We've put Valve's handheld system through the ringer, and have plenty of thoughts to share about our experience.
While the Nintendo Switch has come close, and streaming games directly through services like Xbox Game Pass, GeForce Now and Stadia through top-notch screens like a Retina-equipped iPad Pro is a constantly evolving alternative, the dream of taking your AAA gaming experience with you on the train, with synced saves so that you may continue in the comfort of your own home, is still... well, to some extent unrealised.
As aforementioned examples conclude above, we've got close, and are getting ever closer to technology allowing a miniaturised gaming experience to be enjoyed on the go, but we imagine that the Steam Deck is the closest we've ever got to the truest realisation of the transportable AAA experience, and thanks to Valve's prowess in hardware design, it might end up being a true revolution this time around - even if they, again, rely heavily on developer support for it to be truly transformative.
While we will explore several gaming experiences on the Steam Deck in more granular detail in a separate article, this is all about the hardware. The console itself is manufactured in the same matte black soft-touch plastic material that Valve has used before. It does not show smudges much, nor is dust as apparent on the surface, making it a great choice for something that might be on the couch, or touched with greasy palms and fingers.
But before we go further with hand feel, performance parameters and review impressions of this impressive machine, let's quickly review the specifications for the Steam Deck. There are three basic SKU's, a 64GB eMMC memory-equipped model for $399, a 256GB version which upgrades to NVMe storage for $529, as well as a 512GB one for $649, which also comes with an anti-glare glass coating. Altering between memory standards, and adding anti-glare as an upgrade incentive, is perhaps a tad manipulative, seeing as you're creating different performance metrics and panel experiences across what should be identical performing hardware. At least they didn't increase or decrease RAM though, but we do heavily recommend not springing for the eMMC version, which is single-lane and delivers far smaller sizes for bulk storage.
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Furthermore, all versions come with a 4-core/8-thread 2.4GHz-3.5GHz Zen2-based CPU, alongside an 8-core 1.0-1.6GHz RDNA2-based GPU, as well as 16GB LPDDR5 RAM. It is, in general, impressive specifications for the chassis size, and speaks wonders of how the miniaturisation of technology has made performative packages like this possible at reasonable heat levels.
It's the same 7-inch IPS touchscreen, and all versions offer the same basic connectivity, meaning USB-C charging, WIFI5 (not 6), Bluetooth 5.0 (not 5.2), MicroSD expansion and a 3.5 millimetre headphone jack. Furthermore, the 40Wh battery should deliver something along the lines of 4-6 hours of playtime, but we found that estimate to vary heavily based on the game. The screen is 1280x800 tuned at 60Hz, and it aims to run at that resolution at close to 60fps, or 30fps depending on the graphics quality selected.
The Steam Deck has the internal prowess to pretty much deliver acceptable, if not impressive, graphical quality across titles like Death Stranding, Cyberpunk 2077 and Devil May Cry 5 - new titles, which demand a level of fluidity previously thought impossible on a handheld, but before we delve deeper, let's quickly examine another ground-breaking aspect of the Deck, which is its accessibility and input control. Because of the vastness of the Steam-based library the Deck has to attempt to support, Valve has had to pretty much offer up all kinds of input functionality. There's essentially a built-in Steam Controller here fit with D-pad, well-tuned analogue sticks, haptic-feedback plates (which sadly lack the granular feedback and well-like design of that very controller), touch-screen functionality and gyroscope/accelerometer combo. There's also variable-function buttons, four of them to be exact, on the back, so there should be plenty of ways with which all kinds of consumers can enjoy a vast array of titles and genres with little to no developer-tuning. And remember, you yourself can tinker with sensitivity, input methods and button set-ups, and pretty much decide for yourself how a given game should feel to play.
That's great for those very tinkerers, but can lead to some frustration, if you're the type of player looking for direct plug n' play functionality. Even Valve's own Half-Life 2 comes, out-of-the-box, with a kind of combination input method utilising the haptic pad for mouse-like control, but the face buttons for commands, and even the R2 trigger as a selector in the menus. It was all easy to swap and alter, but it does require adapting. Of course, the main slew of games will have controller functionality, and therefore it'll be pretty much identical.
