The Steam Deck: A Late (and Frank) Review
There’s kind of been a reason why I’ve held off from writing a review of the Steam Deck. I’ve had the device for a little longer than three weeks now, and in the process I’ve covered things such as how it handles Super Smash Bros Melee, how it handles the Portal series in comparison to the Nintendo Switch port, written a guide on how to get plugins installed and running, and covered the numerous updates that have come to the device. And soon I will likely have a guide on how to emulate Nintendo Switch games on it (fight me, Nintendo).
But up until this point, I haven’t written a review. My Deck, for the most part, has been sitting on my bedside table. Occasionally I’ll bring it with me in my car, but I’ve only had brief periods of time to actually use it then. If my arm was broken and I was bedridden, or if I commuted to work via train or even a bus, maybe then I would have much more appreciation for the Deck and be using it a lot more frequently. Admittedly, the wait was almost unbearable. But now that it’s in my hands, I’m surprised at myself for not using it as much as I’d like.
Let me just say this: I’m honored people actually still want my take on the Steam Deck, despite the hundreds of other reviews out there. I’ve had quite a few people asking me what I think about it so far, whether it lives up to the hype, etc. Well, I know this is going to be a controversial take, because I know based on the other reviews I’ve read/watched, many people think the Steam Deck is a revolution. To me, though, I just simply think it doesn’t live up to the hype.
The Steam Deck is, in some ways, evolutionary. But in a lot of other ways, the Steam Deck is another product from Valve in which they heavily borrow from the ideas of others and build upon it in their own way.
Let me explain: as far as I know, the Half-Life series is the ONLY original idea Valve has ever created. All of their other products, whether it be other games in their software catalog or their failed hardware projects, were built upon the idea of someone else. For instance, Portal came into existence only because they borrowed and expanded upon the already existing concept of teleporting from one area to the next from DigiPen Institute of Technology’s Narbacular Drop.
The Steam Deck is more or less the same thing. See, the idea of portable gaming is certainly not new. We’ve had the Game Boy since 1989. The Steam Deck carries the same idea, with more powerful hardware, a larger screen, more buttons, more sophisticated features such as a built-in gyroscope and trackpads. But other than that, it accomplishes the same purpose: gaming on the go. And not much of anything beyond that. Remember Gabe promised way back in 2014 that music services like Pandora and Spotify were going to come to Steam? Well, eight years later, the answer is that it probably won’t come. I mean, you can obviously uses those services, as well as Netflix, Hulu, etc. with Chrome added as a non-Steam game, but I’d like to have those services built right into the device, with gamepad integration and all that, rather than having to resort to a web browser.
Now whether you want to argue the Steam Deck is the Gabe Gear, the next-gen Switch, the PSP 2, the PS Vita 2, the true successor to the Wii U, a portable Dreamcast, a portable Xbox Series S, the successor to [insert console name here], maybe it’s all of them. But it’s still not really unique. For the record, companies like Aya Neo and GPD have already shown to the world, prior to the announcement of the Steam Deck, that portable handheld PC gaming is a reality. Sure, maybe the Deck offers a few sweet things that are unique, such as the ability to limit the framerate or the refresh rate, or make use of FSR. But it’s otherwise much the same thing.
Here’s another thing: Valve’s stance of providing the foundation, or 10% of the work, while leaving the remaining 90% to other companies (sometimes to the community though; it’s free for them, after all), is also at work here. SteamOS, for example, largely carries the same precedent that ChimeraOS had already done, namely, use Arch Linux as the base, keep the file system immutable, and make use of Flatpaks to use software outside of games. Did Valve ever really acknowledge the dev team behind ChimeraOS? SteamOS may have a few of its’ own tweaks, yeah, but it largely carries the same pattern that ChimeraOS has already set.
Or how about the fact that the performance overlay while in-game is using MangoHUD? Did Valve ever credit FlightlessMango for that, let alone ask for permission to use it? Does Valve ever acknowledge CodeWeavers for the work they’ve poured into Wine/Proton?
I’m not trying to throw hate at Valve just for the sake of throwing hate. I do genuinely believe the Steam Deck is an incredible product, a decent accumulation of their previously failed hardware projects that they had learned from and built upon, to ultimately create a device that, to this day, customers can’t wait to get into their hands.
And how about the price? Can you tell me one handheld device that’s going to offer the same sort of power at or below $400? It’s the one thing I will commend Valve for: I’ve yet to see something from anyone, whether it be Aya Neo, GPD, or some of these other niche Chinese manufacturers that have been popping up like nobody’s business, that can compete with Valve’s price. And Valve can sell these Decks at a loss; their revenue is made up through the games customers purchase on Steam. For all I know even if Epic tried to make their own handheld, they would only lose money in the end, because I seriously doubt they’re making enough dough through their store to compensate for any loss.
