It’s a $400 Steam Deck, as utilitarian as it sounds. The portable device is a massive black plastic plate with a built-in game controller, has a supercomputer filling and a touch screen. It’s like a gaming PC and Nintendo Switch having a baby.
Valve, the Bellevue, Washington-based company known for its online game store Steam, began taking orders for the Steam Deck last year, and the consoles have only recently arrived. The company did not release sales figures, but it is estimated that hundreds of thousands of units were shipped. People who try to order today won’t get the device until the fall.
Steam Deck is the result of Valve’s ambitious efforts to combine the benefits of modern gaming devices. This includes gaming computers; family-oriented Nintendo Switch portable; and Sony’s PlayStation 5 and Microsoft’s Xbox Series X, which are residential consoles with faster computing chips for more intensive gaming.
Steam Deck is trying to be a jack of all trades. It runs Linux, an open source operating system, which allows you to download a huge number of new games, including PC games and some PlayStation and Xbox games. And just like with a computer, Steam Deck can be configured to run older games by installing emulation software, which are applications that can run digital copies of games for older consoles.
As someone who grew up with consoles all the way back to Atari, I decided to give Steam Deck a try. Verdict: I recommend this console to serious gamers who don’t mind a little tinkering to enjoy new and old games. But it has serious drawbacks and is definitely not for those looking for the plug-and-play experience offered by a traditional gaming console.
Unlike conventional consoles such as the PlayStation and Nintendo, which can play games stored on discs and cartridges, the Steam Deck is completely digital, meaning it only plays games downloaded over the Internet. Gamers will primarily get games through the Steam app store. So, to get started, users set up a Steam account to download games.
From there, there are many options. Gamers can choose from a Steam library of tens of thousands of games, including popular titles like Counter-Strike and Among Us. Some major titles that were previously exclusive to the PlayStation, such as Final Fantasy VII: Remake, are now also available on Steam.
Those who love adventure can go outside of Steam to get more games. This includes switching to desktop mode, which turns the Steam Deck into a miniature Linux computer that can be controlled using a virtual keyboard and a tiny trackpad built into the controller.
Here you can open a web browser to download some files to set up Steam Deck to work. Xbox Game Pass play Xbox games or install emulators to run games made for older consoles like the classic Atari of the 1970s and the PlayStation Portable of 2005.
Tinker if you dare
In my testing, the Steam Deck was fun to use for Steam games. It ran modern graphics-intensive games like Monster Hunter Rise smoothly, and the controller, which includes triggers, joysticks, and buttons, was comfortable to use.
But fiddling with it to launch games outside of the Steam store was a difficult and sometimes maddening task. I watched several video tutorials on running EmuDeck, a script that installs emulators on a device. The process took over an hour. I ended up having to plug in my own keyboard and mouse because the Steam Deck trackpad and keyboard often didn’t register clicks and keystrokes.
Valve has stated that it continues to improve desktop navigation and that there are situations where people need to plug in a keyboard and mouse.
After finally getting the emulators up and running I had a nice setup to run new, new and old games like Vampire Survivors, Persona 4 and Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII.
Steam Deck lacks the sophistication and practicality of mainstream gaming devices, making it hard to recommend to casual gamers.
While it’s good to have at home, I wouldn’t take it with me on a trip or to a coffee shop, which defeats its purpose as a mobile device. Chief among its shortcomings, its battery life is not up to par. In my sessions, the Steam Deck ran for roughly 90 minutes before it needed to be plugged in, even when I was playing games with minimal graphics like Vampire Survivors.
Second, it’s large (about 12 inches long) and heavy (1.5 pounds) for a portable gaming device. This makes the Switch smaller and lighter than the Nintendo, which lasts more than four hours on a single charge and is an excellent portable device.
While fiddling is optional, it’s one of Steam Deck’s main selling points – and compared to using a gaming PC, setting up Steam Deck isn’t fun or easy with its keyboard, mouse, and desktop software.
Finally, while some may not mind Steam Deck’s digital-only approach to buying games, many who prefer to own physical cartridges and discs that can be easily shared with friends and resold to others will find it a deal breaker.