Valve Steam Deck Review

All hands on Deck! Full Steam ahead…whooo whoooooo!

Well, I’m just going to say it. I love my Steam Deck. There, I said it – first line of the review.  Sure, it’s not perfect, but it does come pretty close. I love the quality of the build, the quality of the software, the size, the versatility, the design. I love that it can play modern (and old) PC games, and I also love that it is perhaps the best retro emulation handheld I own today. The Steam Deck does seem to have it all, and considering the highly competitive price point of the Steam Deck, it is really is hard to argue against it in terms of value for money. Yes, the Steam Deck is indeed, an absolute beast of a handheld!

So what exactly is the Steam Deck? Is it a games console? A PC? And what can it do? You might think a Steam Deck is good for one thing…playing PC games via Valve’s Steam Storefront. You’d be right. It is perfect for playing your Steam Store purchased games. In fact, the entire OS (aptly named SteamOS) is built around Valve’s own Steam Store. However, that is not all the Steam Deck can do; it can do much, much more – but more on that later.

Upon first booting the device, you are asked to login or register for the Steam Store. You may already have a large library of purchased games dating back years (the Steam Store has existed in some form since 2003), or you may be completely new to Steam and PC gaming in general. Either way, it is very easy to get started. In the Linux based SteamOS, Valve has created a ‘console like’ experience for PC games. If you’ve ever used an XBOX, Playstation or Nintendo Switch – then you will feel comfortable using SteamOS. They have, in effect, bridged the gap between pick up and play console gaming, and PC gaming – that in the past has traditionally required a little more knowledge and time in terms of set up and tweaking. But if you are a traditional PC gamer – don’t let that dissuade you. Despite SteamOS being a more ‘consolised’ experience, the underbelly of PC gaming is still there. If you so wish, you can access the many option to tweak your games and play them as you wish – think of it as a more streamlined experience instead of a stripped backed experience. SteamOS really is a credit to Valve’s ingenuity and clear thought process in creating something suitable for all, and doing it in the most concise way possible.

Of course, there are a few caveats. Not all of your Steam purchased games will work via SteamOS on the Steam Deck. Valve has created a ‘Deck Verified’ system. All games in the Steam Storefront are rated in four categories –

  • Verified (works perfect)
  • Playable (some manual tweaking required)
  • Unplayable (not functioning)
  • Untested (hasn’t been checked, will fit into one of the other 3 categories)

Since the Steam Deck’s launch in early 2022, more and more games are moving categories. From Untested or Unplayable to Playable or Verified. What this means is that when you boot up a game that is fully Verified, everything will work perfectly – controls, settings etc. It is more or less a console experience. Playable games may need the controls setting up, or the resolution adjusted. Untested games may work perfectly or not at all.

The thing is, nearly every game in your Steam Store library is in fact playable on your Steam Deck, and much more. How? Well you could install Windows on your Steam Deck. If you install Windows on your Steam Deck then you open up the entire world of PC gaming. Remember, the Steam Deck is actually a fully functional PC – the only difference is that it is shipped with SteamOS, rather than a more traditional operating system such as Windows. So if you want to install Windows, you can! Doing this allows you to play nearly every game in your Steam library. Not only that, but it opens up complete unrestricted access to all other PC based storefronts such as the increasingly popular EPIC Games Store. You can also install any other PC games you may have acquired, such as those from GOG or other sources. Sounds great, right? Yes, totally…sort of. Because if you want an easy to use console like experience, then you’ve just removed that by installing Windows. It’s perfect if you are comfortable in Windows environment, tweaking set up and what not, but if you are more used to a console, then Windows on the Deck may be overwhelming to you.  We are getting ahead of ourselves though; Windows on the Steam Deck is a whole other article, and indeed a different can of worms. Back to the stock experience and what you can do with SteamOS.

So the Steam Deck, using SteamOS, can play Steam Storefront games – we’ve established that. But what else can it do? The Steam Deck community is a bustling and vibrant hub of activity. There’s always something new or a viable workaround to get something working on Steam Deck that is not officially supported. There is an absolute plethora of third party apps constantly being released or worked on, to make your SteamOS experience more complete. There are far too many to list in this article, but we can talk about a few of the major releases that users find most relevant.

Of course, the Steam Deck can run emulators. That’s really what you’re here for, right!? The Steam Deck is an extremely powerful machine. In terms of emulation, you can run everything up to PS2 and GameCube – though some specific games on those systems remain difficult to emulate. Even some specific games for later systems (like PS3) are playable. 8 bit, 16bit, 32bit, 64bit systems are not a problem. That’s literally thousands of retro games at your fingertips.  NES, SNES, Mega Drive, PlayStation, Dreamcast, N64…the list goes on. All playable. There are a number of ways to get started with emulators, perhaps the most popular being EmuDeck –set up is relatively straightforward and the installation guides you through what you need to do to get playing all those retro games.  But there are other options as well, and if you were to install Windows on your Steam Deck, there would be even more options available to you.

