Valve Steam Deck Review: Rated E for Everyone – Review Geek
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A gaming PC in your palms.
Marcus Mears III is the Reviews Editor for How-To Geek and Review Geek. He’s a lifelong technology enthusiast with over four years of experience developing prose that keeps readers in the know. With hundreds of articles across a number of tech publications like MakeUseOf and iGeeksBlog, Mears’ work helps readers around the globe learn to make the most of their devices and software. Read more…
I’ve been playing my favorite titles on Valve’s Steam Deck for several months now. While I can’t say it’s free of flaws, it is undoubtedly the most exciting piece of gaming tech I’ve used in the last few years. The Steam Deck lets you play what you want, with natural controls, wherever you are.
Valve’s 2022 handheld gaming PC is outfitted with desktop-level specs, an array of intuitive control methods, the powerful Arch-based SteamOS operating system, and a 7-inch, 1280 x 800px touchscreen display. Its drawbacks, like a fan that does its best hair dryer impression during long downloads and stressful gaming sessions, do little to deter the Steam Deck from giving players a smooth, enjoyable gameplay experience.
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Design and Display: Souped-Up Sega Game Gear
A Quality Display
You’re in Control
Audio: Surprisingly Not Bad
Performance: AAA Titles? No Problem
Pick a Game, Any Game
Storage: Expandable Enough
SteamOS: User-Friendly Linux With a Few Hiccups
Battery Life and Charging: Needs a Power-Up
Remember the Sega Game Gear? Imagine it updated with 2020s tech and fused with a Nintendo Switch; that’s what I think of when I see a Steam Deck.
A matte black finish with glossy black trim, the Steam Deck doesn’t try to make a fashion statement. Its hard plastic chassis lets the display have the spotlight, blending into the background while you traverse worlds unknown in No Man’s Sky or keep your patrons happy in Travellers Rest.
At nearly a foot across (11.7in), the Steam Deck is comfortably held in the same positions you’d use a controller—up by your chest or down near your lap. It’s significantly heavier than a controller, though; weighing in at 1.48lbs (23.6oz), Valve’s handheld strikes a nice balance between a cheap plastic feel and a 10-pound dumbbell. I don’t usually experience forearm or wrist fatigue while using the Steam Deck, though I typically switch positions every so often.
Valve is no stranger to selling cosmetic skins that supplement players’ in-game items (Dota 2’s annual tournament, The International, raked in a $40,018,195 prize pool in 2021 as a result of crowdfunding). However, you won’t find any official Steam Deck skins (or wraps) on Steam’s website—the gaming giant doesn’t sell any. So, unless you seek out a third-party facelift from a company like dbrand, the only color you’ll see on the Steam Deck is the light grey accent of the buttons and thumbsticks.
Moving to the top edge of the Steam Deck, from left to right (not including triggers), you have volume controls, a 3.5mm headphone/microphone jack, a fan and vent, one USB Type-C port, a status LED, and the power button. These controls are easy enough to reach while you’re in-game, and the placement of the USB-C port isn’t a burden to reach with the charging cable. You may, however, feel some heat radiating from the topside vent if your fingers brush the back of the Steam Deck or cross over the fan’s airflow.
The bottom face of the Steam Deck is much less populated, housing only an SDXC card slot for microSD storage expansion. Around the back, there are four paddle buttons, a vent, and a recessed Valve logo.
I was a little worried the 7-inch screen would be too small, but it’s actually a very comfortable size for most scenarios. In some cases, the 1280 x 800px resolution makes text pretty small and tough to read, but for the most part, the screen’s size and resolution do not hinder my gameplay experience.
You could make an argument for a higher refresh rate—some players, especially those who’ve been locked at 30FPS on consoles before, may actually welcome 60Hz with open arms—but anything higher, and I have a feeling the battery would absolutely disintegrate as soon as you pressed “Play” (I discuss the battery more in a later section).
