Steam Deck (Console) Review

Steam Deck (Console) Review 23
Steam Deck (Console) Review 28
Steam Deck
Company: Valve
Type: Handheld Console
MSRP: $819
CGM Editors Choice

I don’t regret my choice to break in Valve’s Steam Deck with Call of Duty: Black Ops (2010). Treyarch’s classic shooter hardly gave the handheld gaming system a sweat. It ran perfectly fine at 60 frames with smooth controls and lower wattage to keep gameplay going for hours. Black Ops’ campaign had been a dream of mine to play over a handheld. Nothing was a surprise out of its bite-sized campaign that felt portable.

In fact, Valve’s Steam Deck was something I wished for almost a decade ago. My 14-year-old self glared at the blank screen of a PlayStation Vita console after finishing Call of Duty Black Ops: Declassified. The 2012 shooter wasn’t the first COD to go handheld. But I never forgot nStigate Games and PlayStation’s effort to turn the Vita into a Call of Duty machine. Even if Declassified’s one-hour campaign, bland online multiplayer and a decent Survival mode couldn’t come close to the 2010 shooter.

The Steam Deck fills a void I didn’t know I had for years with handhelds. For the first time, I was excited to be replaying all my games on the go. While I could stop wishing for Call of Duty to hit the Nintendo Switch. Valve didn’t redefine portable gaming. But the corporation only fixed handheld gaming’s technological barriers and delivered on an experience gamers waited a long time for. It just took a bit of a hardware push to seamlessly bring console and full PC games over.

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The Steam Deck isn’t history’s first portable to run AAA (high-budget) console games. Laptops still manage to deliver high-budget PC games. Nintendo gets credit for wish fulfilment by bringing Resident Evil, DOOM and Assassin’s Creed to the Switch handheld. But developers still had to compromise a bit by downsizing games with weaker hardware. The Steam Deck – in nature – is a PC that’s small and powerful enough to play existing games on the go. It’s a simple but much-needed upgrade for portable gaming.

At face value

Valve’s first portable console doesn’t make any bold design choices. Instead, the Steam Deck takes on a traditional “candy bar” layout. But it’s a familiar sight that follows the likes of Nintendo Switch, Game Boy, PlayStation Vita and (dare I say) Wii-U controller. The device also sticks to black with a matte finish that feels premium. For a $900 CAD video game handheld with console-level hardware, it’s surprisingly thin. The sleek frame is built around a beautiful and glossy 7-inch diagonal LCD screen.  At 117mm x 29mm x 50.5mm, the Deck feels much bigger than a Switch console. While the device stands on two prolonged handles that also house its customizable back bumpers.

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I’ll admit to failing hard to stuff the Steam Deck in my back pocket. The system still packs nicely in luggage, backpacks and even carry-ons for trips. Owners might be surprised at just how gargantuan the Steam Deck looks and feels next to more compact handhelds. Over a few weeks, the Deck felt harder to put down and also easier to pack with its included hard case. I was shocked by just how light the Steam Deck was at 1.5 pounds, which made longer sessions easier without my arms wearing down.

Valve simply gives players maximum convenience with their libraries. In the same way the Nintendo Switch seamlessly lets users take their games, only the Steam Deck gets to scream, “name it and take it with you.”

Punchy, Powerful, Portable

On paper, Valve has engineered one of the most powerful handheld systems to date. It’s a delight to see Steam Deck show this through hardware specs to back it up. The Steam Deck packs a custom AMD Zen 2 processor that runs up to 3.5 GHz. I expected nothing short of a CPU that matches – at times passing – the PS4’s 2.75 GHz speeds. This worked wonders for running the latest AAA PC games without a full gaming PC or PS5. But also deliver smoother gaming experiences when players go further back in time with their libraries. It’s astonishing to see how Marvel’s Spider-Man Remastered translates so well from PlayStation’s 2014 console to the Steam Deck.

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The Steam Deck comes with a surprisingly big GPU for console-level graphics to-go. It actually shares the same AMD RDNA 2 architecture that powers PS5 and Xbox Series X games. This next-gen addition lets Valve’s portable keep up with upcoming games as they show up on Steam’s storefront. While players can appreciate the Deck’s working results from eight cores that run up to 1.6 GHz (as opposed to the PS5’s 2.23 GHz speeds). It’s still enough to make some of the most demanding games beatable away from home. The handheld more than stands on its own for playing AAA games at launch. Here, PC versions run surprisingly well over the Steam Deck’s Linux platform.

Grabbing a Byte.

At 512GB, the Steam Deck’s most expensive version easily runs out of space after installing heavy hitters like Halo Infinite, Black Ops III, GTA V and The Master Chief Collection. There’s only so much room going around for a handful of AAA games that can take up to 100GBs. Valve luckily gives users plenty of options, including an M.2 NVME (which requires a full reinstall of SteamOS) or MicroSD card upgrade. After clicking in a 1TB MicroSD card, my Deck was able to store over 30 games. While older games with smaller file sizes can help add to a portable collection.

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Valve has also packed the Deck with a generous 16 GBs of DDR5 RAM. This added measure pays off with less waiting when switching or even multitasking between games. There’s a good problem to be had with older games loading faster than you can read the on-screen tips.

Taking control

Valve has taken liberties for the most accessible controls I’ve ever used on a handheld. Try to imagine an Xbox Elite Controller having a baby with the Nintendo Switch. The Deck is built around a roomy twin-stick layout that feels comfortable over long sessions. Its fully-sized analog sticks make the Deck more than ready to be a first-person shooter machine. Valve makes the dual sticks a staple, like what the PlayStation Vita did for handheld shooters (fun fact: Resistance Burning Skies is the first portable twin-stick shooter ever made).

