Last edited 4/11/23: Added impressions of a recent graphically intensive game, Hogwarts Legacy.
The Steam Deck is a bold device that aims to make your Steam library truly mobile. Not just streamed through your PC to your mobile device or TV like before, the Steam Deck is a true handheld PC. Last week, I got one for myself, and am pretty impressed.
I mean, that should have been evident already. The title of this article is ‘Steam Deck Impressions’, not ‘Steam Deck Depressions’.
I ended up getting the most expensive model. The three models have the same specs with the exception of storage and storage speed (the most expensive model also has an upgraded non-reflective screen). The cheapest model has 64 GB of space, the middle model has 256 GB, and the most expensive model has 512 GB of space. The latter two use SSDs for their storage. All models also have a micro SD slot at the bottom for expanded storage, but this will not be quite as fast as the base storage. Also, a single modern game can quite easily consume 50 GB or so by itself – keep that in mind when choosing.
The device itself is larger than I was expecting after seeing screenshots. It resembles a Nintendo Switch but is larger, and provides a more controller-like grip for comfort. I was pleased that it was more comfortable to use than the Steam Controller of years past, THAT controller was larger and a bit more unwieldy than pretty much every other controller I had ever used. The grips are a bit smaller on the Deck, and I generally need to reach less for the controls. We have a d-pad and face buttons, two thumbsticks, two trackpads, L1/L2/R1/R2 shoulder buttons, L3/L4/R3/R4 buttons on the back, a touchscreen, and even gyroscopic controls (not sure if any game would use the latter, but hey, it’s there) for input. So you have your gamepad covered, as well as games that tend to use a mouse (trackpad or touchscreen). If you’re still lacking, the system has Bluetooth – connect all the extra peripherals you want!
As you may have noticed in the screenshots above, the only USB port is one USB-C port at the top of the unit. You’ll most often use it for power, but you can also connect other things to it (I was able to connect the Deck to an external monitor and the Deck auto-displayed on it). There’s also an official dock sold, which gives you plenty of additional ports – HDMI, USB, DisplayPort, and Ethernet connections. With that dock (or any other USB-C dock you can get, the Deck should run with all of them) you can even have a Nintendo Switch-like setup on the TV, although you may have to make performance modifications to run well with a (much) larger screen. More about that later.
The UI here is somewhat similar to Steam running in Big Picture mode. You’ll have access to every facet of Steam that you would have in Big Picture – your game library, the store, your friends list and community, etc. You can sign into your Steam account and start downloading your games pretty easily.
Not ALL Steam games are supported, but many of them are. Steam Deck works by using Proton, a Valve-created compatibility layer for Windows games on Linux, since many games are not made natively for Linux. In the store, you’ll find Valve themselves put Deck ratings on store games. ‘Verified’ games are fully functional with a great experience on Deck. ‘Playable’ games may have one or two things that make for a slightly lesser experience, but these are usually exceedingly small technicalities like ‘this game has small text on Deck’, ‘this game requires use of the touchscreen for it’s launcher’, or ‘this game doesn’t start with the correct resolution’. Things that generally wouldn’t prevent you from playing, and are usually quite easy to dismiss. ‘Unsupported’ games generally have more significant issues that may get in your way (but may still be playable, I’ll explain this later), and ‘Untested’ games are just that – untested. They may work, they may not. You can easily filter your library by these categories.
Now, what to do when your favorite game is untested or unsupported? Have no fear, at least not yet anyway! There are unofficial websites like https://www.protondb.com/ and https://sharedeck.games/ that have user testimonials on how good these games work – and how you can get many unsupported games working! Take one of my unsupported games – Ys Origin. Exploring these sites tells you that the only real problem is that the opening/closing scenes are black on the Deck, and you can fix it by installing a new version of Proton yourself, a process that takes maybe three minutes. Then you’re good to go! Other examples include Sonic Adventure DX, an unsupported game which some say should actually be rated Playable, and The Sims 3, which is rated ‘unsupported’ but actually works out of the box, albeit with small text. So it’s pretty easy to do some quick legwork and find out if the games Valve tells you are unsupported ACTUALLY are unsupported or not. And, over time, Photon itself will be upgraded, allowing more and more games to run flawlessly on Deck.
As mentioned earlier, the Steam Deck is a true handheld PC. Long-press the power button on the top of the machine for an options menu, which includes the option to switch to ‘desktop mode’, a fully functional Linux OS. You can install anything you can get your hands on, and there’s even a discovery ‘store’ added to the taskbar by default where you can download utilities, programs, and games (SRB2, anyone?). Including, yes, web browsers. You can even install Windows here if you want. Steam does provide instructions for going down that route, but unlike the standard Linux setup, Windows is not supported beyond the ‘as-is’ instructions given, and many gamers would probably tell you not to bother with it anyway. It is an option, though.
Can you, say, install Skyrim mods? Yes you can! I was able to carry over my PC mod setup thanks to this video. While it’s not quite as simple as using Vortex to manage your mod library, it does work. Simply put, you install all your desired mods on your PC, use some type of file transfer method to get them on your Deck (I used the Warpinator tool for this), and then replace your Deck install with your PC install, mods included. I did some brief testing and it did indeed work!
Okay, so… how do the games perform on the device? Surprisingly good! One of the biggest draws of the Steam Deck is its ability to play even the most recent games. Now, with those you likely wouldn’t be playing at the highest settings (the Steam Deck sits at around 720p resolution), but you can indeed take the latest games on the go.
Older games, such as Sonic Adventure 2 or Tales of Symphonia, work flawlessly. Sonic Adventure 2 runs at a buttery smooth 60 fps, and the Deck can last significantly longer while playing, up to the Deck’s maximum 7-8 hours. More graphically demanding games like Final Fantasy XIII, Skyrim, and Sonic Generations (all games from around 10 years ago at this point) will see shorter battery life, 2-4 hours. Skyrim gets about 30-40 fps while in the open world, and I’ve seen 60 fps inside buildings. Sonic Generations got 60 fps in Green Hill Zone Act 2 (an impressive feat, I think), but fps varied wildly in Chemical Plant Zone Act 2.
As for a new game like Hogwarts Legacy (whose minimum specs for 720p, 30 fps involve a GTX 960/Radeon RX 470 graphics card, 16 GB of RAM, and an i5-6600/Ryzen 5 1400 processor), it runs pretty well on the Deck. The game, even though it runs at 30 fps and at low graphical settings, is pretty visually impressive and is leaps and bounds beyond anything I’ve seen the Switch do.
To optimize your framerate/battery power, you of course have the graphical settings that many games already offer, but you can also change some settings through the system, as noted in the screenshot below. To do this, you can press the button with three dots on the right side of the Deck at any time. You can adjust the framerate, the refresh rate, the battery usage limit, and more. You also have access to various in-game overlays so you know exactly how much FPS you’re getting. You can set these at the system-wide level, or by specific games.
All in all, I’m pretty pleased with what the Deck offers, the performance-tweaking community that has embraced it, and the continual improvements Valve is making to the Deck and Proton, although again, my experience has tended to older games. But if Steam Deck advertisements and ratings are anything to go by, you should have a good experience with newer games too, albeit with lesser battery life. Please let me know if you have a question or want me to confirm something about the Deck – I’ll do my best!