I was, I am happy to admit, a Steam Deck skeptic. Valve’s history with hardware does feel an awful lot like Captain Ahab’s history with Moby Dick. While all have their passionate defenders, the Steam Controller, Vive VR, and Steam Link can reasonably be chalked up as something short of colossal success. And here they are again, trying to push a new hardware niche, but this time clearly far too ambitious: getting a PC into something only slightly larger than a Switch.
As someone who’s played games primarily on PC since first loading Ultima Underworld II on a 33MHz 486 with a whopping 4MB of RAM, the promises of Valve’s Steam Deck seemed far too far-fetched. Over the last 30 years, the abilities of the PC have always been at least one step ahead of the console market, and at times, half a dozen steps. There’s a reason the machine’s box is the size of a small bookshelf: it’s not a console, and needs all that space for…you know, so many hamster wheels. (Welcome to Digital Foundry.) A handheld device pretending it can do the same sounded silly and like the kind of boast that would fall flat on its face upon release. Ho boy, I was wrong about that. This thing’s a machine.
Valve sent me the middle model in the range, the 256GB Deck, which only lacks the anti-glare screen and extra-oomph NVMe SSD of the top-range 512GB version. Whichever you get, even the ridiculously small 64GB eMMC lowest spec build (install half a game!), you’re getting the same actual game-running tech within. You’ve got Valve and AMD’s bespoke “Zen 2 RDNA 2” processor, the same 16GB of RAM, and a 1280×800 LCD touchscreen. If that’s mostly gobbledegook to you, too, then let’s boil it down to what really matters: Is it enough to run modern games properly? To which the answer is an emphatic yes.
But there’s a more subtle question to address: Is it a satisfying way to play PC games? And that answer is a lot more nuanced.
I had figured, yeah, OK, it’s not going to be running Horizon Zero Dawn or God Of War, but I can live with that–as someone with a penchant for low-spec indie gaming, this could be a superb device for playing without needing to sit at my desk. But, just to see, the very first thing I installed on it was Guerilla’s PC-boosted port of the PlayStation 4’s Horizon Zero Dawn. I wanted to get an idea of its limitations, then promptly discovered it didn’t seem to have any.
It ran ridiculously well. And this was unchecked, full spec, not limiting the game to its native 30 frames per second. It stuttered a couple of times when I first went outside (Steam having automatically handed over my most recent save from playing on my desktop, without even telling me it was doing it), but then caught up with itself, and didn’t even stammer as I fought four machines, accompanied by at least six NPCs, in the game’s outlandishly lucious world. If I were to play the game properly on the Deck, I would definitely set its framerate to 30, just to ensure a smoother experience. And since that’s what it ran at on the PlayStation, it isn’t an issue.
But is that a PC game? (Of course it is, get in the sea with your PC master race awfulness.) What about something that is intrinsically, wholly PC? How about…Total Warhammer III? I went to install it, to see what was possible with those trackpad mice-replacements, and it just said no. “Unsupported.” This honestly isn’t what I was expecting. I figured it’d be impossible to sensibly play, sure, but not actively against even trying. However, the warning message that flashes up when you try says, “This game’s graphics settings cannot be configured to run well on Steam Deck.” The graphics? Huh. Total Warhammer II can be played, although you get warned it might be an effort. Then I figured, no, let’s be really silly, and installed Stellaris. Again, the Deck warned me that Paradox’s intricate mouse-driven strategy game wasn’t likely to be a comfortable fit, but described it as “Playable.”
Look, the obvious truth is I picked this to try to break it. But wow, seriously, this really is “playable.” First of all, the right track pad works perfectly well as a mouse, every bit as well as playing on laptop, despite its tiny size. (Then, to my surprise, the left pad defaulted to zooming in and out, which is splendid.) But what I wasn’t expecting was for the touchscreen to be such an effective option. It’s not perfect, and obviously the game doesn’t remove the mouse cursor when you’re using it, but it worked for clicking on the teeny-tiny UI boxes the vast majority of the time. A deliberate attempt to find a game that shouldn’t work at all has ended up showing that this is a legitimate machine for even RTS gaming. Not ideal, though much better than it should be.
Of course, there are issues. As you’ll likely already have heard, the battery is the biggest one. There’s no getting around how poor it is, even if anything better might be impossible.