Here’s another thing I dig about Valve: their pre-order process. Put in the $5 reservation, you had to have a Steam account ahead of time, and only buy one per account. It was an incredibly crucial step in this day and age, where we probably won’t see an end to the semiconductor shortage until next year, or possibly beyond that. Their reservation process would help weed out the greedy scalpers, and ensure the device would get into the hands of a legit customer. If it weren’t for this, I would probably not have a Deck right now. And yes, I know other people have said this already, but I will re-iterate: Sony and Microsoft could certainly learn a thing or two from Valve once they announce their next-gen consoles.
One other thing: Valve is the complete opposite of Nintendo. You want to make a mod for Portal or Portal 2? Maybe even monetize it? Valve gives you the green light for that. You want to take apart your Steam Deck? Valve not only approves; they even have their own video for going over how to replace the hard drive and thumbsticks. You want to put something other than SteamOS on the Deck? Go right ahead. It’s honestly a bit of a relief to see a company not constantly looking over your shoulder and eagerly awaiting to strike the DMCA hammer on you.
Getting the Deck⌗
I got my Deck email on a Thursday, got it on Saturday morning nine days later. After I completed the order, like many other people probably did, I aggressively watched the FedEx tracker every five minutes, tracking every detail of the delivery.
The packaging is very barebones, mind you, but it’s kind of expected for a $400 product. The box comes with a case, a charger, a small instruction manual, and the Deck itself. I will say, I thought it was nice of Valve to include a case. It’s one less accessory that you need to buy. It’s of pretty decent quality too; if they sold it separately I would imagine they’d sell it for $30. It would definitely help with shock absorption should you drop it.
The zipper on the case contains a tag with Valve’s logo on it. Someone on r/SteamDeck actually made a keychain out of it, and I’m silently cussing myself for not doing the same thing. Completely unzipping the case after the tag is cut off reveals the black-colored Steam Deck.
From the reviews I’ve seen, I was honestly expecting the device to be a bit bulkier, more heavy. Upon picking it up I was surprised to feel how light it is, even though it obviously has a couple of pounds extra than the Nintendo Switch. It’s also pretty thin for the kind of hardware that it’s got. But one thing that’s definitely glaring is how wide the thing is. It’s almost double the length of a Switch. Not that it’s a bad thing, but it’s one thing you’ll definitely notice right off the bat.
I wonder why they didn’t add a kickstand. This is the one advantage the Switch has. I wouldn’t have to buy a dock or a stand if Valve had included a simple mechanism to allow the Deck to stand on a table. Maybe it was a way to cut costs, or Valve just didn’t want the device to be too similar to the Switch.
I got the 64 GB SKU. While I was waiting for my Deck to arrive, I bought a 512 GB NVMe drive from eBay for about $50. This would be significantly less expensive than buying the 512 GB model ($200 difference!). So as soon as I got my Deck, I tore it down so I could have access to the drive. My fingers were sweating profusely – not because I was nervous or anything, it was probably more or less from the summer heat – so taking the screws out proved to be a bit cumbersome. Nevertheless, replacing the drive was fairly easy. In the process I also discovered I have a Huaying fan – good to know I don’t have the louder Delta fan. I also appreciate the fact that everything is clearly labeled.
I had to use the SteamOS recovery image to re-install SteamOS. At first I was worried, because after the installation completed, the Steam Deck hung indefinitely when it was trying to update Steam. After doing some research, I found out that sometimes connecting to the Internet doesn’t work, and if the Deck can’t connect to the Internet, it can’t update Steam, therefore it hangs. So I had to connect a USB-C dock and use an Ethernet connection. That finished the installation, and then I was able to connect to Wi-Fi after that.
Now, of course everyone knows what the Steam Deck is using for software: it’s using Valve’s fork of Arch Linux, and it’s Valve’s first number 3 product, SteamOS. If you want to use the Steam Deck like a desktop, you can do that, and they’re using KDE Plasma. Plasma is a good choice, as I think a lot of newcomers to Linux will appreciate the similar appearance it has to Windows 7. It also comes with an immutable file system, meaning that nothing can be written into the system other than the
/home/deck directory. It’s definitely a good security feature to have, and users can still make use of applications with Flatpaks.
Thanks to the Steam Deck, the number of Flatpaks have grown significantly. Just about every app that you can think of, there’s a Flatpak for it. The keyboard and mouse controls on the Deck are a little wonky, with the right trackpad acting as mouse movement and the triggers doing the clicking, but you obviously can’t really do anything better if you don’t have a external keyboard or mouse connected. Better than not being able to control the Desktop at all.