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Generally, Valve has proven before that they master hardware to this extent, and the Deck is just another example. While rather big at 500 grams, nearly double that of a Switch, it's well put together, whereas the only true complaint is that its size does mean that you in some situations have to shift your hands to comfortably reach triggers and shoulder buttons. It's on a game-by-game basis, sure, but it is noticeable. But other than that? The DSP-tuned stereo speakers work wonders, heat management meant that we never saw more than comfortable temperatures, even when logging in an hour's worth of Cyberpunk 2077 and 30 minutes of Baldur's Gate III. Sure, the central fan exhaust is audible, but it's never distracting. Through some superficial testing we saw around 39 decibel peaks, which, again, is noticeable, but never annoying.
All of this is of course controllable, both in in-game menus, but also through adjusting TDP's in the BIOS, like you would on a PC. All of our impressions, and the data obtained, is by keeping the SoC in auto mode, which allows the Deck itself to monitor and optimise. While Valve did not send us an "approved list", like some other outlets, we did attempt to hone in on some of the titles where developers had put some thought into its functionality. That means Control, Devil May Cry 5 and Portal 2, mainly, which does echo of some of the other testing you'll find out there. We also threw in some curveballs through something like Hardspace: Shipbreaker, a AA title with little-to-no optimisation alongside the aforementioned Baldur's Gate III. Remember though a true game deep dive will be left for a separate article.
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We managed to hit the comfortable 60fps threshold on Low, and while that might initially sound disappointing, console aficionados as well as PC mainstays might not know how game's like Control will look on a 7" screen. At this level of size-wise compression, Low is better than your average console experience, and we found plenty of details to enjoy, and fluidity across the hours played. Having Devil May Cry 5 run at the same Low preset we saw frame-rates upwards of 92fps peak, and never dipped below 80fps. Baldur's Gate III ran consistently at Low or even Medium too, and utilising the haptic pads are a finicky but ultimately impressive input method for isometric strategic titles. They are, however, a bit too small, meaning unless the sensitivity is way up, you'll have to reset your thumb several times to pan across a map. Furthermore, using the gyro by clicking down on the right analogue stick needed a lot of actual tinkering before it worked consistently. A well-like full Steam Controller solution would've worked better here.
Also, it has to be said that while Valve promises dedicated support for any and all developers who want to optimise for Linux, for Proton and for the Steam Deck, it's still very easy to run into potential problems. Right now, the Steam Deck will for instance download the discontinued Linux version of Rocket League automatically, Dead Cells wouldn't run after a mid-review developer update, Hardspace: Shipbreaker wouldn't prompt the SteamOS keyboard pop-up, meaning we had to go fetch it from the UI itself, and many games needed extensive workarounds to run in the preferred control scheme. Will it be the same by the time you're reading this? Maybe not, but it does speak to a platform that in some ways is young, and while Proton and SteamOS can easily work like magic most of the time, it's not 100% hit-rate.
But overall, the Steam Deck's operational consistency is a technological marvel in some cases, even if it's hard for a casual user to simply pick it up, and play games at a consistent rate without the want or need to tweak each title to a particular graphical liking. It helps though, that the OS designed for the Deck, a version of Valve's Big Picture Mode, runs with a fluidity, consistency and responsiveness that's frankly astonishing. It has the maturity, feature set, social features and reliability that frankly both rivals and in some cases dwarfs console UI's, and mainly it shows how far Nintendo has to go, before they can even come close.
So, looking strictly at the hardware, the Deck is an incredibly complex device, offering up the freedom to replace the OS wholesale, sideload content platforms, create faceted input methods for specific use cases and choose from a variety of set-ups from the off. In addition, the community is sure to come up with S-tier alternative solutions to almost any problem the hardware may face in the next few years, making a purchase now even more tempting. If you're strictly a console gamer, who scoffs at the notion of swapping between graphics settings, this may not be for you, but for anyone else, who've been looking for a handheld AAA gaming device, this really is it.
There is no doubt that this is the most powerful and versatile handheld we have got our hands on. What hasn't been fully addressed is the Linux based operating system. We saw it before with the Steam Machines that sell hardware like this struggle to offer full access to the Steam game library. And even though Proton sometimes works like some sort of black magic, it isn't infallible. Leaving such a huge aspect up to chance, despite statements from Valve on dedication to support, is at the end of the day a gamble. Especially when we live in the world of multiple PC storefronts and game libraries spread out across several vendors. Will you be able to play any and all PC games you want on the Steam Deck? Time will tell, all we can say is that for right now: not really, but there should be more than enough to satisfy, but as with all things Valve, it's all about developer support.
9 / 10
Great build quality. Performance is truly impressive. Overall features and reliability make it a great, perhaps better, handheld alternative to the Switch.
Linux-based operating system can cause a few problems with accessing certain games. Quite a complex gaming device.