. I actually love this as it’s extra protection to keep the charger from falling out. You also get a cleaning microfiber cloth that says Steam Deck. It’s pretty cheap and you can get better cloths that will fit in the case, but it’s great for starters.
The other hardware bit that the other two models don’t get is the anti-glare etched glass. This has benefits and caveats such as slightly softer edges on everything and text being slightly soft. However, the colors are more saturated and look more vibrant while the screen itself isn’t quite as bright, but it does get darker at the lowest levels. There’s an excellent comparison video here. It’s not a deal breaker for the price difference, but it’s nice to have that premium option. The main difference is the internal storage space which is a continuing problem with consumer electronics and has been for the last 20 years.
Holding the Deck itself feels solid and of the quality, you would expect from Sony or Nintendo. It sounds silly, but it feels like a “real” handheld. While the Chinese ones have gotten better over the years in terms of higher quality plastics and tighter molds, the Deck is leagues above any of them. There’s no creaking, no sharp edges, no corners cut here. However, it’s insanely massive especially compared to the Nintendo Switch Lite. The upside is that the system is well balanced in the hand. It feels super solid and you can get a nice firm grip on it and it won’t cramp your hands. The layout of the buttons is similar to the Wii U gamepad, but with better ergonimics (the gamepad was dog crap let’s just all admit it). Everything is up top and at the far edges for minimum reach even on tiny hands. My 6-year-old was able to play this thing with no issues.
There are four rear buttons that sit right where your fingers wrap around the back but are tight enough buttons to not cause actuation by just holding the thing. You can easily squeeze your fingers to press these buttons and it freaking works. It doesn’t feel awkward or hard. I actually wanted to use these buttons in shooters because most of the weight of the console is already on those fingers. A firm, but not hard squeeze, will let you easily manipulate these buttons. A lot of R&D had to have gone into just this one feature.
There are also two trackpads below the analog sticks that also aren’t hard to reach. They are just large enough to move your thumb around on without struggling with the weight of the Deck. That’s the beauty of the ergonomic engineering that went into this thing. You can’t appreciate just photos alone. Holding this thing is a miracle and sets new standards for how larger handhelds should be made. These trackpads also have haptic feedback in them that can be adjusted in the settings. They also click which is great for using in desktop mode (more on that later) or games that need mouse control. The bumpers and triggers feel great and natural with the triggers having a good height to them similar to an Xbox controller and less like a PlayStation controller. The D-Pad needs credit as it’s great for fighters and allows rolling similar to the Xbox controller as well. The controls on this thing are absolutely perfect and I have zero complaints about them.
When it comes to I/O and various holes in the Deck it won’t let you down there. Similar to the Switch there’s a large vent up top but also one in the back with the speakers located at the bottom front below the Steam and Quick Access buttons. There’s an open SD card slot at the bottom right and the fact that it doesn’t have a door means fewer parts to break. It’s recessed just right and won’t get the way at all. Valve needs a lot of credit for putting the USB-C charging port at the top of the unit. While this means it’s not super easy to dock it means no cable is in the way when you play which I can’t stand about handhelds. The PSP had the port right where you hold it, and only the DS had the port in the rear. Sony never caught onto this. The charger port is also slightly loose by design to give it some play so it doesn’t short out and start breaking. Good on Valve for also thinking about this ahead of time. If you notice your port is loose, this is normal.
The volume buttons have a nice click to them and the power button has a white LED next to it when it’s charging. It turns off when it’s done. There is also a 3.5mm headphone jack located up top as well which makes sense. It’s already pretty thick and excluding this would be a pretty bad move. The screen itself looks fantastic thanks to the higher than usual resolution for a handheld. However, the aspect ratio being 16:10 poses issues for a lot of games as most don’t support that resolution so you get black bars on the top and bottom. While the Switch OLED has the best handheld screen ever made, the Deck is probably a good second. It’s crisp, vibrant, and has great contrast as it’s the first major handheld with an IPS display that’s normally used in gaming monitors.
It’s no secret that Valve’s SteamOS home consoles were a flop a decade ago. SteamOS was mostly used for Linux players who were a small percent of Steam users. Thanks to the Deck and its popularity not only will Linux gaming boom, but SteamOS is seeing major improvements now and has finally found a home. Steam on the Deck is a tailored handheld experience. There is a special storefront for Deck verified games only, but you can also browse the rest of the store, access your profile, friends, inventory, and everything else you could do on Steam on desktops.
There are some issues with it. There’s a persistence bug that constantly reminds you to claim your Steam Deck awards even though I already did. You can’t remove notifications or clear them without clicking on every single one. Certain Steam pages require you to use the touch screen and scrolling through the long pages on games is a bit cluttered. It all works fine, but I hope there are many improvements made to make Steam more tailored for Deck in the future.
