The Steam Deck is a lot of things to me. It’s the most interesting handheld to date, but it’s also the most distracting and unrefined handheld that I ever owned. It holds plenty of surprises, but it equally reveals disappointing shortcomings. Even after two weeks, I don’t know if I would recommend it to the masses without qualifiers.
The Steam Deck was both deceptively big and light. I knew it was larger than the Switch, but I didn’t expect the grips to be so girthy. With all that size, I thought it would be heavier than it was, but it was surprisingly light. I eventually learned to appreciate the added grips for extended gaming sessions, but that’s only true for me. It’s slightly too large for my fiancée whom recently got into Hades.
I also found it was only comfortable if I were using the joysticks and buttons. It was comfortable and capable when I playing various Street Fighter games, but when I got my hands on Civilization VI and poured 50+ hours into it and the touchpads, I quickly discovered the fact that the touchpad wasn’t meant to be used for long Civilization sessions with a lot of scrolling on a map.
The screen may be the most disappointing aspect of the Steam Deck. It’s barely okay for 2022 standards. My Nintendo Switch launch unit may have a smaller screen, but it has a better quality screen without distracting light bleed.
The fan noise comes second, but that is highly dependent on the game that I’m playing. Slay the Spire, Hades, and any other “light” game, is a pleasant and quiet experience. Games like XCOM 2 or latter stages Civilization VI would send the fans whirring and into overdrive at times. It’s quite distracting.
Unfortunately, the fan became such a distraction that I had to replace it 5 months in. It began to rattle and instead of sending it back to Valve, I decided to just find a replacement fan and fix it myself. It was a painless and easy experience thanks to the guides at iFixit.
I spent a fair bit of time messing around Desktop mode, loading EmuDeck, Emulation Station, and getting a smattering of Street Fighter titles loaded on the machine. It was surprisingly easy and (unsurprisingly) highlights how great of an emulation machine the Steam Deck can be. I loaded the following seamlessly:
- Street Fighter Alpha 2 (CPS2)
- Street Fighter Alpha 3 Max (PSP)
- Capcom vs SNK 2 (Dreamcast)
- Mega Man X3 (SNES)
The most finicky part was trying to learn how RetroArch works and saving the settings.
More importantly, I wanted to gain access to all those Epic Games Store titles that I’ve been collecting. There are at least 4 ways to access those games:
- Installing the Epic Games Store launcher as non-Steam executable and running the Proton compatibility layer with it
- Heroic Game Launcher
I tried option 1 first as it was the full “Epic Games Store”, but then I wanted a more seamless integration with Steam, so I tried options 2 – 4, but they all exhibited some additional issue that the Epic Games Store did not. Hades’ Cloud Save, for example, wouldn’t reliably work with any other option. Rayman Legends wouldn’t launch with options 2 – 4 either.
Even though I owned base game copies of Civilization VI and XCOM 2 on the Epic Games Store, I eventually bought complete Steam versions because the 2K Launcher wouldn’t launch properly on the Epic Games Store version.
Official software: Verified, Playable, Unsupported
If I wanted the ideal Steam Deck experience, I would stick with Steam Deck verified games. They run well and they have the right controller layouts; there’s no futzing around with settings. Playable titles are technically playable, but they have a range of issues including small UI text to iffy performance. XCOM 2 and Civilization VI are both technically playable, but I find interacting with the games less than optimal with their default .
I want the console controls and console UI experience as an option, because of the long term ergonomic issues I have with the trackpads. I switched XCOM 2 to be more controller friendly, but the UI was still tiny. Civilization VI worked well with the trackpads and triggers as mice, but its UI was also filled with tiny text. Even the relatively simple games like the Slay the Spire had slightly smaller text than I wanted. It’s clear that these games weren’t made with portable sized screens in mind.
I bought a compatible dock and was happy to see the desktop mode works well with the keyboard and mouse; it’s just a computer running Linux after all. I played a bit of Civilization VI at 2560 x 1440p with a mouse and keyboard which was significantly better for my hand.
Then I decided to undock and tried to resume my Civilization VI game in portable mode and that’s when things unraveled. I had a newfound appreciation for the Nintendo Switch. The Steam Deck doesn’t switch resolutions or graphics settings between desktop and portable modes which means I either have to toggle those settings manually or just stick with 1280 x 800 resolution in desktop mode. Neither option is ideal.
Steam OS’ Evolution Makes This Work
What makes this entire Steam Deck experience tick is Valve’s commitment to Steam OS. The ability to tweak the device to my preferences is what makes this a standout product and makes me weary of playing any other handheld PC.
I found that leaving the Steam Deck’s APU at full TDP wasn’t doing me any favors. With games like XCOM 2, the Deck was running too loud, too hot, and draining battery too quickly. I realized that these games weren’t going to hit 60 FPS with all that extra juice anyways. So I toggled on the 40Hz refresh, turned down the APU’s power limit to 11W, tweaked some settings, and XCOM 2 was a more tolerable experience.
I hope to see the Deck’s docking and undocking experience improve, but even if it doesn’t, I think Valve’s commitment to improve the Deck from an OS perspective is the highlight of the device.
A Bright Future Ahead
Valve’s been trying their hand at the hardware game for over a decade now and I think they finally hit it out of the park with the Steam Deck. It’s not perfect, but it’s slowly evolving and hopefully it’s enough of a success for them to keep iterating and releasing new models in the future.
I play games on this thing on a near daily basis now. I love it for connecting me with all the PC games that I had in my backlog. I see its flaws, but I also see a lot of promise and a revision of this device that could address many of my issues with it. Not a bad first try for your first handheld gaming device, Valve.
I like it