Shackpets | Available on iOS and Google Play Store

Steam Deck review: Switch up your expectations

Steam Deck is officially out in the world, and Shacknews went hands-on with the device for the past few weeks. Check out our review.

15

Steam Deck has officially launched, and many Valve fans are anxious to get their hands on the device. Shacknews was given early access to the product and has been testing it over the past few weeks. While there are elements of brilliant innovation in Steam Deck, this handheld gaming PC faces some serious headwinds that may be difficult to overcome in its current state.

A portable that packs a punch

The Steam Deck features some of the best technology ever packed into a portable gaming device.
The Steam Deck features some of the best technology ever packed into a portable gaming device.

Steam Deck packs in a lot on the tech side of things, with a cutting edge AMD APU that uses between 4-15 watts of power. The on-board memory is not that beefy, only weighing in at 16 GB of LPDDR5 RAM. The product comes in three models, starting at 64 GB of storage, all the way up to 512 GB. The device storage is expandable via microSD. We were given a 256 GB Steam Deck review unit.

The display is 7" in diagonal with a 60Hz refresh rate and a resolution of 1280x800 pixels. Steam Deck can also connect to external displays with the USB-C port and a dongle of your choosing and allows for up to 8K at 60Hz or 4K at 120Hz if you have the right USB hub. Deck also supports Bluetooth 5.0 which is great for connecting controllers and has a solid dual-band Wi-Fi radio that really hums when downloading games from the store.

Speaking of games, while Steam Deck supports 60Hz gameplay, many games run best at 30Hz. Valve has issued myriad updates for SteamOS in the days leading up to launch, and that has made a number of my early impressions of the product less important. As of today, users are given some pretty nice options for enhancing the device's battery life while playing in handheld mode. The company says that users can get between 2-8 hours of battery life depending on screen brightness, volume, and the game.

On Rocket League, I was able to play online with friends for about 2 hours and 15 minutes before the Deck ran out of juice. During another play session with Death Stranding, I got similar levels of performance, but I did run into a very strange UI nitpick: I kept missing the warning pop up that reminds the user that they are low on battery. I had the Steam Deck simply shut off on me a few times while playing games because I did not notice the battery was low. Valve got back to me letting me know it is increasing the duration of the notification on screen, and that it could always be influenced by which game the user was running at the time, but it highlights a recurring theme of software issues from my time with the product.

Less taxing offline games like Hollow Knight run great on Steam Deck, with battery performance coming in closer to 5-6 hours. Deck will certainly be a capable device for running your favorite indie games with solid battery life, but some other problems arise when playing classic side-scroller games like Team Cherry's magnum opus.

Hardware designed by a software company

Valve has made some button placement decisions on Steam Deck.
Valve has made some button placement decisions on Steam Deck.

Steam Deck is not a comfortable handheld gaming device to use for extended periods of time. When I think of how I play handheld games, I harken back to flights across the country when I played for the whole flight and didn't feel a physical need to put the device down. I have flown to Japan and played games on handheld devices for the majority of the trip.

While I have not hopped on a plane since before the pandemic kicked off, I don't believe that Steam Deck would be my first choice of devices to pull out and play. There are several industrial design decisions made by Valve in this device that made my hands feel uncomfortable after extended play sessions. 

The thing is pretty heavy, weighing in at 1.47 pounds. Steam Deck weighs more than the Apple iPad Pro 12.9 inch model, as well as the Nintendo Switch OLED (0.93 pounds). Another issue I have is the displacement of weight in the device. The handles on each side are substantial in width and weight, and that certainly affects the feel in your hands and the comfortability of pressing buttons and using the D-Pad. Specifically, left on the D-Pad and the good ole B button. I also found typing with the on-screen keyboard and holding the device with one hand to feel a bit awkward. My right ring finger also comes into contact with the vent on the back. 

Steam Deck's face makes a number of design decisions that didn't land with me. Valve really likes touch pads, and the decision to include them in prime location on the face of Steam Deck is at the core of my problem with the button placement. In a lot of ways, Steam Deck makes the same wrong decisions as its Steam Machine and Steam Controller predecessors, and that's highlighted by the placement of the D-Pad and ABXY buttons. It does not feel natural at all to move your thumb to the right of the analog joystick, and the left touchpad mimics a D-Pad by default most of the time, making me just wish the D-Pad was there to begin with.

All the fun you'd expect from a portable Linux computer

You can play Hollow Knight on a bridge powered by SteamOS.
You can play Hollow Knight on a bridge powered by SteamOS.

There are elements of SteamOS that really are amazing in a handheld format. Playing games via desktop remote is a great experience, and it really highlights the work Valve has put into SteamOS. 