The settings are fairly typical for both a handheld and Steam itself. Most of your settings on Desktop are here such as family sharing, download speeds, uploading screenshots, cloud saving, and various adjustments to calibrate the thumbsticks and trackpads as well as adjusting haptic feedback. The Quick Access menu is where this makes it a portable PC. You have access to performance overlays, underclocking and under volting the GPU and AMD FSR 2.0 is available at the hardware level for every game. All you have to do is lower the game’s resolution and turn FSR on to increase your frames in power-hungry titles like Elden Ring and God of War. You can turn V-Sync on at the hardware level and turn it off and set the FPS level you desire. There’s a new 40FPS mode that helps games find a sweet spot without pushing the Deck to get higher frames to save battery life. You can also turn on VRS for pixelated games to reduce battery life. There’s a lot of tinkering involved with the Deck which we will get into more and this can both be fun for an enthusiast like myself or a nightmare for a casual gamer.
In the end, we all want to game on this thing. I will get to emulation later as that seems to be one of the main reasons that are making the Deck so popular. As for “verified” Deck games they work just fine. These are games that launch with no issues, the default control scheme works, and it can hit 30-40FPS at default settings at the minimum. You can tinker to eke out every frame by looking up guides and changing settings around paired with FSR. High-end games like Days Gone needed this. FSR is probably a boon for the Deck as it needs it. Yes, the fact that you can run these next-generation/current generation games on a handheld is a miracle itself. Even at 30FPS. A lot of gamers, however, are going to get into this expecting max settings for every game and get upset or disappointed. While my 3080ti rig can run everything at 2K with ray-tracing enabled and hit 60+FPS in every single game, that’s not the case here. This is a handheld that lets you pick up where you left off on the go. Sony tried doing this with their handhelds and it failed as it relied on the developers to implement this type of feature and release their game on both platforms. The Deck takes them out of the equation.
The caveat here is that this is Linux gaming. It’s not perfect and requires a wrapper for Windows-based games developed by Valve. Proton is needed to run every single game, but it’s still not perfect. While Valve’s current stable version works for most games some require Glorious Eggroll, or GE Proton, which is acquired through the Discover store. This is a faster-developed version of Valve’s main branch. It includes patches, fixes, and features that aren’t available yet. It’s as simple as going into the game’s properties in Steam and enabling GE Proton once it’s been downloaded and installed from the Discover store. It’s still not always that simple.
Some rare occasions need an older version, and some need Media Runtime files that are considered advanced Linux user stuff. I spent dozens of hours already tinkering and trying to get certain games to work and I can report that so far only one hasn’t worked for me. There is also a way to add other launchers such as Ubisoft Connect, EA Origin, Battle.net, and Epic Games Launcher, but it’s a bit complicated and those games aren’t always compatible with Steam Deck at all. For example, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2 will not work on Steam Deck no matter what version of Proton you use. Maybe when and if it comes to Steam this can change, but then there’s the issue with older games. GOG Galaxy is available through the Hero Game Launcher and most of these games can work just fine. You can even install mods like on PC, but the paths and structure of Linux are so much different than Windows. Everything is buried under tons of folders and it can be confusing and quite daunting. Even Windows’ file structure is emulated in each and every game install. I was even able to get pirated games to work through Bottles in the Discover store to allow regular game installs to run. I will cover how to do all of this in another post as most Steam Deck deep-dive stuff is pretty fragmented right now.
Most of the time even untested or unsupported games worked out of the box in my own experience. Fallout76 is technically unsupported but works fine and runs surprisingly well on the deck gettings 30-45FPS with the graphics settings at medium-high. Castlevania: Lords of Shadow – Ultimate Edition is another unsupported game but works great with no tinkering needed. However, a game like Bulletstorm: Full Clip Edition needed an older version of Proton and specific Media Runtime files installed through the terminal to work right. Grim Dawn had save issues where I had to copy the save manually from my other PC, create a character with the same name, and then overwrite the save files for it to recognize them. On top of that Grim Dawn didn’t recognize the standard controller layout or community profiles. I had to use a specific template and painstakingly remap the controller buttons correctly. This type of tinkering may keep a lot of gamers away especially if they just focus on the negative things like this.
When it comes to battery life it wildly varies. Desktop surfing can last 6 hours while a high-end game may drain it in 2. The battery life is comparable to the Switch. When it comes to things like heat and fan noise my unit is fairly quiet even when the fan is going full bore. The air coming out is incredibly hot but surprisingly doesn’t heat the Deck up like a phone would. The Deck has a fairly accurate battery counter based on your current usage including charge time. A full charge takes around 2 hours similar to the Switch.