And 60FPS isn’t too shabby, either; I prefer higher-resolution graphics at 60FPS to lower-res at 144FPS for a lot of games, especially single-player titles like Days Gone and Horizon Zero Dawn. But if you play competitive titles like Rocket League at 120FPS or higher, you may want more than the Steam Deck gives you.
I like my screens bright. They don’t have to compete with the sun, but I’m looking for clear, vibrant colors. The Steam Deck delivers a top brightness of 400 nits, which is nothing to scoff at. Sure, it’s no 2000-nit iPhone 14 Pro, but it’s bright enough to stave off my complaints.
I didn’t go for the top-tier Steam Deck with anti-glare glass, and the consequences of that decision rear its head from time to time. Take a car ride next to a window, for example. If you’re playing a particularly gloomy game (or one with black bars), you may see more of your reflection than you do the details on the screen. This isn’t the case all of the time; I’d call gameplay-impeding glare a rare occurrence at most. But if you primarily play in sunny areas, you may want to opt for the anti-glare option (or a third-party screen protector).
The Steam Deck’s control map was one of the most interesting aspects to me when looking into it for the first time. Usually, you’re limited to controller, mouse, or touchscreen inputs—or some combination from that list. With the Steam Deck, you get all three.
If you want to play games like Cities: Skylines from the city builder genre, you’ll probably find yourself using the integrated trackpads on either side of the handheld. These are perhaps the most intriguing of all the Steam Deck’s controls. I figured these would be an afterthought that I’d mainly use to browse YouTube when I wasn’t in a game, but I was mistaken. The trackpads are a great way to play games that require mouse inputs, and you can combine them with the triggers to better emulate the peripheral; the trackpad moves the cursor, and the left and right triggers act as respective mouse buttons. When scrolling with a trackpad, you’ll feel a haptic rumble that indicates whether it’s currently active or not, which is an enjoyable added touch.
On the other hand, if you’re laying waste in an action-packed twin-stick shooter like The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth or clawing for progress in your latest souls-like title (Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice for me), you’ll likely want to use the controller layout. The Steam Deck’s right side features ABXY buttons, the right thumbstick and trackpad, a Menu button, and the Quick access button. The left side houses the D-pad, View button, left thumbstick and trackpad, and Steam button.
The thumbsticks have a satisfying resistance to them, enough that you won’t fling your camera around if you brush the stick, but not so much that micro-adjustments become impossible. I hate mushy controls, so I was thrilled to feel the haptic click that comes with each press of the Steam Deck’s ABXY and navigation buttons.
The triggers also feature a nice tactile bump when bottomed out, though I wish they allowed for just a hair more travel distance. You can still depress the trigger halfway (think driving half-speed in a racing game like Forza Horizon 5), but it’s a bit of a balancing act because the triggers don’t need to be pushed down much to activate fully.
The bumpers are there, too. I could take them or leave them; they feel flat and a little uncomfortable compared to an Xbox 360 controller (which came out nearly 20 years ago, by the way), but they do their job well.
Lastly, the 7-inch touchscreen supports 10-finger multitouch control, though I find it’s mostly used as a catch-all for pesky menus and UI items that don’t yet support the Steam Deck’s control scheme.
However, using a similar process as when you remap other buttons in Steam, you can customize the control layout for every game in your library. You can bind each button manually if you like, or you can use one of the templates provided by Steam or its community members. I usually do so by selecting the game I want to play and choosing the controller icon on the right side of the screen.
And, if your hands miss the feel of your favorite controller, you can always just use it instead. With Bluetooth and USB-C connectivity, the Steam Deck lets you play your games with whatever controls feel best for you.
You may not expect a device like a handheld gaming PC to have decent audio, but the Steam Deck’s speakers offer a pleasant surprise.
No, you won’t get the same experience as a home theater system, but you will get a satisfying speaker setup that you can crank up loud enough to hear a song or show while you cook dinner.
If anything is lacking, it’s the bass. The high and mid tones of Cream’s “Sunshine Of Your Love” come through crisp and confident, but the bottom doesn’t quite give me the rich background hum I’m looking for—it’s there, but it’s faint.
