Title: Steam Deck (64GB Model)
System: Steam Deck
Price: Varies (Model Dependant)
Release Date: Varies (before the end of Q1 23, if you order now)
Since my reviews of both Evercade systems did decently enough, I figured, why not cover other fun systems I get my hands on? Thus, I figured since I’ve spent a lot of time with this thing in the past week, I might as well give first impressions and let you all know how I feel from a Linux newcomer’s POV.
Last summer, things started to get a bit rough for third party titles on the Switch platform. Games were coming out with abhorrent performance, low optimization, or just a weird lack of polish, even for games that seemingly shouldn’t have problems. Even games I enjoyed despite the concessions such as Ys IX, felt like they could have been optimized a bit better, but aging hardware has its limits, and the rumors of a “Switch Pro” gave me some hope that a N3DS style bump would come soon to help things out. Sadly, that didn’t happen, and was proven to be a myth.
That’s why the Steam Deck being announced almost right after these rumors didn’t pan out led to the system being a very appealing idea. See, I’ve used Mac for most of my content, and it’s my go-to for working on this very outlet I run. I had some fun with Steam games on Mac, but with recent OS updates, a lot of my library was outright incompatible with the platform, so I got a Gaming Laptop and ended up having a decent enough time, but lugging around a gargantuan clamshell just to play a simple game like Ys wasn’t always practical. That, and my total unfamiliarity with windows and woes with understanding what the heck an SSD was, (leading me to another rabbit hole and yet another windows PC to fix my issue) made me still hope for this to be a PC gaming solution that would take the frustrations I had with Windows gaming, and bring the simplicity of systems like Switch to the mix for a easygoing experience.
Well, I finally got my 64GB unit, spent some time, and have some various thoughts, as a newcomer to Linux, an OS deemed even more complex than Windows. Is this system the Switch killer some big shots made it out to be, or does this system has irritating faults of its own? Just how does it handle non-steam stuff, like other launchers, DRM free games, or Cloud Streaming? I’m hoping this summary of my time with the Deck over the summer helps those on the fence, even if current wait times may require you wait until the end of 2022 or beyond to get to your own spot in the queue, if you want it for MSRP.
Opening the Deck box, not much to really note. It comes with a carrying case, a USB-C cable, and that’s about it. For my unit, I bought a 512 MicroSD to help it out, but it does have a huge caveat which I’ll note later on.
Still, this system feels pretty great to hold, and I don’t think it’s easy to describe outside of being very big and wide: sorta like a Wii U Gamepad, but more comfortable and portable, with handles for your hands to comfortably grip. The sticks feel excellent, with great movement, and the shoulders feel super comfy as well. The back paddles definitely are the weirdest part of the device to me, having a click that makes me prefer using them as toggle/option buttons for games rather than usual action buttons, but I’m sure I’ll get more used to them over time, especially if I throw stuff like Pinball games on the Deck eventually.
The face buttons and touch screen are easily the components I feel are the most problematic, however. The touch screen is fine enough, and in some touch-focused games like Bejeweled 3 I find it to work decently well, but it definitely feels more picky to use than say, the Switch’s touch screen, not always being as accurate as I’d like it to be. The face buttons work OK as well, but them being at the edge of the console just feels weird, especially since the B button liked to get stuck quite often as a result of the positioning. I wouldn’t call my B button broken or anything since it easily can get un-stuck, (and it being stuck doesn’t even make my games act like it’s being held down, oddly enough) and it sadly appears to be a common issue across Decks in general, but it is worth pointing out if that sort of design will drive you up the wall.
I shall note that as I’m finalizing this review, the B button got less stuck after messing around in games like Puzzle Fighter II for quite a while, so it does seem like you can remedy this with general use.
Screen quality wise, it looks fine. The brightness options are there for improving battery life, and I found it easy to use on a long car ride or outside, and the night mode toggle helps for playing a quick puzzler right before late night bedtimes. I only really had issues seeing the screen when I was in extreme sunlight outdoors, but even a little bit of shade will help make it good enough to see, and games can really pop on this thing in the right conditions.
