Steam Deck Review: Impressive Hardware But An Unapproachable Experience
My first impression of the Steam Deck is how big it is. My second impression is how heavy it is. And my third is how understated its packaging is. This isn’t a major issue, but I’ve previously felt a rush of excitement when sliding the sleek lid off the box of my Nvidia RTX 3060, as well as that of The Xbox Series X, which captured the same premium feeling. For a product that costs as much as these, a plain, brown cardboard box simply containing the console and one instruction booklet feels a little underwhelming.
Luckily, the Deck itself is anything but that. I had my concerns going in – the joysticks looked too high up and the addition of trackpads seemed a strange choice (I’d never used the Steam controller) – but my worries were quickly alleviated. If the Deck didn’t have premium packaging, turning it on certainly gave it that luxurious feel I was looking for. The menus look and feel sleek, every button gives just the right amount of tactile feedback, and I can quickly navigate to the list of games in my Steam library.
Instead of sifting through my entire collection, I opted to download a selection of games with a variety of compatibility ratings. I’m doing another playthrough of Disco Elysium, so that was an easy choice. I also opted for Half-Life and Half-Life 2 because, well, it feels right doesn’t it? It’s interesting to note that the former has been rated ‘Deck Playable’ due to things like small writing, needing to tweak the settings to make it run well, and a poor resolution. The sequel is, however, is considered ‘Deck Verified’, which means that it should function perfectly on the console. I also downloaded The Witcher 3, which is Deck Verified, and Cyberpunk 2077, which is untested, to see how the handheld handles bigger, flashier, and newer titles.
The memory fills up quickly, and this is on the 256GB model. Even with a MicroSD expansion I imagine I’ll be juggling which games are installed whenever I want to play something new. It’s also worth noting that you can’t play most competitive multiplayer games like Fortnite, Destiny 2, or Apex Legends due to the Steam Deck being blocked by anti-cheat systems. Attempting to do so might even get you banned from these games, so beware.
To my dismay, Half-Life does not work at all on the Steam Deck. I can make it to the meltdown in the test chamber, and just before everything goes to shit in the game, everything goes to shit on the Deck as it crashes to the main menu. This happened twice, and the Steam Deck hasn’t told me which settings I need to change in order to fix it. I tried a few tweaks to no avail. However, the performance problems weren’t limited to Deck Playable games.
The Witcher 3 looks and runs great on the Deck. I know it’s quite an old game now, but I was impressed with how well the handheld managed to give me a good picture and consistent framerate. However, I noticed in cutscenes it snipped off the edges of the game. This became particularly problematic when I could only see the first word of the two answer options for the conversation. I headed into the graphics settings and eventually changed the display to match the Steam Deck’s screen, but this was largely trial and error because the menu options were also off-screen. More testing required.
Cyberpunk had no such problems. Admittedly this is a much-patched version of the game, but my first experiences of Night City were positive (from a performance standpoint, at least). There was one small framerate drop when a large group of enemies opened fire on me, but other than that it was smooth sailing. After my teething issues in getting The Witcher’s resolution to match my display size I’d expected Cyberpunk to be choppy at minimum, but the as-yet-untested on Deck title ran near-perfectly.
Playing games like The Witcher 3 and Cyberpunk 2077 puts a lot of strain on the Steam Deck’s battery life, however. Valve estimates that the Deck will last two-to-eight hours on a single charge, but I think that’s generous. For Cyberpunk, I was lucky to get 90 minutes of play. It looked great while I did it, but that’s just not enough time for a supposedly portable console. I learned after the fact that the Steam Deck doesn’t automatically limit the framerate of games you’re playing, so I may well have been playing games at upwards of 90fps on the Steam Deck’s 60Hz screen – which further drains the battery life and decreases performance. Why does the Deck not automatically cap the framerate of games it plays? It’s a simple thing that would make the user experience so much better, but unfortunately this is symptomatic of the Steam Deck’s biggest issues.
Valve’s console can run some amazing games and perform incredible feats, but it feels like it doesn’t want you to. There are few tutorials or instructions in the manual, so I mostly relied on watching hours of YouTube tutorials to unlock the Deck’s potential. This meant I could download the Xbox Game Pass app and games from there, as well as the Epic Games Store and games I’d bought (read: those regular freebies) there. These processes are complicated, but doable with enough instruction. The Deck’s native store – not the Steam store – has all the emulators you could ever want, but I think many people could play with the console for years and not know it has a desktop, let alone how to navigate to it.
The Steam Deck is ultimately unapproachable. It’s clever and powerful, but secretive. It doesn’t want you to know that it’s probably the best console for emulation around right now. It doesn’t want you to know that it’s got Firefox installed, or that you can write a whole review in Google Docs on it. But I did.
For all of its problems, there is plenty of good at the heart of the Steam Deck. The twin trackpads feel really precise to use, and the onscreen keyboard that you navigate using both is incredibly clever, surprisingly intuitive, and arguably the only revolutionary thing about the console. Most things it just does better than other consoles, but the trackpads feel new. The triggers feel just as good – solid and weighty in just the right amounts – and the Steam button is a pseudo ctrl key, giving every button, joystick, and trigger multifunctional purpose. It’s a clever addition that further bridges the gap between console and PC, despite the fact that I’d probably prefer a dedicated screenshot button rather than contorting my fingers to Steam+R1 in the midst of a game.
For the whole time I’ve had the Steam Deck, I’ve been trying to work out if it feels like a desktop PC or a console. Despite its design, it’s definitely nothing like the Switch, and price-wise it’s comparable to the PS5 and Xbox Series X. But it’s not quite got the functionality of a PC; you can’t upgrade its hardware and it needs constant charging for starters. It’s got those PS4 fans that sound like jet engines, it gets hot in your hands, and sometimes you have to squint in text-heavy games: the Steam Deck is Valve’s gaming laptop. It’s big, bulky, and powerful, the hardware is locked down, but you can fiddle with settings for hours and head into the BIOS to set it up on a granular level.
In those ways, the Steam Deck is like building your own computer, tuning it perfectly to play your favourite game with your custom settings. It’s not intuitive, and you’ll likely need some third-party advice to work things out, but after all your tweaking you can play Cyberpunk in bed and The Witcher 3 on the bus. Hell, you can even play Final Fantasy 7 Remake: Intergrade while you’re taking a shit.
For those of you who enjoy getting into the nitty gritty of things, then the Steam Deck will be a good acquisition (if you can nearly always position yourself near a power outlet). I was consistently amazed at how good games looked and how smoothly things ran on such a comparatively small piece of kit. But if you don’t know what a BIOS is when it’s at home, or you don’t have the time to spend watching YouTube tutorials to make the Epic Games Launcher run on your handheld, then it’s probably not for you. I spent most of my time using Steam itself, but even just scratching the surface of emulation and third-party apps left me wanting more. I’ll dive back in proper and get better acquainted with the Desktop soon, but it’ll be a pretty steep learning curve for a man who’s never used Linux before.
The Steam Deck is unintuitive and unapproachable, even for people fairly well versed in PC building and the more technical aspects of gaming. However, Valve is clearly targeting a hardcore audience, and it’s that audience who will get the most out of the handheld’s impressive hardware. For me though, the console’s potential is severely limited by the lack of forethought regarding game optimisation and the lack of instruction to help players make the most of the Deck’s impressive capabilities. There’s a great piece of tech underneath this obtuse UX, and I already hope there’s a Steam Deck 2.0 on the way to give players an easier entry point to a great piece of hardware.
A console was provided by the publisher.
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