When it comes to gaming, the audio is terrific. I’m never left wanting something better, but if you are, you can always use a Bluetooth speaker or connect a pair of wireless earbuds.
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Looking at the Steam Deck, especially if you’re thinking about tech from 10 or even 5 years ago, you may not think it’s packed with the power to run AAA titles like Grand Theft Auto: V and DEATHLOOP, but it absolutely is.
They won’t run at the highest settings, but you can cruise Los Santos or break the loop from a bus stop, doctor’s office waiting room, or anywhere in your home, and that’s enough to make me say “highest settings be damned.”
If you enjoy the hobby casually, the Steam Deck will more than get the job done. The option to play more resource-intensive games is always there if you want it, too.
Of course, top-tier hardware doesn’t mean much if you can’t play any games on it. Leading up to my Steam Deck purchase, I was weary of the game selection I’d have at my disposal.
However, upon booting the handheld up for the first time, I found most of my favorites available for download. A sizable number of titles claimed to be unsupported on the Steam Deck, too (take Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, for instance). I decided to delve into them anyways.
And the game…ran perfectly fine. I didn’t even have to configure any controls; the ABXY buttons and thumbsticks were able to navigate the main menu and accompany me on my journey through the galaxy.
Given some amount of modification, you can feasibly run almost any game on the Steam Deck. You may need to create a custom control setup, install Windows, or utilize a Steam Deck Docking Station for keyboard and mouse hookups, but it’s doable.
That’s what makes the Steam Deck so fascinating in my eyes; it can be whatever you want it to be. A simple, handheld console for games that won’t even claim 1GB like Vampire Survivors, or an entry-to-mid-level gaming PC that can comfortably run competitive titles like Rocket League and Dota 2.
What about non-Steam games? There’s good news and bad news. The good news: you can download and run games from launchers like GOG Galaxy and Epic Games on the Steam Deck. The bad news: it’s probably not as simple as you want it to be.
Firstly, you’ll have to download a third-party launcher like the Heroic Games Launcher. Then, after getting everything set up and downloaded, it’s a toss-up whether or not the game you want to play recognizes the Steam Deck’s controls. And, since it’s a non-Steam game, you can’t just remap the buttons to make sense to the game. You’d need a compatible Bluetooth controller or a Docking Station and PC peripherals.
Similarly, running emulated games on the Steam Deck is as easy as downloading an app like EmuDeck and following the on-screen setup instructions. You’ll be met with some funky control configurations for games that run on older systems like the PlayStation Portable, though.
All in all, it’s about as easy as it gets to use the Steam Deck as an emulation machine. It can run almost anything you throw at it, features a desktop mode to sort and configure game files, and you can even start emulated games from your Steam library.
Available storage options:
Have you seen the storage requirements for games lately? A single AAA title like Call Of Duty: Black Ops Cold War will happily chew through 200GB of your drive, which isn’t a pressing issue if you have a console or PC storage dedicated to gaming, but may spell doom if you opt for the entry-level Steam Deck tier.
Of course, you can always buy a microSD card and pop it into the slot found on the bottom edge under the screen. This expansion option enables terabytes more storage capacity, but it comes at a cost. A 1TB microSD card with up to 150MB/s transfer speeds from SanDisk comes with an asking price of over $100; this entry-level Steam Deck and microSD card combo comes out to nearly the same price as the mid-tier Steam Deck (though you end up with considerably more, albeit slower, storage).
I decided to grab a 512GB microSD card and, in conjunction with the onboard 256GB NVMe SSD, I can comfortably store a mix of a few larger games like the 60GB Days Gone and several smaller titles like Fallout 3 – Game of the Year Edition (8.7GB) at the same time. I have about 30 Steam games, along with a handful of non-Steam games, currently installed with roughly 21GB of remaining space.