For the System UI, it uses a new UI on the Linux operating system, which I was totally unfamiliar with before jumping into this thing. Dubbed “SteamOS”, it’s a little cluttered, but does an OK job of showing you your library, allowing you to access your favorites, installed games, non-steam games, and Steam Collections, while also allowing you to mess with other Steam doodads such as your friend list, text chat, communities, and browsing the store, which nets you the option to search for games verified to work on Deck by Valve themselves, “Playable” games that work but will need tinkering, or all games, including ones not yet tested by Valve or stuff that is marked as unsupported.
There are even SteamOS options to enable overlays that dictate how the system is currently running, which broke my brain far too much for me to even attempt doing for long, but it will serve as a super helpful aide for the more tech-heavy folks who want to count frames or pinpoint performance issues in games that seem to be dipping up and down. Hell, they even added more layers on top of this during the summer, leading to this being something Valve clearly has a focus on.
Once I got the hang of browsing with the controller and bringing up the keyboard with a button combo, I was off in a hurry to wishlisting and going down rabbit holes of a ton of indie games, both stuff I heard about from the Switch, along with super tiny projects spotted from other websites or thrown at me via Steam’s Discovery Queue, making it a fun way to discover even the most obscure of new titles.
But when you’ve exhausted all you can with the Gaming Mode of SteamOS, the next step is to tinker around in Desktop Mode, where upon switching here, you get a Linux Computer desktop. This is where the real nerdy stuff takes place, such as setting shortcuts to non-steam games, hooking up a USB-C/MicroSD and mounting it for file management, or browsing the web. You will have to configure the controls for desktop mode within the Steam App if you hope to operate it with the deck buttons, otherwise you’ll have a whole lot of touchpad and finger precision that can make opening folders feel like a frustrating game of Operation.
Still, I eventually got a comfortable loadout set, and I was able to use my USB-C hub to move stuff between the Deck and other sources in no time, while also browsing the Discover store, which is how you can get some new Linux Apps like other web browsers and the like, and even stuff like EmuDeck, an emulator bundle that helps throw a bunch of stuff for emulation on your deck (nothing illegal, so no BIOS/ROMs for you! Dump them yourself, or get freeware like Blade Buster) and tinker around with that.
Even more handy, you can use desktop mode to put whatever DRM Free EXE files you have as a Steam shortcut, and have it be launched in gaming mode with Proton. This way, you can play tons more things, such as DRM-Free games from GOG or Itch, or fangames such as the delightful Sonic Triple Trouble 16-Bit. Hell, with Microsoft’s guidance, you can even get Xcloud running on Gaming Mode with a handy shortcut, making the deck control the games with ease. So all in all, the presentation of this device, both inside and out, is very fun, even if the complexity and UI overload does make the Deck pretty tough to go in blind with compared to a Switch, which is far more pick up and play friendly.
We got the fancy talk about how things look out of the way, so how do games play on this thing, and just how is the experience of the Steam Deck as a gaming device, especially for a handheld gamer such as myself? Well, I’m happy to say that my impressions after a summer of using this thing are pretty positive, though there are a lot of caveats. I played hundreds of titles on this thing, mostly via Steam, while also trying a variety of non-steam stuff. Emudeck, fangames, itch.io titles and various Streaming Servies, all thrown at this device to see what it could handle and just how I felt the experience was. There’s so much to discuss on this front that it will get very rambly, but bear with me, and hopefully this helps you decide if a Deck is right for you.
Kicking things off, I installed a bunch of games from my library, and mainly just threw a bunch of niche stuff at this thing. In late June, a lot of my library didn’t have much in terms of a verified status at all, with most of it being unknown. The very first game I threw at this was Umihara Kawase SHUN, which ran like a blissful dream, linking up to the cloud and importing my saves without a hitch. Most games with a controller layout will automatically map it with no issues, meaning that once something is installed and playable, you can usually just jump right on in, which is pretty sweet.
Other games from my library didn’t work so hot at first, or even at all. Ys Seven became a black void mess until I went to the handy ProtonDB and found a specific Proton setting that makes the game play a lot better, which mitigates the Unsupported status it currently has! In fact, a good chunk of games I found to be unsupported I could force into working in some form via Proton tinkering, either with my own guesswork or with the community’s help, making this a pretty awesome device in terms of potential.
That being said, those who are used to platforms where everything just works right away might find this whole tinkering deal to be quite the headache, and indeed, I did at first, but honestly the more I played this thing, the more I found the Desktop Mode and Proton tinkering parts of the Steam Deck to be more enjoyable and easier to do than dealing with the nightmare that is Windows 11, so that’s something.