The Steam Deck also breaks new ground by making this a handheld portable desktop. With the official dock coming soon and unofficial ones already available you can plug a keyboard, mouse, and USB-C monitor in this thing or any other type of output that your dock supports. You can simply long press the power button and go straight into desktop mode. This brings up a Windows-like UI with a desktop, start menu, and various customizable settings like the splash screen, wallpaper, font, theme, cursor, and various other things. It’s a full desktop experience that also allows you to use a web browser like Chrome or Firefox and watch YouTube videos or type documents. This is unprecedented as even the Switch doesn’t allow this with its anti-consumer locked down system. With Valve doing this it might pressure the other parties to participate in open-source fully open firmware and UIs. This is good for the consumer.
The desktop mode is smooth and works great. You can easily switch back to Game Mode, which has another little issue. Games don’t run as well in desktop mode as the APU is underclocked here. The Deck is meant to fully run and be optimized in Game Mode only. You can’t access the Quick Menu settings for GPU control or FSR which is fine. When docked the Deck now lets you override the resolution to match your display. If you want to game with an external monitor this is when FSR will really come in handy, but I don’t see the appeal of this outside of lower-end less graphically demanding games. I use my dock for tinkering in Linux to add custom images to my Steam games, mod games, etc. I don’t think I’d game much on an external display. That’s what a desktop PC or laptop is for. For emulation, this might come in handy.
Another huge plus for the Steam Deck is that the open software means no waiting for firmware hacks or downgrades. You can just install emulators and go. There’s already a whole suite available called EmuDeck that installs the emulators of your choice and you just need to provide BIOS and ROMs. Many emulators are already configured for the Deck control and graphics wise. There’s even a specific Dolphin branch just for Metroid Prime Trilogy that allows for dual-analog control called Prime Hack. This is a whole new rabbit hole that I think more gamers will be willing to invest in over getting Steam games to work right. EmulationStation works great and so does Retroarch.
I have put hundreds of games on my SD card and thanks to EmuDeck everything mostly works out of the box including systems that couldn’t be emulated in handheld fashion before like the GameCube, Dreamcast, and PS2. The Deck is also capable of emulating PS3, Xbox 360, Wii U, and Switch games, but don’t get your hopes up. Even on PC the emulators are still maturing and don’t run well. Don’t expect the Deck to replace your Switch just yet. It can’t even run Breath of the Wild at a decent framerate, but the Yuzu emulator is still in its infancy. Same with RPCS3. These are also not as simple as dragging and dropping an ISO file into a folder. There are keys, encryption, emulated installation, patching, and a lot of work to get these newest systems up and running. For now, just enjoy the Wii and back.
The Steam Deck is a revolutionary device in more than just its graphical power. The openness of its software is what we need to break the shackles of locked-out proprietary video game console OS. Without needing to wait years for a hacked firmware, the Deck is ready to tinker with right out of the box. While emulators will never be officially supported, we can make anything run on here. It’s essentially a Linux or Windows computer. Yeah, I didn’t mention that yet. You can have a micro SD of Windows 11 on here to play Xbox Game Pass games or others that won’t run well on Linux. While this isn’t officially supported, Valve does provide drivers. This is crazy to think about in the current ecosystem of locked-out consoles.
This is a great system if you just want to play Steam games or just do emulation. Out of the box, the verified games work great and with 3,000 titles available already that’s usually more than a console’s entire life cycle. The Steam deck really teeters on the edge of a great casual gamer’s first PC and the more hardcore hacking/downgrading/emulation market. It serves both well, but each side needs to be patient and wait for better compatibility on the software side of everything from emulators to SteamOS. For such a vast and all-encompassing system that can do so much, it does it so well and so early on in its life. This could easily have been a huge disaster with constant crashes, overheating and melting units, and other issues, but clearly, Valve tested this thing like crazy.
My biggest complaint is the internal storage and that’s Valve’s fault. I mentioned at the beginning we have had 20 years of awful internal storage options from the iPod to the PS5. The base model at 64GB is unacceptable today. You can’t even fit a full install of most higher-end games like Call of Duty or Red Dead Redemption. Even the 256GB isn’t acceptable. The base model should have been 512GB with 1TB and 2TB options. $250 extra dollars for a 512GB NVMe SSD is crazy. This isn’t like the PS5 with brand new SSD tech. This is PC hardware that we can buy and install ourselves.
Thankfully you can and that’s another revolutionary thing Valve is doing which is the right to repair. iFixIt has all of the Steam Deck parts available for purchase to repair the system yourself. This includes being able to upgrade the SSD if needed, however, game load times are fine off of the SD card. I recommend a 1TB card or at least a 512GB to start. You can also use external drives, but then you’re tethered to another device. At least there are more options available, but internal storage is key. These devices are expensive and most people can’t upgrade their storage right away.