From my luddite perspective, it seems extraordinarily impressive that it’s possible to have something capable of playing high-end AAA games on a battery in the first place. I’m so used to accepting the massive downscaling of games on the Switch, simply because it is floating in my hands without a wire coming out a wall, so having the Deck manage its measly couple of hours at all is a feat. And yet, the fact remains that it’s impossible not to compare it to the Switch in terms of portability.
That my Nintendo handheld will reliably last the length of a train journey, and perhaps more importantly happily charge itself from a USB cable stuck into a cheapo power bank while I’m using it, becomes my expectation. The Deck, playing something like God Of War, would barely get me to the next station, and it laughed at me when I tried to charge it from a standard USB cable and not its bespoke 45W power plug. Apparently a top-notch 45W+ power bank will do it, so that seems like a future (costly) investment.
But for me, a bigger issue is the fussiness of Steam. Not the Deck’s interface, which is fine but could be a lot better, but the account itself. I, like all normal humans, always have Steam running on my PC. Invariably I have two or three games left on in the background, too. (Honestly, if you don’t always have Tametsi or Pictopix permanently on your desktop, I struggle to see how our friendship can last.) The Steam Deck is not happy about this. It doesn’t want your Steam account being used in two places, and if you start playing on your Deck, you’re automatically signed out on your PC.
The idea of picking up playing on one device after walking away from the other is sort of still there. Cloud saves mean you can maintain progress and the like. But having to put your password back in, and then get the Steam Authenticator code from your phone, and hope a game you left running will still work, is not a fun experience.
Of course, I understand that this is in place to prevent the unutterable horror of someone sharing their Steam account with a friend, because that would bring down modern society and kill all the puppies at once. But here it prevents you using your Steam account in a very normal way. It seems so obvious that there should be a way to register your Deck with your PC, and let them happily co-exist. Yes, this could be exploited, but good gravy, I think Valve will cope with the swathes of pennies of lost income from that. (Heck, even the greedy bastards at Nintendo allow me to run my account on two Switches at once, only checking if the same game is being played on both simultaneously.) This seems like something that needs to be addressed pretty quickly.
Ultimately, and for me most importantly, the true test is how the Steam Deck feels to play on when curled up on the sofa? If nothing else, isn’t this device designed to allow me to play the PC games (that have always been my primary source of gaming entertainment) without having to sit at my desk? The Couch Test is the one it most needs to ace.
Here, my biggest problem with the device feels most relevant: the analogue sticks. They’re just too high up. It’s such an odd experience to be holding this chunky rectangle, with your eight fingers naturally landing on its eight rear and shoulder buttons, but your thumbs then having the stretch up to play. I got used to it, but it never felt great, and it’s plain weird that it’s arranged this way at all. The real estate of the device’s face plate is such that the “Steam” and “…” buttons could have been up top, then the analogue and track pads shifted down. Honestly, the important Steam button is a pain in the ass to find without looking, and it too would have benefited from the swap. I strongly suspect we may see such a switcheroo come the second iteration.
I’d say, on The Couch Test, it gets a strong pass, but there’s room for improvement. I had a lovely hour or two one evening playing through a third-person action game (sorry to be weird, it’s under embargo), which was a perfect fit for the console controls, and only the huffing and puffing of the fans reminded me I wasn’t on my Switch.
“But then why not just use the far cheaper Switch?!” you cry, somewhat belligerently. Well, I reply, yeah, there’s a lot to that. Except that I’ve fifty squillion wonderful PC games on my Steam account that have never had a Switch release, and I like playing them. Never mind the significant point that this is a much, much more powerful machine, capable of playing far more graphically impressive games. It’s that full gamut of the greatest collection of indie gaming, combined with a genuinely satisfactory way to play cutting edge behemoths on the move.
I realize I’ve repeatedly committed the sin of the Switch comparison, and I recognize how unhelpful that is. But the reality is, when you’re holding a Deck, you can’t stop your brain drawing straight lines. With ever-more indie games making their way to Nintendo’s handheld, there’s a direct comparison to be made there. However, this is a very different machine, with very different ambitions. And in meeting those, the Steam Deck has really surprised me.
Valve actually did it. They created a piece of hardware that right out the box feels like it achieves its core goals. Despite my skepticism, I cannot deny this is a handheld PC, capable of playing almost anything in your Steam account. There are compromises, because of course there are, but…yeah, they did it.