And indeed, there are still titles that just will never work right on this no matter what you do, as evidenced by two titles I desperately tried to get running well. First was the excellent dual pack of Tengu and Zombie Nation from a year ago, which completely broke in all versions of Proton I tried, even the Proton-GE, (which is an alternate form of Proton you can download from Desktop Mode, which usually helps with fixing broken video/background support in affected titles) due to the resolution not playing nicely with the Deck’s screen and tons of missing assets.
The other problematic title I tried was Whip Whip, a fun, Neo-Geo Pocket Color inspired platformer I reviewed years ago. I tried the PC port after buying it the Steam Summer sale, and that just would automatically crash no matter what I did. Turns out, it needs Windows 10 specific fonts, and Linux doesn’t come with them, so it was just impossible to play. Situations like that are precisely why Valve went for their system to indicate which games work best on Deck, but due to how PC games update all the damn time, I found that some of their ratings don’t even make much sense. Trails in the Sky FC for instance, was marked Unsupported, even during the making of this review, yet with recent updates it plays fine with the Deck with no tinkering required. On the other side of the coin, VRChat is marked as Verified, but due to their recent Easy Anti-Cheat update, while it does indeed still work most of the time, the EAC can hiccup and prevent the game from loading properly. There’s also the whole Bioshock situation going on, which added an extra layer that broke the games on Steam Deck despite also being verified.
Really what I just did in the end, especially for the hundreds of games Valve hasn’t gotten to test yet, was to go to ProtonDB and read what others had to say for getting games to work. Either stuff in my library wouldn’t be worth the effort, would still be missing some stuff, (Ultra Street Fighter IV plays amazingly, except the cutscenes lack voices, as one instance) or would impress me quite a bit, so that’s the biggest caveat with the Steam Deck: depending on what games you like to play, this device could be your best friend in the whole world, a great companion, or a headache-inducing machine, and for me, I’m in the middle camp, as it is pure bliss when a new game like the TMNT Collection comes out and works perfectly on the Steam Deck from Day One, but when something like Capcom Arcade 2nd Stadium is broken on launch day and needed a few patches to get up and running on Proton, even buying new games on this thing can be like a coin flip. Luckily, that’s what Steam’s refund system is for, but it definitely makes the whole experience of jumping into games a lot more confusing than just going to the Switch eShop and knowing a game will work.
Speaking of Switch, how do some games run compared to Switch? Luckily for me, the biggest reason I bought this device was to play third party games portably at much better framerates than the Switch could handle, and for several titles such as Klonoa: Phantasy Reverie Series and Asha in Monster World that do not hit 60FPS on Switch, they run fantastically on the Steam Deck, providing me with several hours of battery life (2-3, usually) with all the precision I could possibly ask for. On the other hand, there are some titles that have a very brief microstutter that I do not notice on Switch or other devices, such as the first Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon, which seems very peculiar especially when the second game did not have similar issues cropping up.
There’s also the fact that while you could in theory brute force an intensive modern game to 60FPS, it will come at the cost of battery life, so if you’re not a framerate junkie like I am, then you’ll be able to limit performance to get some extra hours out of your games. Of all titles I played on my deck, it was oddly NeosVR which gave my device the most battery drain, going to show how little I play most intensive 3D games, and moreso focus on smaller budget or Indie titles, and if you’re in my camp, then this device is excellent for you. If you’re only into the biggest and newest titles, however? Then you may want to sit down for this next segment, especially if you’re considering the 64GB model I have, since there is a gargantuan gripe that I argue would have made me jump to a bigger model if I had known about it when the orders opened.
You see, the Steam Deck has three different models. A 64GB, 256GB, and a 512GB. These are all internal storage, and you can put MicroSD cards into any of the devices to expand storage, which I did immediately with a 512GB SD Card, expecting the 64GB model to not really cause me much trouble, especially since I only planned to focus on 2D stuff with the occasional gigabyte eating 3D game now and then. With all that storage, filling up my MicroSD with all my 2D Steam games shouldn’t be an issue, right? Well, that’s where shaders come into play, for Proton generates a shader cache for every game you boot up on the device. For some stuff, mainly those aforementioned 2D games, they don’t take up too much space, but for bigger games like Skyrim, Street Fighter IV, etc? Oh boy, do they take up quite a few gigabytes.
