Valve has been one of the top names in PC gaming for decades thanks to its popular games including the Portal Series and the Steam game client and store. But until recently the company had only dabbled in hardware.
Now Steam is going all-in with the launch of the Steam Deck. It’s a handheld gaming device that blurs the lines between PC and console gaming thanks to its portable design, a Linux-based operating system that puts Steam front and center, and relatively affordable price: it sells for between $399 and $650 depending on the configuration. But is it any good? The first reviews are in and they’re… a little mixed.
On the one hand, reviewers generally seem impressed with the Steam Deck’s hardware and performance, especially considering its price tag. The Steam Deck has the most powerful GPU of any handheld gaming PC to date and games that struggled to run on pricier models like the AYA Neo, ONEXPLAYER, or GPD Win Max are said to run smoothly on the Steam Deck.
The controllers are comfortable and responsive, and the built-in touchpads make it possible to play games that were designed for keyboard and mouse input as well as titles optimized for gamepads.
Steam OS also includes a bunch of options for creating custom button maps that will allow you to play just about any PC game… if you go through the trouble of tinkering to set everything up just so.
And therein lies one of the Steam Deck’s strengths and weaknesses. Many games won’t necessarily run smoothly out of the box the way they would on a console like the Nintendo Switch. You may have to create custom control schemes. Or if you want to eke out longer battery life, you may want to adjust graphics settings or cap frame rates, among other tweaks. That could come in handy since reviewers note that you may get as little as two hours of battery life when playing some more demanding games.
But you can tweak those things – and that could make the Steam Deck attractive for hardcore gamers who want more control over their device.
Another strength? With access to the Steam library of games, more titles are compatible with the Steam Deck than many consoles. But not all PC games will work out of the box. Games with native support for Linux should be compatible and many games that don’t natively support Linux will run too thanks to Valve’s Proton software which allows Windows games to run on Linux PCs without any modifications.
But Valve is still in the process of verifying which of the thousands and thousands of games in the Steam library run well on the Steam Deck, which need some tweaking, and which don’t run at all.
Valve is also still working on the Steam Deck’s operating system very actively. Reviewers noted that Valve has pushed out software updates on a nearly daily basis over the past few weeks. And they’re apparently much needed, because despite the fact that the Steam Deck will start arriving on doorsteps as soon as next week, the software appears to be very buggy.
Reviewers report frequent crashes, error messages, freezes, and graphical glitches. In spite of that, I’ve read multiple reviews where testers say the Steam Deck has already become their favorite gaming handheld because it’s just that much fun to use.
The good news is that most of the issues seem to be software related, which suggests that Valve may be shipping the Steam Deck before the software is really ready… but the company will likely be able to resolve many issues over time.
Other issues like fan noise and battery life may be a bit more challenging to deal with via software updates alone (although they can help). But putting up with those things might just be a price to pay for packing this much horsepower into a handheld device.
On the bright side, despite recent reports suggesting that the Steam Deck battery is glued down with a lot of adhesive, making it difficult to remove, Valve has committed to selling replacement parts for the Steam Deck for folks who want to perform at-home repairs. And it sounds like the company will offer battery replacements. So while hot-swapping batteries on the go probably isn’t going to be a thing, folks who use the Steam Deck heavily and see the battery life degrade after a year or two should be able to buy a replacement eventually.
And since the Steam Deck is a full-fledged PC, you aren’t necessarily limited to running Steam’s software. Want to install Windows on the computer so it will support games that might not run in Steam OS? You can do that.
Alternately you could stick with the Arch Linux-based Steam OS and use the built-in KDE desktop environment to treat it like a more traditional desktop operating system. Ars Technica digs into the “switch to desktop” option available in the Steam Deck’s operating system, also noting that you could even install a completely different Linux distribution in a separate partition on the hard drive if you’d prefer Ubuntu, Debian, or Fedora over Arch, for example.
Here’s a roundup of some of the first in-depth Steam Deck reviews I’ve found so far:
- Ars Technica
- Digital Foundry (YouTube)
- Gamers Nexus (YouTube)
- Gardiner Bryant (YouTube)
- GameSpot (YouTube)
- IGN (YouTube)
- Linus Tech Tips (YouTube)
- PC Gamer
- PC Games Hardware (German)
- The Phawx
- Phoronix (Linux enthusiast perspective)
- Tested (YouTube)
- Tom’s Hardware
- Tweakers.net (Dutch)
- The Verge