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:

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21 replies on “Steam Deck Review roundup: A promising work in progress”

  1. Looking forward to follow up coverage. Seems like some plan to instead of creating a one and done article/video.

    Glad I made a reservation semi-early. I only wish I was able to earlier.

  2. Seems like most of the reviewers see the Deck as a game change that the other handhelds couldn’t/can’t become and really enjoy using it. Makes sense why despite mentioning the early SW issues, they’re still positive on the Deck’s future.

    The HW is already solid and Valve being a SW company, the SW side of things will expectedly get better. Be it if you’re a first batch order or an H2 one, people will be enjoying the Steam Deck throughout all its phases.

    1. I can see the early adopters not minding the initial SW issues and might even enjoy seeing their devices improve with each SW update.

      Even PC gamers on Windows especially on low end HW (even more so with Intel iGPUs with perpetually bad drivers) in desktop terms are used to constantly tweaking things or games just not working properly/at all might be neutral at the current SW issues.

      Anyway, I’m “after Q2” and I wish I can “beta test” the Deck in Q1. I think Valve made a good choice in releasing now.

  3. So far it’s looking good. The experience and game compatibility still looks to be better than their competitors. Especially against the Intel handhelds that have horrible horrible horrible Intel drivers.

    1. I’m not surprised Aya’s recently launched IGG is doing very badly right now. Given how most backers are within the first few days, the numbers are super low. Unless that last day spurt skyrockets, it’s going to be a relatively unsuccessful campaign.

  4. I haven’t yet found someone who has tried to swap the SSD on it.

    My biggest concern with the Steam Deck is that the UEFI/BIOS might not be designed to support Host Memory Buffer on 3rd party SSDs, which might result in extremely poor performance.

    Essentially, M.2 2230 SSDs are too small to allow for on-board DRAM, to use as a memory buffer. So instead, they use a feature called HMB, to ask the system to borrow system RAM to act as a buffer. My concern is that the Steam Deck might be designed to only support it on the OEM drive.

    It would be surprising to hear Valve’s motherboard OEM went out of their way to build this kind of support, considering they’re already telling people not to swap the SSDs in the Steam Deck. But we’ll need to wait and see the first results.

    1. That’s not a concern, they will work, there is nothing customized about hmb im Steam Deck, otherwise Marvell would have said that. So you will be able to swap to any other ram-less disk without any issues. And, it’s not THAT bad. The problem is how spoiled are, like we want everything basically loading instant, and that is not possible on such a small device, yet.

    2. “Essentially, M.2 2230 SSDs are too small to allow for on-board DRAM, to use as a memory buffer. So instead, they use a feature called HMB, to ask the system to borrow system RAM to act as a buffer. My concern is that the Steam Deck might be designed to only support it on the OEM drive.”

      Few if any 2230 SSDs–none that I have encountered of the dozens of NVMe and eMMC kinds–have onboard DRAM. That is the case with all of the Surface ones at least. So this should not be an issue whatsoever.

      1. The fact that DRAM-less SSDs are abundant doesn’t resolve the concern. My concern is that nobody knows if the Steam Deck will offer HMB support to 3rd party SSDs. Support might be white listed. I’ve encountered a laptop already with this lack of support for 3rd party drives.

    3. I’ve read at least one of the people in the (unofficial) Steam Deck Discord supposedly installed a 1 TB SSD in their review unit and said it worked fine.

      1. It will work, but performance is my concern. I’m really interested in seeing benchmarks

        1. Those people didn’t seem to be concerned about any performance issues as far as gaming is concerned.

          Maybe you’re just making a big deal out of something minor.

  5. Given most reviews praise the hardware and lightly highlight the dire software issues, “work in progress” is a kind way of calling a proof of concept that isn’t ready for prime time yet..

    I’ll wait a bit to see how this evolves, definitely not spending a dime on this yet.

    1. Keep in mind that you’re welcome to install whatever OS you want on it.

        1. Valve has already confirmed support for Windows, and also that it will be Windows 11 compliant.

          1. Win 11 performance on Zen CPUs is bad right now, obviously it will get better but it’s yet-another software issue to add to the list..

    2. If you haven’t reserved one yet, then you’ll be waiting a long time anyway.

  6. I don’t think the software will be a major issue by the time I get mine (Q2 2022). I would like to believe that Steam will get this hammered out. Besides that, looks like all systems go.

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