But be warned: SteamOS does come with a few outdated packages. Namely, Firefox, glibc, and Plasma itself. Firefox in particular suffers from quite a few security flaws. And the only way these packages can be updated is if Valve releases a new update to SteamOS. Fortunately Valve seems to be pretty quick when it comes to things like this, and will be shipping a much newer version of Firefox with the next update. But be careful that for now, there are some packages that you should avoid.
As for Game Mode, the Steam interface is no doubt a huge improvement to the UI we were using for Big Picture Mode. It’s much cleaner, more modern-looking, and more responsive. I also like the idea that, unlike other handhelds out there, you can customize the framerate, adjust the refresh rate of the display, lower the in-game resolution while upscaling the textures with FSR, and so much more. It’s nice to have these tweaks to save as much battery life as possible, because let’s be honest, a modern AAA title, at default settings, will only last an hour-and-a-half at worst.
Valve no doubt learned from their Steam Machine initiative. Not only did they embrace making the device themselves – rather than having other manufacturers deal with it – but they embraced the Windows gamers, in a sense, thanks to Proton. Proton essentially extracts all the good things that Windows does – such as playing games that aren’t native to Linux – while at the same time stripping all the crap that comes from Windows. Put it this way: sales of the Steam Deck would no doubt suffer due to only a small selection of Steam games being available natively on Linux, if that was the only way to play games on it. You might as well just throw Windows on it at that point. It would be repeating the same mistake as the Steam Machines.
A Portable Powerhouse⌗
I’m not going to over the list of specs the Deck has: you’re all no doubt aware of what’s inside the juicy shell. But let me say this: just about any game you throw at the Deck, whether it be from the NES era or all the way to the current-generation Nintendo Switch, the Steam Deck handles it all. It plays Metroid Prime Trilogy remarkably, and the controls are a nearly perfect fit. Smash Bros. Melee has a couple of framerate dips at random moments, interestingly enough, but at all other times, the game emulates at a solid 60 FPS.
That’s just the emulation side though. For x86-based games, even then the Deck plays most of them fairly well, provided they work through Proton if they aren’t native and anti-cheat isn’t a hinderance. It’s truly remarkable for such a small PC. GRID Legends runs well when downscaled to 1024 x 768, upscaled with FSR, running at Medium settings. I have the refresh rate set to 40 Hz so I can save some battery, but I would imagine the Deck could handle the game well over 60 FPS at such settings.
It’s difficult to explain the ergonomics. I don’t know if it’s because I just haven’t spent enough time holding the device in my hands, or I just can’t find the right words to explain it. It’s definitely an improvement to the Switch; no doubt about that. I appreciate the larger thumbsticks, the face buttons not being flat, and having analog triggers. I also like the fact that there’s four back buttons, even though I don’t really use them. But this is probably one of those things where I’m going to need more time to provide a satisfying answer. One thing that I wish the triggers had though was the ability to “click” when they’re fully depressed, just like on the Steam controller.
Something I haven’t really seen people touch on in their reviews, is how the controls feel when playing fighting games. To test this I tried playing Dragonball FighterZ (yes, that game works offline with GE-Proton). The game plays remarkably well, even supports 16:10. Some have commented that the D-pad feels mushy. It is, but it’s not terribly mushy either. It does have a little bit of…not-mushy-ness to it, if you catch my drift. It’s mushy, but not flat. It does have a little bit of clicky-ness to it. In other words, I don’t have a problem inputting quarter-circle directions and having the character respond with a special attack. And while I initially had thoughts that the face buttons being so close to the thumbsticks would be a problem, there actually isn’t any problem at all. I don’t ever accidentally hit a button or tilt the analog stick in a certain direction. When I’m playing Super Smash Bros. Melee, I would prefer using my DualSense controller over the built-in controls on the Deck, but this would be a little different as Smash is a platform fighter, and uses the analog sticks rather than the D-pad.
The Issue with Steam Deck Verified⌗
I think the Steam Deck Verified program is a great way to inform customers whether or not a game is fully playable on the Deck, especially for those who aren’t familiar with Linux. But there are some titles that seem like they hastily got the green icon slapped on it. For instance, Nickelodeon All-Star Brawl, though it may have the Verified icon, does not support the Deck’s 16:10 aspect ratio, and the default graphics settings can cause the game to have framerate issues. Others have reported Horizon Zero Dawn and the right stick not working after waking the device from sleep mode.
Because of this, I think the verfication process needs to be a bit more thorough. But, of course, Valve will rely on the community to do the free work for them. Some games will ask for feedback as to whether they’re “Verified” or “Playable.” Now whether that actually makes an impact, whether that will move Valve to re-evaluate a certain title, that I don’t know. I guess it’s better than not being able to provide feedback at all.