The problem with this is that these gigs do not go to your microSD card, where you’d expect, but rather to your system memory. Thus, even with a big SD card, you will still quickly run out of space if you try to cram all sorts of games onto the device at once. Of course, the solution to that is to just uninstall what you aren’t currently playing and delete their aforementioned Proton files, but with no ability to easily move shaders to the MicroSD, this became a huge headache for me at points, especially when dealing with games without Steam Cloud support. You can’t plug in the MicroSD to a laptop and back stuff up that way (it’ll prompt a format as it’s made for Linux OS in mind), so how do you get stuff off this device, or even put stuff onto it?
Thus, the biggest flaw of the Steam Deck was revealed, and that’s moving files around and dealing with the onboard storage. If I had a 256 or above model, these caches wouldn’t even be a problem and I could install a few more big games at once, but with the 64GB model I have, it’s like a constant game of juggling. That is where the USB-C port on the top of the device comes into play, for you can plug in a USB-C hub in that slot, and move files around that way if you have a typical USB drive plugged into it. This was how I was able to move around save data for some non-Steam games, transfer homebrew games, or backup key folders, mainly for non-steam games I was playing to retain my save data.
Of course, the ideal solution would be an easy to use FTP program, but alas, I do not really know where to start on that front for a Mac user like myself, so this is pretty much how I personally manage my files for now. Still, that led to me focusing especially on titles with Steam Cloud support, for dealing with those games is incredibly easy: uninstall when you’re done, reinstall when you want to resume, and you can move saves between your other Steam devices in the process. For games without Steam Cloud? Well, better hope you don’t mind losing progress when you uninstall a game, or get it backed up somewhere. This also is what heavily put me off of trying other DRM-filled launchers on Steam Deck, as while I do not normally mind the Epic Games Store on my PC, there isn’t really an easy way to install it on the deck, let alone EGS games, so I just completely ignored it entirely. It’s pretty much DRM-Free stuff like Itch games and the built-in Steam stuff, in terms of the storefronts this device handled well for me.
With all the rambling about functionality, performance and Steam-related stuff out of the way, how about other experiences, such as Cloud Streaming? Having a week up on vacation this summer, I didn’t hesitate to try along some cloud streaming services up there, mainly to compare how two very different internet environments for me worked out for the services I had the most interest in, especially in a situation where I was away from most of my consoles for a week.
First up, Antstream Arcade. I reviewed this service in the earlier days, and now it’s gone for a free to play model that allows me to still try it out without having to make monthly payments. I had to install this via the Windows EXE and then put the installed application onto the deck via the USB-C hub, but once that was done Proton ran it like a champ, way better than the native Linux build, even! Finally, I was able to play this without having to link a controller up to a Laptop, (those console versions are still nowhere in sight, sadly) and the controls mapped to the Steam Deck’s layout flawlessly.
It is a cloud streaming service for retro games at the end of the day, and while they definitely expanded their lineup and really did a good job with adding more challenges and tournaments, (the bulk of my time with Antstream on this device) unfortunately a lot of my gripes from the original review remain: several ROMS I noted as having emulation inaccuracies still have them two years later, and even next to a router the connection cutting off is infuriating when it ruins a perfectly good run of Gunbird 2 you were dealing with. I mostly shifted my mind towards enjoying Antstream for the competitive scorechasing aspect, rather than as a way to seriously play any reflex-heavy titles such as Valis, since you can definitely notice the streaming input lag a lot more when you have the buttons on the device itself, so your own mileage may vary.
Next up is Chiaki, a workaround for remote play on PS4/PS5. I mostly did this when I got home from vacation, thinking it would work similarly to another identical service I enjoyed immensely on Deck, but sadly, it really didn’t play nicely at all. No matter what I did in the configuration, while it would run and did mostly map the buttons correctly, the screen tearing and connection drops were so extreme even when leaning against the router that it boggled my mind. Even my Vita handles remote play better than this!
While I assume it would work a lot better for those on an ethernet connection, this I couldn’t have much fun with at all, and the fact that you can’t map the sides of the touchpad (only a simple center push of it, meaning that PS1/PS2 Classics are unplayable as a result) just make this a very experimental tool at best. The reason I even bothered to try Chiaki to begin with, is because Sony’s own streaming tool for Playstation Plus Premium is such a dumpster fire that I couldn’t even get it to boot on my device.
