(Pocket-lint) - Valve's Steam Deck entered the scene as one of the most anticipated gaming consoles ever.
Powerful enough to provide access to an entire Steam library while still offering similar levels of portability as the Nintendo Switch, it's a device that promises plenty on paper.
Particularly for PC gamers, the potential to access a collection of games even when away from their hardened setup is tantalising. And with multiple updates landing since launch, some of the early kinks appear to have been ironed out by Valve.
Is this a legitimate way to take your PC gaming collection on the go, then, or is it a concept that doesn't quite live up to expectations?
We've been relaxing on the sofa and gaming in the wild in order to find out.
The Steam Deck is undoubtedly a fantastic piece of gaming hardware. We like to think of it as a grown-up version of the Switch, but, more than that, it's an outstanding alternative for PC gamers who want to play away from their main machine.
We thoroughly enjoyed testing it for a number of reasons. It's easy to game on, it's easy to pick up and put down on a whim and it's surprisingly capable. With regular updates being pushed by Valve, and more and more games being tested and verified, it just keeps getting better, as well.
Battery life and storage space are our main complaints, but they're relatively small issues that will vary wildly depending on the games you're installing and playing. All told, it's a great gaming machine that we heartily recommend.
Valve Steam Deck
- Surprisingly smooth gaming
- Comfortable and capable design
- Bright and pleasing display
- Responsive interface
- Limited compatible games
- Storage fills up fast
- Fan is a little noisy
- AMD APU; CPU: Zen 2 4c/8t, 2.4-3.5GHz (up to 448 GFlops FP32); GPU: 8 RDNA 2 CUs, 1.0-1.6GHz (up to 1.6 TFlops FP32)
- 16GB LPDDR5 onboard RAM (5500 MT/s quad 32-bit channels)
- 64 GB eMMC (PCIe Gen 2 x1); 256 GB NVMe SSD or 512 GB high-speed NVMe SSD
Inside its rather sleek frame, the Steam Deck packs some fairly decent specs, which is to be expected with a console that's aimed at PC gamers who are likely to demand the best.
After all, the Steam Deck is built to give you access to games available on Steam's platform, and that includes all manner of titles - old and new, indie and AAA games. So, it needs to be able to stand up to some rigorous activity.
We've written before about how to see which of your PC games will run on Steam Deck and check those that are tested as "verified" or "playable". That list of compatible games is constantly expanding, but it's still worth checking to see which of yours will work before you buy to avoid disappointment.
Within our library of 900+ games, we found that there are just 94 currently marked as 'Great On Deck', with many of the rest able to work on the console with a little bit of tweaking.
Within the collection of playable games are a number of solid favourites, and some pretty power-hungry titles that you'd expect to need a decent PC or gaming laptop in order to run nicely. That list includes games like Control, Dirt 5, Forza Horizon 5, God of War, Death Stranding, Sniper Elite 5, The Witcher 3 and more.
Though you can't exactly max out the graphics on the more intensive games and expect the same results you'd get on PC, that doesn't mean the experience isn't eye-pleasing. We were actually thoroughly impressed with how the Steam Deck ran all of the games we tested.
From the Deck's options, you can change both the refresh rate and the max FPS, with settings also available to adjust and improve battery life or simply smooth out frames, if you need to. Moving sliders up and down to make your gaming experience even more pleasurable is a great touch, but we actually rarely found we had to do this, as the default experience is satisfying enough.
Of course, being a Steam device means you can also take advantage of Steam Remote Play, and this is useful for a number of reasons.
Firstly, if you're playing a game and you find that its performance isn't as smooth as you'd like, then there's the option to stream games from your PC to the Steam Deck remotely. This is really easy to do, as well, as long as you have a fast (preferably 5GHz) home Wi-Fi network and the games you want to play are already installed on your PC. From here, there are just a few clicks to stream those games remotely.
Doing so harnesses the power of your gaming PC and is a pleasing seamless and smooth experience, based on our testing.
Secondly, using Remote Play gives you access to more games without the faff of installing them. This is beneficial, as, despite there being various storage capacities available on the Steam Deck, it's very easy to fill up the onboard storage in the blink of an eye. More on this later.
- 7-inch IPS LCD touch screen
- 1280 x 800 pixel resolution; 16:10 aspect ratio
- 400 nits brightness with ambient light sensor
- 60Hz refresh rate (user adjustable)
The Steam Deck is larger in stature than the Nintendo Switch, and so is the screen, though the difference is marginal. The Deck has a 7-inch LCD screen with a 1280×800 resolution, capable of a maximum of 60Hz refresh rate. So, you're basically playing at 720p, which is frankly perfectly fine on a screen of this size. Even if you're used to 1440p or 4K on a larger gaming monitor, there's plenty to enjoy on this console. It's vibrant and visually pleasing, even from various angles.
This means you don't need to sit awkwardly holding it so you're facing the screen straight on, and we found you can really get as comfortable playing this no matter how you're sitting. The screen is apparently able to reach 400 nits brightness, and, in the real world, this means it's able to handle various lighting conditions easily. The Stream Deck also has adaptive lighting, which means it'll change to match the brightness of the space you're in, too.
It's a testament to the design that we rarely had to think about the brightness, never mind actually tinkering with the settings. The screen does of course suffer mildly from some reflections if you're in a brightly lit room, we should say, but the joy of a console like this is that you can just tilt it or move position to sort that out. No problems.