This work was shown in the amount of updates I received over the last ten day period. The team is clearly stampeding towards launch and us reviewers are just along for the ride, with patch notes hitting my inbox multiple times a day. Folks out there lucky enough to get a launch day Steam Deck are in for a lot of updates, but I can tell you that each time Valve has made Steam Deck a better experience. It is truly the very early days for this new gaming PC form factor, and you just have to expect some of this as an early adopter, or a Linux user.

Unfortunately, I did run into several bugs during my time testing Steam Deck. Just last night, I bricked the device. Factory Reset was not exactly how the customer experience will be, so I can't speak to that, but I can say it was a pain in the butt and required a USB thumb drive, a USB-C Hub and a keyboard. Now this bug has actually already been addressed and fixed by Valve, so you're welcome. I ran into the bug the night before the company shipped a patch to fix the issue. The process of reviewing this device seems to be a preview of the future for Steam Deck customers. Updates, and maybe more bugs. 

Steam Deck bricked and would only show this screen flickering.
Steam Deck bricked and would only show this screen flickering.

There are elements of using Steam Deck that may not seem like a big deal to hardcore PC users, but to the broader public are going to be hard sells. There are games that work great on Steam Deck, and there are games that kind of work on Steam Deck. Valve is trying to do a better job of curating things, but it appears even some developers are hoping for a better solution to becoming Steam Deck verified. Core Steam users won't have much of a problem figuring out which builds to install and run, but the early days of Steam Deck could drive some non-gamer parents up the wall. 

It sounds dumb to say, but Steam works great on Deck. Downloading games on Steam Deck is a much better experience than a lot of other gaming platforms. Valve really shines with its integrated Steam services on Deck. The integration of the store infrastructure, Steam Cloud allowing you to pick up right where you left off on PC, and remote desktop play are three key differentiators from some of the more popular handheld gaming platforms.

File not found

Valve Steam Deck Dock seen here, but not in customers hands for at least a few months after launch.
Valve Steam Deck Dock seen here, but not in customers hands for at least a few months after launch.

No Dock, no Fortnite, no Halo, no Windows AMD APU support, no deal. One of the biggest selling points to me of the Steam Deck is its potential to become one of the world's most affordable and versatile PCs, and its ability to run Windows is a huge deal for me. Right now, Valve has told press it is not sure when an AMD APU driver will ship that will allow for devs to even try to make things work on the world's largest operating system. It is quite literally out of their hands.

The decision to choose this specific AMD APU, and making a SteamOS device, has led to some hurdles or roadblocks for Steam Deck. I ran into problems with Desktop Mode on an earlier build of SteamOS, but it is a decent place for browsing the web and will serve as a nice backup to Windows for now.

Why is a company that is known for taking its time in releasing insanely polished video games rushing a product like this out the door in this state? Shipping without a dock. Uncertainty around game and driver support. What's the hurry?

Online gaming is a magical experience on Steam Deck when it works. I really enjoyed playing Rocket League on Steam Deck during my review period because the triggers on the device are extraordinary, especially when compared to the other handheld on the block. I would love to play competitive shooters on Steam Deck, and enjoyed my time with single player FPS games like Deathloop and Duke Nukem 3D.

There is so much potential in this kind of device, but it is just not all on display at the time of this review. I hope that EAC games will eventually be supported on Steam Deck, because I really think quality multiplayer FPS experiences are severely lacking in the present day handheld gaming market. Playing Halo Infinite on Steam Deck would be delightful.

The road ahead

Valve has been very transparent with their design prototypes, showing dozens of attempts. Some look downright jazzy.
Valve has been very transparent with its design prototypes, showing dozens of attempts. Some look downright jazzy.

There are so many elements of Steam Deck that I love and are no-brainer features that will ultimately become staples in what I believe is a new gaming PC form factor product category, but it is impossible to judge this product with a review score in its current state. Receiving system updates each day of the review period has negated some of my earlier findings about the product, and many of the opinions I have on the software and OS experience will likely be addressed in some fashion over time.

If this is a proof of concept for the industry, it's a fine first attempt, but it is hard to recommend Steam Deck as a consumer electronic device in its current state. That being said, if you are someone who loves to tinker with things, this product still has the promise of being a more open platform if Valve continues to support it on the software and services side. 

It wouldn't be the worst thing for other companies to look at Steam Deck and make their own similar attempts on SteamOS or Windows. I have seen prototypes from companies at CES events in the past that were very close to Steam Deck in form factor, but were less comfortable and ran Windows.

Clearly there is something here in Steam Deck, and while I hope Valve will continue to improve the software and OS experience over time, I have to judge it as a handheld right now. It simply does not cut it for me. The ability to play my Steam games on the go and use cloud sync to pick up right where I left off on my PC is awesome. The ability to remote play games is great, but it just isn't comfortable to hold for long periods of time. I would still rather play Steam games on my PC.

