Steam Deck Review

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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 Hardware

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.

The Software


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:

  1. Installing the Epic Games Store launcher as non-Steam executable and running the Proton compatibility layer with it
  2. Heroic Game Launcher
  3. BoilR
  4. Lutris

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

Ratings Guide

Checkpoint: HTC Vive Edition

I tried virtual reality for approximately 40 minutes today by way of a friend’s HTC Vive headset. It was pretty much as I expected it to be – I wasn’t disappointed but at the same time, I wasn’t amazed either.

I played a bit of Space Pirate Trainer, Valve’s The Lab, NVIDIA’s Carnival freebie, Onward and SUPERHOT VR. SUPERHOT VR was the only game I really wanted to dig in and play, all the others were fun experiences that I was happy to try once.

I’ve watched GiantBomb’s VR coverage for quite some time and thus had a pretty good idea of what to expect when donning on the headset for the first time.

The Hardware

The headset felt lighter in my hands than I expected but after it was affixed to my head, I felt it was a tiny bit heavier than I anticipated. It wasn’t perfectly configured for my head but I was able to turn and move about comfortably. If I had a bit more time, I would have had my friend loosen it a bit so more air could circulate through the headset. It did get a bit warm after all that arm waggling.

I expected to see the screen door effect and relatively lower resolution so I wasn’t taken aback by it. For certain titles like, Onward, those shortcomings stood out. In titles like Space Pirate Trainer and SUPERHOT VR, it was a non-issue.

The controllers are bulky and heavier than I would like but they do work as expected. I was very impressed with the tracking. Buttons and triggers felt responsive as well.

The bulk of the controller and the protruding headset resulted in me accidentally bopping myself when I tried to bring an object to my face.

I wasn’t bothered by the cable as much as I thought I would be. I always knew where it was and was able to navigate it without issue.

The Software

SUPERHOT VR was the star of the short VR demonstration. I didn’t pass the first set of levels but it was the only game I wanted to just buckle down and seriously play. It highlighted a brand new gaming paradigm where designers can place things anywhere and everywhere and I have to get used to glancing left and right quickly. It’s not just about what’s directly in front of me or just to the left of me.

Space Pirate Trainer was a fun romp but there’s really nothing much else to it that makes me want to try it again. I can see it being a fun leaderboard hot seat game but I don’t know how hot the seat will be since it takes a bit of time to configure the headset between people.

I don’t like how I have to swap hands and controllers between games. It’s an odd quirk but one worth noting. It may be related to which controller I use to launch the title but I think it should be a Steam VR level calibration at the beginning of each session and that’s it. These are the quality of life things that remind me that it’s a first generation product.

Promising But Not Quite There Yet

I was glad to have tried the HTC Vive and I look forward to additional sessions with it but I came away feeling the exact same as I went in: it’s neat but not quite there yet. I will jump into VR when the headsets are more comfortable, wireless and come equipped with a higher quality screen. I want the controllers to be lighter and feel more natural. And, of course, I want it to be cheaper.

None of my demands are out of reach though. The Oculus Touch and Valve’s upcoming Knuckles controller appear to be the refinements I am looking for on the controller front, for example.

I see the potential of virtual reality but I don’t think it’s ready for prime time just yet.

Thanks Valve for reminding me TF2 exists

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Every year or so Valve goes out of its way to remind me Team Fortress 2 exists by way of an entertaining short. This year’s video was extra special because of its length. “Expiration Date” is their longest video to date and it showcases Valve’s knack for comedy. I wouldn’t mind seeing a full length film made via Source Filmmaker starring the Team Fortress 2 cast.

Linux Gaming Inches Closer to Reality

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linux-logoThere are games on Linux but the selection available is paltry compared to Windows. And the reasons why the selection is so limited is due to lack of middleware support and the dominance of DirectX.

Crytek have ported their CryEngine to Linux and will be demonstrating its capabilities at GDC 2014 next week. I’m curious if it will perform better than the DirectX version.

Valve is continuing their efforts to sway the masses away from Microsoft and DirectX with “ToGL“, a DirectX to OpenGL translation layer. It’s limited to DirectX 9.0c for now but it’s a start. If developers can just flip a switch and port to OpenGL with minimal effort, they would be more inclined to support Linux.

All these efforts sound good but how long would it take before we see day and date high profile releases from the likes of Activision and Electronic Arts?

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