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Living in the future is fantastic! The days when old media would vanish forever are largely gone, for instance, and it’s possible to play or watch pretty much whatever you want with the advent of modern streaming services. Meanwhile, the platforms on which we experience this magical media are more varied than ever. If you showed an iPad to people from the 1990s they’d probably think they were looking at something from the Jetsons! That’s an old cartoon about the future by the way that can probably stream (on an iPad, no less).
Anyway, one of these new platforms is the handheld gaming PC, exemplified by devices like the GPD32, the Aya Neo and Valve’s Steam Deck, the highest-profile portable gaming device (not from Nintendo) since Sony exited the market.via YouTube
What’s a Steam Deck? Well, it’s a handheld gaming console from our pals at Valve! You might know them for such products as the Steam Link, Steam Controller and Steam Machines – all of which are designed to run the extensive Steam digital storefront and library manager that serves as the central hub for modern PC gaming. The Steam Deck writ large is intended to be used by Steam aficionados, since it links directly into the user’s Steam library and offers highly compatible games and additional purchases besides. If you’re not already big on Steam, you might be better served looking into a similar device like the many variations on the Aya Neo.
Per the gaming intelligentsia, the Steam Deck’s closest cousin might be the Nintendo Switch…but in reality it’s something closer to a very small-scale gaming laptop. The screen is a a large 7″ IPS display running at 1280 x 800px that looks good and gets the job done. It’s nice, but not Switch OLED nice. It runs a version of Valve’s Linux-based SteamOS and enables most games to run via the Proton compatibility layer. What this means is that not all games work, and not all of the remainder necessarily work well – it’s all going to boil down to how Proton handles them.
Further, it means that you’re able to ‘switch’ (couldn’t resist) the Steam Deck into a Linux desktop mode and make tweaks as needed. Some willingness to do this is absolutely vital to get the most out of the device, as each user is willing to make different compromises to get the results they need. You can even install full Windows if you want, but I wouldn’t recommend doing so as it’s a pain in the butt and much of what you need is accessible via SteamOS.
On the other hand, much like the Switch, you can purchase a dock (sold separately) for the Steam Deck that allows you to run the thing on a TV or capable display. Unlike the Switch, however, the Dock doesn’t give the handheld any power or performance boost, though it will help keep its battery from draining while you play. For the few people who lack a gaming PC but end up purchasing a Steam Deck, it’s a solid deal.
When it comes to the Steam Deck, the first concern, of course, is gaming performance. What can you run on this thing? Indeed, what should you run on it? The Steam Deck’s a mighty little machine armed with an AMD Zen 2 processor and RDNA2 GPU. You’ll want to keep your expectations under control, of course. Gaming performance will vary from title to title, but games explicitly optimized for the Deck are going to run like a dream. Elden Ring is fantastic on this thing, for instance, and running the latest AAA action-RPG on a handheld device is a great indication that we’re living in the future.
Naturally, this is a handheld device, so you’re going to be concerned about battery life. In this case, you probably should be – the Steam Deck will run around two to four hours when pushed to the fullest. It’s possible to tweak the device to get the most out of it, of course, and you definitely should in order to get the most out of it when you’re traveling. The best option, of course, is to shell out for a high-capacity power bank compatible with USB-C, allowing you to run the thing for as long as you please.
When it comes to compatibility, games are classified into Verified, Playable, Untested and Unsupported, with the best experience naturally coming from Verified games. These classifications are wide at best, though. It’s wholly possible to run Unsupported games with few to no issues, with Halo: The Master Chief Collection being a great example since it earns the classification solely for having anti-cheat issues that prohibit multiplayer on the Steam Deck. If there’s a game you particularly want to play, there’s no reason not to download and try it; there’s a fair chance it’ll work just fine.