The Frequent Updates Will (Probably) Come to an End⌗
There’s a trend that Valve has been following lately that I can’t help but find disturbing: the frequent – and I mean frequent – updates to either the Steam Deck client or SteamOS as a whole. This has been one of the few times, if ever, Valve has actually taken community feedback to heart and have addressed their concerns. And not only doing this, but doing it fast. Alarmingly fast. There’s at least one update to the Steam Deck client once a week (usually Thursday night in Seattle time). That same day, there’s also an update to Proton Experimental. I have never seen this trend from Valve before, and to be honest, I can’t tell if it’s strange or if it’s actually a good thing. Perhaps it’s both. Updates are nice to have.
At the same time, though, as I had mentioned earlier, despite the many updates, somehow some of the software packages get left behind. The kernel, for example, is stuck on 5.13, with Valve’s customizations thrown in. We’re almost approaching kernel 5.19 at the time of writing this. There’s also the concern of Firefox – at least the stock version supplied with SteamOS – being nearly six months old. Valve has mentioned to GamingOnLinux that they will be removing the stock Firefox build with the latest Flatpak version in the next update to SteamOS, but that update hasn’t come yet.
I’m also counting the days when Valve will lose interest in the device and stop providing updates, or at least push them out on a much less frequent basis. Tyler McVicker, a YouTuber who follows Valve’s patterns closely, couldn’t have put it any better in a video he put out a few months ago. To paraphrase what he said, Valve loses interest very quickly in anything that they invest, because they get distracted with other ideas. What’s going to happen when the second-generation Steam Deck comes out? Will they stop providing updates to the original product?
Granted, Valve has been rolling out updates even before the review embargoes were lifted in late February, for five months straight now. Knowing Valve, though, it’s inevitable that they will come to a halt. Whether that’s a year from now, or even two or three years, that’s not a bad track record, but yeah, you get my point.
Valve’s Continued Push Against Microsoft⌗
All of the negatives aside, hear me out on this: if it weren’t for the Steam Deck, Linux adoption wouldn’t be where it is now. Ubisoft wouldn’t have considered bringing their games over to Steam. Games with anti-cheat software would have likely continue to not run on Linux at all. But seeing how much momentum the Deck has receieved, companies who were once not interested in supporting Linux at all have now come forward. Easy Anti-Cheat, BattlEye is getting more and more support with Proton, thanks to the Steam Deck. Who would have thought Apex Legends would work through Proton? Who would have thought Square Enix would specifically mention the support of the Steam Deck with Final Fantasy 7 Remake coming to Steam?
This is the one thing that Valve has not given up on: their continued support for Linux. They’ve been doing this for at least 10 years now! Windows seems to only be creating more and more controversy over time, especially with Windows 11. No one wants to deal with forced updates, the agonizing amount of spyware built into the OS, the advertisements, the whole nine yards. With Linux, you don’t have to deal with those headaches. And because Valve is supporting Linux, it’s all the more better for us as gamers. So, thank you, Valve, for continuing your hardest is preventing Microsoft from becoming the lord of lords on PC. Thanks to your efforts, Linux is becoming more and more of a reliable alternative.
If I were on a cruise, sipping on a margarita while laying down on a lawn chair, maybe I’d have a lot more appreciation for the Deck. But as it stands, I can honestly live without it. I don’t pick it up much; if I’m going to game, I’m going to game on my more powerful desktop, as I have a larger screen, higher framerates, and better-quality graphics. So, if you’re waiting for your Deck, and you don’t travel much, then maybe the wait shouldn’t kill you that badly. But if you’re frequently on the move, well, then I can say the Deck is certainly something you should look forward to getting. It all depends on your lifestyle.
If Valve is reading this review, I’m pretty sure I’ve sealed my fate that I won’t ever get a review unit for their next-gen Deck or any other products that they come up with. In hindsight though, I would rather be brutally honest with my opinion on the Steam Deck than pretend like I enjoy every little thing about it.
- insanely competitive price
- decent hardware
- plenty of buttons
- great for gaming on the go
- easy to replace parts
- it’s increased the adoption of Linux, and companies have taken notice and started supporting their games on Linux
- updates come just about every week
- no kickstand
- some “Verified” titles aren’t actually Verified
- SteamOS suffers from outdated software
- Valve largely borrows from other people’s software
- battery life can be pretty short at times
- updates will eventually come to an end, once Valve has moved on
- after all these years Netflix/Spotify/Hulu have never made it to Steam
- doesn’t serve much of a purpose if you already have a powerful enough desktop/laptop and don’t travel often