…Which is in huge contrast to Microsoft’s offering, the most impressive of the lot I tried, and a new go-to of mine. Xcloud is able to be configured for Steam Deck thanks to instructions Microsoft themselves put on their website, and it’s bliss. Playing up in my vacation cabin, miles away from my Series X, I was amazed at how some Game Pass titles I dabbled in allowed me to pick up right where I left off on console, leading me to give the classic 1993 Doom a full playthrough on the Steam Deck, in a form most people would consider impractical. The buttons map flawlessly to the Deck, and the streaming quality was the best out of the three services by far. Yes, there’s still input lag, but I was shocked by how it was mitigated enough to the point that I felt controlling these games were a lot better than some of the more input lag heavy retro compilations on consoles.
That being said, I do not recommend you play one of those laggy games on this, as something like Pac-Man Museum+ which suffers from input lag is made even more miserable here. Still, after giving Doom I, Doom II, Quake, and some platformers a shot on this thing, I was proudly hooked, and being able to jump back on my Series X and resume what progress I made on the go was just amazing. Of course, I’ll still prefer native versions from Steam over streaming any day of the week, but with Game Pass being a powerful tool and a lot of XCloud games being rather short, it doesn’t hurt to play through these games on the go, and just further amazed me as what the Steam Deck is capable of.
All in all, I had an extreme amount of hype for the Steam Deck going in, expecting it to be a miracle device that could do nearly anything and make playing PC games much easier. In a lot of ways, it did meet that criteria for me, and is my second most used platform, next to my Switch Lite. (In fact going from the comfortable grip of the Deck back to the tiny lite made buying a grip for the Lite an immediate priority) A ton of windows exclusives, multiplats, fangames/homebrew, and emulation potential are all there, and it’s been great at not only knocking out my personal gaming backlog, but also that of my review queue as well, since yes, this device has helped make playing my Steam Review Queue much, much easier.
However, it definitely isn’t a perfect solution for woes you might have with the Switch, if you were in that camp. Yeah, Steam is cool in that it has Achievements and a more robust online ecosystem, and newer stuff will run better here than on a Switch, but even that weakling of a system has a lot more benefits that led to me playing plenty of my Lite in recent months, too. For starters, cloud saving is much easier on Switch, and the games that don’t support cloud saving can still be transferred to another Switch with relative ease, while on Steam Deck it felt like a roulette whether or not a game would cloud save or not, since it’s all based on the developer, and getting data off this thing is not easy, especially if you’re on a vacation and don’t really have USB-C hubs lying around. (Not to mention even if something without cloud saves was taking up space on your Switch, you can still erase the game and keep your saves, which I hope the deck eventually lets you do one day!) Plus, as a pick up and play device, the Switch is just flat-out faster in a lot of ways, as everything just works without any worries about compatibility and the like.
That all doesn’t mean the Steam Deck isn’t worth your time or money, of course: if you’re a PC gamer that would love to go out with your games or just play on the couch while watching your favorite DVD/Twitch Streamer/Tubi/What have you, then this is still a great piece of tech, and I expect this device to stay in my regular rotation for a long while. If I could turn back time with the knowledge I know now, however, I would definitely have risked a longer wait for the 256GB model, solely to avoid the shader cache woes I had with this thing. Either that gets updated to allow you to move all that bloat to the MicroSD, or you’ll be stuck with rotating games off the device no matter how big of an SD card you cram into this thing, just like I am.
I give The Steam Deck a cautious recommendation. Definitely a great device that’ll open a ton of doors for handheld gaming, but it absolutely does not replace a switch due to the amount of tinkering/extra clunk this device has to offer, along with just how weird the Cloud Saving/FTP/OS situation is at the moment, and how this review could very easily be obsolete in a month or so just from how much Valve is updating and improving the experience.
The fact that at the start of my review process, several helpful additions such as an in-game achievements tab didn’t even exist yet, goes to show that this is a device that’ll be updated all the time. So hopefully, that really awful shader gripe of mine, will be a thing of the past in the near future, and then this rambly review will look like a weird time capsule years from now. Either way, I do enjoy the Steam Deck, and while I would have gone with a bigger model if I knew about the Shader situation, I still plan on enjoying plenty of great games on this device to compliment my Switch.