Part of the Steam Deck's charm is the user-friendly design of both the console itself and the interface. This console has a touchscreen display, but you also have the option to navigate around SteamOS with the sticks or the D-pad. It's all very intuitive, responsive and easy to navigate.
It's also useful both in-game and in menus, as well. We found very little frustration with this side of this experience.
- A B X Y buttons; D-Pad; Analog triggers and bumpers; Assignable grip buttons
- HD haptics
- Haptic feedback trackpads
- 6-Axis IMU Gyro
The user-friendly design of the Steam Deck's interface easily carries through to the overall design of the controls. At a glance, the Steam Deck appears quite large and thick, but it's actually very lightweight, and we think part of its charm is the design of the grips on either side.
The edges of the Deck bulge out into the hand, which makes it easy to hold onto and gives you a natural grip on the controls. And in terms of controls, this handheld has the usual and familiar controller layout you'd expect, with two thumbsticks, a D-pad, A B X Y buttons and top triggers.
On the underside are two sets of additional buttons, meanwhile, which are in easy reach of your middle and ring fingers while you're playing. These are assignable in the settings and give you access to more controls than you'd get on a standard game controller.
This is particularly useful, as you may find that there are games in your library that are marked as unsupported or 'Playable'. Really, as we mentioned earlier, this just means they require a little extra programming in order to play nicely.
One such example is the tactical shooter Ready or Not, which requires quite a few keys when playing on PC. On the Steam Deck, it's a bit clumsy as standard, and you can't do some simple things like equip night vision or lean your character without tweaking extra settings. It's great to have that option.
Aside from the other controls, the Steam Deck also has two haptic feedback trackpads. These are basically like small laptop trackpads, giving you the possibility of more minute control when needed.
Thankfully, the Steam Deck has Bluetooth 5.0 capabilities, as well, so you can always connect an extra controller or an audio device.
Connectivity and power
- Bluetooth 5.0 for controllers and audio
- Dual-band Wi-Fi radio; 2 x 2 MIMO, IEEE 802.11a/b/g/n/ac
- 40Whr battery with 45W USB Type-C PD3.0 power supply
- USB-C with DisplayPort 1.4 Alt-mode support; Up to 8K @ 60Hz or 4K @ 120Hz; USB 3.2 Gen 2
- UHS-I supports SD, SDXC and SDHC
Based on our experience with playing high-end PC games on gaming laptops, we were pretty sure we'd need to have the Steam Deck plugged in during gaming sessions. We're happy to report, though, that the Steam Deck is perfectly capable of gaming purely on the 40Whr battery.
There's also seemingly no difference in terms of performance between playing plugged in or not. This is obviously ideal, as it means you have the freedom to game wherever you want but still have a great gaming experience.
Battery life does vary wildly, however, and probably why Valve claims you can get between 2 - 8 hours of gameplay out of the Steam Deck. Like any device, it depends on a lot of factors - screen brightness, the games you're playing, speaker volume, refresh rate and more. This is why it's helpful to have the option to tweak these things in the Steam Deck's settings, though.
And doing so can make quite a difference, as well. We found dropping the max FPS to 30, for example, can add quite a bit to your playtime.
In testing, we found that most of our gaming sessions lasted one or two hours before the Steam Deck was complaining about its battery. It's also easy enough to plug in and carry on gaming, as the USB-C port is located on the top, but we did find that the included power cable isn't that long, so you might want to invest in something with a bit more slack.
Or, alternatively, given the USB-C port also has DisplayPort 1.4 capabilities, you can just use the Steam Deck on a bigger display.
When it comes to storage, there are three storage options for the Steam Deck - 64GB, 256GB and 512GB. We went for the middle option, which, though it seemed sensible at the time, is something we slightly regret after filling it up after four downloads.
Again, like battery life, this will vary depending on how you use it, but it doesn't take much to max out your storage with modern game downloads. So, we'd say that bigger is actually better in this case, though there's always the option of upgrading with a large capacity MicroSD card, too. We also found that games installed on a memory card didn't seem to take any longer to load either, which is a nice bonus.
To bring things back to a minor criticism, we should also point out that the Steam Deck fan noise is a little loud. Things can get pretty whiny and obnoxious during gaming sessions, and even when not under load.
We did find, at least, that the speakers were able to nicely drown this sound out - with the vents for the speakers located on the bottom left and right of the device, the sound is always firing towards you. To our surprise, those speakers are surprisingly capable, too, which is basically a nice summary of the Steam Deck as a whole - capable even in the areas you don't necessarily expect.
For those who want a more immersive sound experience, there is, of course, also a 3.5mm jack and the ability to connect to a pair of Bluetooth headphones.
One of the joys of the Steam Deck is the regular updates. Despite the relatively early adopter status of the device, there have been a number of improvements since its launch. They've come thick and fast and have been a welcome addition to the experience. One such improvement was a change to the fans. An OS-controlled fan curve was introduced recently that eliminated our complaints about the fan noise and that's just one example of how things get better and better.
The Steam Deck is a brilliant option for playing PC games on the sofa, in bed or anywhere else the mood takes you. It's wonderfully capable with very few problems, and, with multiple updates since launch, it just keeps getting better.