If someone else out there can take the core philosophy of the Steam Deck and shrink it down a bit, it will just be a matter of time before this transformative product category disrupts the video game space. Valve could even stand to benefit if the right company stepped up to the plate to finish what Steam Deck has started.


This Steam Deck review was based on a unit provided by Valve.

Luminary

Asif Khan is the Luminary and majority shareholder of Shacknews. He began his career in video game journalism as a freelancer in 2001 for Tendobox.com. Asif is a CPA and was formerly an investment adviser representative. After much success in his own personal investments, he retired from his day job in financial services and is currently focused on new private investments. His favorite PC game of all time is Duke Nukem 3D, and he is an unapologetic fan of most things Nintendo. Asif first frequented the Shack when it was sCary's Shugashack to find all things Quake. When he is not immersed in investments or gaming he is a purveyor of fine electronic music. Asif also has an irrational love of Cleveland sports.

From The Chatty
  • reply
    February 25, 2022 10:00 AM

    Asif Khan posted a new article, Steam Deck review: Switch up your expectations

    • reply
      February 25, 2022 10:12 AM

      Disappointing to hear that they haven’t learned many lessons from the Steam Controller.

      • reply
        February 25, 2022 10:15 AM

        what lessons are those?

        • reply
          February 25, 2022 10:17 AM

          The touchpads aren’t nearly as useful or universally applicable as they’d like to believe. Prioritizing placement of these touchpads over physical button and stick layout results in a less functional product.

          • reply
            February 25, 2022 3:41 PM

            They absolutely are for a huge number of games. That wasn't a lesson they needed to learn.

            • reply
              February 25, 2022 3:54 PM

              The device shines performance wise when playing indie games, the bulk of which are platformers. A platformer-centric system without a d-pad is crazy to me.

              • reply
                February 25, 2022 3:56 PM

                It...has a d-pad...

                • reply
                  February 25, 2022 4:33 PM

                  Hahaha oh I see it now

                  • reply
                    February 25, 2022 6:44 PM

                    To be fair, this sentence from the review is what threw me: “the left touchpad mimics a D-Pad by default most of the time, making me just wish the D-Pad was there to begin with.”

    • reply
      February 25, 2022 10:12 AM

      Good review. I'm still likely going to grab my pre-order when it becomes available because I'm an early adopter idiot, but hopefully the issues you call out can be handled quickly through software updates.

      • reply
        February 25, 2022 10:40 AM

        The hardware design issues are concerning to hear about. For something that size you really do need to nail the feel so it’s not comfortable for a small percentage of people and difficult/annoying for the rest. Kind of get the impression they did not figure that out.

        • reply
          February 25, 2022 12:55 PM

          the vast majority of reviews up have no issue and actually praise the design
          IGN - "much more comfortable to hold in my adult-sized hands than a Nintendo Switch. It's nice to feel safe holding onto something so expensive"
          Gamespot - "ts comfort is still one of the most surprising aspects of its design and a testament to how much thought was put into the overall shape of the Steam Deck."
          Eurogamer - "What surprised me was that the comfort level during play exceeded Switch and I actually found it easier to use."

          • reply
            February 25, 2022 3:33 PM

            Digital Foundry also said it was more comfortable than the Switch

            • reply
              February 25, 2022 9:23 PM

              Digital Foundry is essentially the same as Eurogamer.

      • reply
        February 25, 2022 4:32 PM

        I'm pretty sure you can play Left 4 Dead 2 on it without issue. It might even support your mod Turbo Doge Airtime without issue as well.

        :D

    • reply
      February 25, 2022 10:40 AM

      Interesting, thanks for the review Asif!

    • reply
      February 25, 2022 3:36 PM

      Does this pass the bathroom test, like if you're playing a game, and all of a sudden, you have to take a huge dump and don't want to miss out on lost gaming time? 9 out of 10 Shackers have bought the Switch for this very reason.

      Furthermore, will the Switch version 2 come with the 3 seashells?

      • reply
        February 25, 2022 9:17 PM

        It says on the box that the Deck ships in that you can play in the bathroom.

    • reply
      February 25, 2022 6:41 PM

      The most horrifying part of the review for me is the bricked screenshot because it reminds me that's its a regular horrible lcd and not an oled

    • reply
      February 25, 2022 9:12 PM

      "All the fun you'd expect from a portable Linux computer"
      Won my heart again.

    • reply
      February 28, 2022 11:16 PM

      The SteamOS is already plenty capable of doing pc stuff.

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UvuGAQDagWE&t=8s
      installing Epic Games

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MffgyYPFov4
      discord

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HmmmZwk01CY
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mvOmax8EmAU
      switch emulation

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fMxVO_eUgEY
      ps3 emulation

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O1K3xEhHaZA&t=241s
      gamecube emulation

      and all this is in SteamOS may I remind you

Hello, Meet Lola