NVMe over eMMC storage—this was a deciding factor for me when choosing the mid-tier Steam Deck over the most affordable model. An NVMe drive gives you more storage and faster read/write speeds (which means shorter loading screens) than an embedded MultiMediaCard (eMMC)—though you may not need one yourself.
If the games you boot up are usually smaller, indie titles like Stardew Valley, or if you use a cloud gaming service like Nvidia GeForce NOW, you stand a good chance of skating by on the 64GB option (especially if you supplement your Steam Deck with a cheap 128GB microSD card).
SteamOS is an operating system based on Arch Linux, and unless you modify your Steam Deck, it’s the operating system that runs by default.
Booting up the Steam Deck, you’re met with a Steam Deck logo and startup chime, and then you’re taken to a dashboard that aggregates your recently played games, some relevant news, recently installed updates, and other info about you and your Steam friends. After logging in during the first-time setup procedures, your entire Steam library will be available to download. Just click the Steam button under the left trackpad to open the navigation menu and select Library to view your games.
To switch to desktop mode, click the Steam button, then select Power, and Switch to Desktop. Here, you can utilize the Steam Deck as a full-fledged PC. Download third-party apps, browse the internet, customize your background—it really is a computer that you can carry comfortably.
Features like the File Manager, the SteamOS equivalent of the macOS Finder, are quick to open and responsive to commands. System Settings will get you almost anywhere you need to be when it comes to customization and optimization.
There are, however, a few bugs and head-scratching decisions to discover when you dive into Valve’s new operating system. For example, do you use voice dictation on your iPhone or Android? You won’t on the Steam Deck, there’s simply no option for it. How about taking screenshots; easy enough in Gaming mode, just click R1 and the Steam button down at the same time. But in Desktop mode? Impossible without a third-party app.
It’s user-friendly, easy to customize, and sufficient overall…but it feels like it needed one more round of polishing before getting shipped out the door.
There’s always a possibility that Valve could add these features in a future update, but for now, DIY solutions are the way it has to be.
Marcus Mears III / Review Geek
If I could improve one aspect of the Steam Deck, it would be the fleeting battery life. While the 45W USB-C charging is quick and efficient, the need to be tethered to an outlet digs into the portability this handheld gaming PC otherwise offers.
Not to mention, if you’ve been playing for about two hours or so with the charger attached, the wall block starts to run hot. I’d consider it a slightly worrisome temperature and advise you to temp-check your charger periodically during longer gaming sessions.
With that said, the battery will certainly get you through a casual between-class or lunch-break game session. Suppose you have a two-hour plane ride ahead of you; I’d think about charging the Steam Deck to 100% just before getting on. You could also lower the screen’s brightness and perhaps even the refresh rate in the Performance menu to make sure you don’t need to have a midair Steam Deck eulogy prepared.
When enjoying media aside from games, like YouTube, Hulu, or Spotify, the Steam Deck lasts significantly longer. You can easily reach 8-12 hours on a full charge if you aren’t playing resource-intensive games. I left The Mandalorian streaming for as long as the Steam Deck could handle from a 100% charge. The brightness and volume were at 50%, and the battery life bought me just over eight and a half hours of streaming time.
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The Steam Deck is one of the few must-try devices of the last few years in gaming. Because of its incredible versatility, whether you only play the casual game every now and again or log enough hours to consider gaming a part-time job, the Steam Deck has exactly what you need to enjoy your pastime.
Be aware of the meager battery life and noisy fans; they’re far from deal breakers, but they’re the two main points of contention I have with Valve’s handheld. As long as you have a charger nearby (and maybe some noise-canceling headphones), the Steam Deck does very little to disappoint.
You can purchase the Valve Steam Deck today in three models: $399 (64GB eMMC), $529 (256GB NVMe SSD), and $649 (512 GB NVMe SSD).
- Excellent control layout and customization
- Capable hardware can run most games
- Quality in-hand feel
- SteamOS is easy to use and tinker with
- Easily portable
- Loud fans in resource-hungry situations
- Fleeting battery life
- A few bugs and missing features in SteamOS