You’ll get a lot of fun out of action-heavy games like Devil May Cry, as well as action-RPGs like the aforementioned Elden Ring. Mouse-heavy titles are going to struggle a bit more, though, despite the device’s touch screen and fully customizable controls. CrossCode is a great time; Pathfinder: Wrath of the Righteous is a litte bit less of one, though it’s certainly possible to play it on the Steam Deck if you’re insistent. Dark Souls and Elden Ring are great, but you may have more of an issue with anything that really, really needs a mouse.
The Steam Deck is also a monster when it comes to emulation. Enable desktop mode, Google ‘Emudeck’, run that site in desktop mode, then grab some ROMs through entirely-legal means and pop them on there! The fully-configured emulators this solution installs are an absolute treat and might be one of the big selling points of the Steam Deck as a whole.
Caveats: Storage and D-Pads
Storage is another consideration. Even the most expensive model of Steam Deck only has a paltry 512GB to work with from the outset and a sizable portion of that is taken up by the Deck’s OS and other components. For the kind of user that ought to be considering the Steam Deck – the kind with a sizable Steam library – this isn’t going to be nearly enough space. Consider the cost of a high-capacity MicroSD card when it comes to purchasing a Steam Deck, as it’s really a necessity to get the most out of this device. Steam downloads and everything else will eat away those previous gigabytes so make sure you’ve got an external card to help ease the pain.
What’s under the hood isn’t everything, of course, and the finest game machine will stumble if it’s got control issues. What’s the point of having games running at a high resolution with great FPS if it’s impossible to play them, after all? While its analog sticks and buttons are fantastic, there’s a little bit of an issue with the D-Pad, which is absolutely terrible at recognizing diagonal movement. Old-timers familiar with the earlier models of the Nintendo DS, particularly the DS Lite, are bound to be familiar with the mushy and unresponsive D-Pad on the Steam Deck. It’s fortunate that in basically every situation you’re able to rebind your controls and avoid having to use it…but it’s not like usable D-Pads are hard to come by these days. What happened?
Play or Pass?
Either way, now that they’re readily available and you’re not enduring a yearlong wait to receive your device, it’s a little easier to answer the most important question: should you get a Steam Deck? The answer, of course, depends on your circumstances. It’s definitely not a replacement for the Nintendo Switch, and if you’re interested in the spicy Nintendo-exclusive games available on that platform you might just want to go that direction.
Likewise, if you’re not much of a tinker, you may want to avoid the Steam Deck. Sure, there’s plenty of games that work just fine out of the box, but there’s plenty more that don’t. You’ll need to be willing to flex your nerd-muscles a little bit if you want to get the most out of the Steam Deck. It’s a fantastic machine for emulation, non-Steam games and more, but much of this functionality requires a little effort on the user’s part. If you’d prefer a more standard solution that offers a unified and reliable experience, you may want to look elsewhere.
On the other hand, users willing to endure a little bit of struggle for one of the highest-quality handheld experiences on the market are bound to fall in love with the Steam Deck. It’s not perfect by any means – in particular, the godawful D-Pad does a lot to hurt the authenticity of the gaming experience when it comes to retro titles – but it’s pretty darn nice. Users with extensive Steam libraries, an interest in emulating pretty much everything up to the GameCube and sizable battery banks and SD cards would be well served looking into the Steam Deck. Just make sure that you’re willing to spend some time with the thing to ensure it’s going to behave just the way you want.
Conclusion: Hardcore Valve Fans Rejoice
All that said, the Steam Deck clearly isn’t a universal recommendation. Users who aren’t already deeply embedded within the Steam infrastructure aren’t going to get a whole lot out of this one, for instance, and likewise anyone who wants a perfectly-calibrated out-of-the-box experience might find themselves disappointed. If you’re already a Valve fan, though, and you’re willing to put in the time and effort to make the Steam Deck work in a way that’s uniquely yours, it’s a solid purchase that’s one of the most versatile gaming experiences currently on the market. Just don’t expect to get much performance out of that dog of a D-Pad – woof.