Emulation looks & plays fantastic on the Steam Deck. The Steam Deck’s 7” screen is vibrant and large. Most retro games will look best on a 4:3 aspect ratio screen so the Steam Deck’s 16:10 screen isn’t ideal, but it much better than the plethora of other modern devices which now use the more standard 16:9 ‘widescreen’ aspect ratio. The 16:10 ratio allows for that little bit of extra height that make a huge difference to your viewing experience. Unless you artificially stretch the games or use the increasingly popular widescreen hacks, you will have large black bars to the left and right of your retro game image, but it really isn’t something that is noticeable. Most emulators will also allow retro themed bezels to be inserted in these black barred areas if you so wish. Many emulators will also allow you to alter and improve the image of your retro games, and the Steam Deck is powerful enough to utilise them all. Want to give your games a CRT effect? You can. Want scanlines? You can. The list of improvements really is endless, and there’s enough variety to suit a number of personal tastes.

More on controls later, but the Steam Deck is well equipped for retro gaming in terms of physical controls.

Other store fronts, such as the previously mentioned Epic Store can also be installed. Streaming services are also available – XBOX Game Pass and Playstation Remote Play are both accessible allowing you to play all your console games via the Steam Deck. SteamOS does restrict in many ways, but with such a large and active community determined to make SteamOS the best it can be, the list of what SteamOS can’t do is shrinking all the time. Whether its AAA PC gaming, Retro Emulators or Game Steaming services…the Steam Deck can do it – and do it damn well!

The Steam Deck is available in 3 models ranging from US$399 to US$649. The main difference between the models being the storage and anti glare screen on the higher priced model.

Briefly and simply, the Steam Deck is a horizontal orientated device. It consists of a 720P 7” screen with a 16:10 aspect ratio. The CPU is custom Aeirith AMD Zen 2 Processor. 16GB  LPDDR5 on board memory. 64GB eMMc TO 512GB NVMe SSD storage depending on which model you purchase. A 40wh Lithium-ion battery is provided. The Device weighs 669grams. All Steam Decks also come bundled with a hard carry case. On the device itself, there are 2x full sized clickable analog  sticks, 2x clickable trackpads, 2x shoulder buttons, 2x analog shoulder buttons, a dpad, 4x face buttons, start, select, 2x front programmable buttons, 4x back programmable buttons, volume button, power button. There is also a 3 axis accelerometer and a gyroscope. The screen is a capacitive touch screen. Ports include USB-C, a Micro SD Card slot, Headphone port.

So…yes, as you can see from the above, and as you’ve probably seen from the pictures, the Steam Deck is stacked with buttons. Whether you are playing a modern PC game, or a retro game via emulation – the Steam Deck really does have you covered control wise. The dpad and face buttons may initially look awkwardly placed on the devices, but once you get the device in hand, any notion of this disappears. The back of the device has large protruding grips – similar to that found on modern XBOX controllers. This grip allows easy to access to literally any of the buttons on the device – including the dpad and face buttons. The clickable analog sticks are full size and have full range of motion. The trackpads are large and easy to use – absolutely essential if playing games that require a mouse, such as a Real Time Strategy game or something similar. The four back buttons are extremely welcome for games that require those extra few buttons, and are even more welcome if you were to install Windows on the device. The dpad and face buttons, though well placed, are a little ‘mushy’ when compared to controls found on retro consoles or current mainstream consoles. They work perfectly fine, but could perhaps do with a tweaking by Valve if a newer model was to be released. In truth, you will probably find nicer dpad and face buttons on much cheaper devices designed specifically for retro gaming – such as devices from Anberinc, Retrtroid or Evercade. That’s not to say these controls are bad, just different, and could definitely be improved. If you’re someone who likes to unleash the perfect hadouken though, the Steam Deck dpad may give you a little trouble. The trigger buttons are large and responsive. L2 and R2 are analog. L1 and R1 are normal shoulder buttons. Thankfully a wired headphone jack is present, which is good, considering these ports are disappearing from many modern devices. The Micro SD card slot is also very welcome considering the install size of many AAA games. In fact, no matter which Steam Deck version you purchase, an additional purchase of a Micro SD card feels almost essential.

The Steam Deck is a very large device, but with that size, it feels extremely comfortable in the hand. It is not too weighty either. You could argue it isn’t strictly portable due to its size. You could of course play it on the bus or on a plane, but to many it will feel too big to do so. Instead, it’s something you could bring with you and play in different places – whether that be your home, a friend’s home, a hotel room etc. Battery life is highly dependent on the type of content you are consuming. A modern AAA game might get you 2-3 hours. Playing a NES game via en emulator will get you 8+ hours. The USB- C port is used to charge the unit, but can also be used to output video to display your Steam Deck on a monitor or TV. If this appeals to you, perhaps an essential purchase would be the Steam Deck Dock. There are many Steam Deck Docks available including an official product by Valve – though a 3rd party dock will be considerably cheaper and function more or less the same. Playing Steam Deck on the TV is great –whether playing modern game or retro, you can connect an external controller via Bluetooth or wired if using a dock or hub. In essence, when you combine your Steam Deck with a dock, you’re entering Nintendo Switch console territory.  You make the Steam Deck a home console. It’s something that works very well, and really opens up the possibility of some great same couch multiplayer sessions on the Steam Deck.

So that’s about it. There’s a lot more that could be said, but I can’t go on forever. Well I could, but you’re probably already bored. I love my Steam Deck and have written more articles on the subject. If interested, please check out my experience with Valve support when I had to send my initial, faulty Steam Deck back to Valve. Even though I’ve lauded SteamOS in this article, as someone who loves to tinker and has the experience to do so, I eventually installed Windows on my Steam Deck. It is not something I’ve regretted, so if you want to read about installing Windows on the Deck and my experience setting up and using the device with Windows, then please check out my article on that too.