A funny thing happened a few years back, and I started buying my PC games for the Nintendo Switch. Nintendo's portable became my primary pick for all but the most significant games because it's the place I would finish them. What if there were a PC that I could take with me just as quickly on the go? Now, Steam Deck will slove this question, let's go with me and have a look for Steam Deck together.
The Steam Deck is already sold out through the middle of 2022, and it's not hard to understand why. Valve is promising you can take your entire Steam PC game library with you for roughly the price of an iPad. While it might just look like a thicker Switch with touchpads, there's a lot more going on under the hood. It's got AMD's latest ZEN 2 cores and RDNA 2 graphics cores, the same kind you'd find in the Xbox Series X and PS5, just far fewer of them. In terms of raw oomph, it's slightly less than half as powerful as an Xbox Series S, Microsoft's $300 console, which has to deliver 1440p gameplay to a big screen TV.
Meanwhile, the Steam Deck only has to deliver 720p to a seven-inch touch screen, like the Nintendo Switch. How does that translate to actual games? Well, here's the Witcher 3 running on a Nintendo Switch, and here it is on a seven-inch Aya Neo. This Windows gaming portable comes in at about $700. Now here it is on the Steam Deck. Not only does it easily blow the Switch Port away, I'm running the Witcher 3 at medium spec, a whole graphical tier higher than the Aya Neo can manage. Here's Control, another seriously demanding game, again managing medium spec where other portables struggle to run down low. I'd rather max it out if I could, but it doesn't feel like it'd be a gigantic compromise to take games like this on the road.
There's no question about it, the Steam Deck is a big one, nearly two inches thick at the grips, it weighs half a pound more than the Nintendo Switch, and it's not a thing I'd choose to carry around in my pockets, even though I do wear cargo pants. But it's also bristling with controls that feel like they're in the right places, at least for average-sized hands. With the bulbous Steam controller, I always felt like the grips were digging into the fleshy meat of my palms, but not so much here. I was a little sceptical when I saw the actual size of this thing. It's wide and tall enough you can practically fit the entire Nintendo Switch between its grips. But my fingers just sunk into its ready-made grooves, and I think I might already prefer its soft, easy triggers and meaty thumbsticks over the tight clicky ones on the Switch. The smooth tops of the joysticks do feel like they take a little getting used to. I had to rely on their gripping edges to avoid slipping off. But that flat surface houses a pretty neat trick. When you touch it or the touchpad beneath, you're tripping a capacitive sensor that activates gyroscopic aiming. Just tilt to aim.
That's a feature I loved on the PlayStation Vita, an original Steam controller, and it only took a tiny bit of DOOM Eternal to convince me I'd love it here, too. It's not to say the hardware isn't without its wrinkles, at least at this early stage. Valve warned us the EV-2 units we're testing aren't final build quality, and it shows. The case had a rough seam and looks like it easily scratches near the charging port. I heard something rattling around when I shook one of them. And though Valve has been remarkably open about battery life, promising four hours of Portal 2 on a charge, our unit got a little warm during our roughly hour and a half demo. It looked to be nearly empty by the time we were done. I also don't know whether I'd prefer the etched anti-glare screen that ships with the most expensive configuration of the Deck. It does reduce glare and has a premium silky feel, but like many mad options, it doesn't feel quite as vibrant as the glossy display you get at the 400 and $530 price points. Also, we weren't able to take it outdoors to put it to the test truly. Okay, let's talk about the elephant in the room.
The Steam Deck runs Linux. It comes with Linux in the box. Technically, it's a version of Steam OS, a new version that'll also bring some of its new UI features to other Steam versions. But it's Linux under the hood. Linux means it simply won't run every game in your Steam library out of the box. For the majority of games, you'll be relying on a proton compatibility layer that makes your Windows games work. Even then, some of the biggest games like Fortnight, Destiny 2, Apex Legends, and PUBG are question marks. They rely on anti-cheat software, and Valve has said it'll try to get it in Proton ahead of launch, but it hasn't been sure if it'll work. The good news is the Steam Deck isn't locked to Linux if you want it to be. It's a fully-fledged PC, so if you wanna throw Windows on there, Origin, the Epic Games Store, heck, anything you wanna plug into the USB-C port that would work on a PC or anything you'd wanna connect to the Bluetooth chip. I've got a set of Bluetooth earbuds, and they're going to work with the Steam Deck, unlike the Nintendo Switch.
There's a lot we weren't able to do on our demo, like installing our games, swapping multiple SD cards, or spending quality time creating custom controller configurations to make the most of the Steam Deck's touchpads and rear buttons. I couldn't dive through the new Steam OS as much as I'd like or thoroughly test compatibility. However, I did notice that Dead Cells, typically a pretty easy game to run, felt a bit jerky. I also ran into bugs that Valve warned me I would, like the occasional freeze when stopping or starting apps. Valve's still deciding whether you should be able to swap between more than one game at a time, and this pre-release build doesn't like it when you try. But after seeing how well Valve built and supported the Steam controller, the Steam Link, and the Valve index through their life, it's not hard for me to imagine the wrinkles in these pre-release units getting ironed out.
Valve believes it'll sell millions of Steam Decks and that it may not be alone, suggesting other PC manufacturers may jump on the portable craze, too. It's willing to share its learnings with other companies. The company told me it's looking to license Steam OS for free to interested PC manufacturers. Me, I think Valve just noticed the Switch was eating into its Indie game sales, but I like the idea. I bought one myself. We'll see how it works out. Would you buy a PC gaming portable like this knowing it'll never be quite as powerful as a desktop?