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The Deck’s biggest design feature includes bigger controller-style grips on the base. These feel great to cradle with, and I was able to play all day without any signs of cramping. More importantly, the console’s matte texture helps maintain grip and even feels snug over time.

Xbox and PC’s ABXY button layout is appropriately incorporated. Naturally, the Steam Deck uses gamepad support for most PC games. Titles without it aren’t even a problem, thanks to full keyboard mapping.

Like the Xbox Elite Controller, Steam Deck packs its own pro features. My favourite one includes four back customizable back buttons. Personally, I set these as shortcuts for the face buttons, so my thumbs never leave the sticks. The Steam Deck also brings in the same touch haptics from Valve Index. This adds extra functions players can customize by touching the screen, touchpads and analog sticks. The more obvious haptics come from two touch panels on each stick. While players can treat the touchpad like a laptop trackpad when it’s needed for PC settings, strategy games and Chrome. The Steam Deck leaves plenty of options for players to tweak usability as well as looks. But great hardware can’t solve software problems.

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SteamOS is serviceable as a Linux system. Valve has made its menus clean, easy to read and navigate with a touch screen. The touchscreen is easily the Steam Deck’s biggest pain to use. Depending on the action, its screen can teeter on being too sensitive or unresponsive. I can’t stand typing with it across search engines, browsers and the file manager from hit-or-miss feedback. The Steam Deck’s gargantuan 7-inch display doesn’t help with thumbs struggling to reach the middle keys. Only the bravest players can try The Typing of the Dead or Google Docs with Steam Deck’s lacklustre keyboard.

Leaving the backdoor open

Valve still knows the Steam Deck is a gaming PC. SteamOS comes bundled with a pretty handy desktop mode that doesn’t look too far off from Windows. The only caveat comes with not running exe files without adding a non-Steam game to its library. Switching between the default gaming and desktop modes are also delightfully fast. Desktop mode is a highly accessible way to manage files and use the full Steam app. After some practice, it became easy to move the trackpad pointer and use the Deck like a portable computer beyond gaming.

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It’s especially awesome to see Valve cater to other developers who can use the open-source Linux system to develop apps. While I was surprised to find a number of emulators that could be installed and played. Valve deserves credit for making the Steam Deck an accessible platform that users and devs can tinker with. Of course, this helps grow the Steam Deck’s possibilities for new users over time.

Optimization (bench)marks the spot

The Steam Deck feels even more rewarding to use for older comfort games. Players can use the newer hardware to their advantage for peak performance over games like Metal Gear Solid V, Titanfall 2 and Doom Eternal. This includes in-game settings that can be tweaked for visuals and performance. The aforementioned classics, like Black Ops (2010), have no problem above 60 frames at max settings. Here, only 43 percent of the CPU was used. While the GPU barely broke a sweat at 60 percent under load.

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The console is far from perfect, as it needs to pick up after many untested games. Valve’s own Deck Verified games help users sort out their libraries from janky to playable. But I highly urge new owners to go on an adventure and try all the games in their collection. Users should expect that not every game can run at a stable 60. While older games without any more support might be harder to manage on Deck without proper optimization.

Visceral Games’ Dead Space 3 was one of the older games that astonished me the most since it works so well over any PC hardware. The game was capable of pushing past 144 frames. I was delighted to live out my dreams of playing a portable Halo. The Master Chief Collection is a perfect fit from six older games that look and feel great on handheld. Original settings were used as an added measure for performance. Its PC optimizations help the Steam Deck churn out a buttery smooth 60 frames that’s astonishing to see. Valve’s console impressively leverages the CPU at almost 70% usage.

All hands on… Nevermind

The Steam Deck isn’t afraid to punch above its weight for newer games. Lots of expectations are riding on a handheld designed for the future. Players will finally see the potential of AAA games going everywhere. Valve doesn’t play around with specs that essentially turn the latest AAA titles portable. At low to medium settings, CDPR’s RPG plays like a dream Switch game. Our benchmark saw the GPU and CPU at full usage. With the help of dynamic resolution, Cyberpunk even reached 60 frames when tackling indoor settings. Outside Night City, the Steam Deck starts to buckle at a respectable 45 frames or less.

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It wouldn’t be fair to expect the game to run at high frame rates at over 720p. After all, Cyberpunk 2077 still shows some bumps in performance over bigger PCs and consoles. But Cyberpunk 2077’s patches still help the Steam Deck. Players will be astonished to see the game playable from start to finish without much buckling under 30 frames. Cyberpunk absolutely feels like a behemoth to have as a portable game, and Valve’s handheld is easily my new favourite way to play.

Action-adventure games like Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order feel just as impressive to see on Steam Deck. Even on a smaller screen, Cal Kestis’ journey is presented without losing its scale. At the same time, its seamless “Metroidvania” level design feels like a bigger fit for handheld devices. The handheld’s 800p resolution can also be tweaked with dynamic resolution for a no-frills performance, and I delightfully coasted through levels at an average of 45 frames.

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Capcom has done plenty to deliver Resident Evil for Switch players. But the Steam Deck’s PC-based hardware benefits players thanks to stellar optimization. Resident Evil 2 and Village are satisfying to see as portable titles. Capcom’s own photorealistic RE Engine is even capable of staying consistent at 60 frames with low to medium settings. The Deck’s Gyro features are an absolute joy to use when lining up headshots at zombies. Here, Capcom’s new Resident Evil games take advantage of the Deck’s hardware in ways that feel exclusive.

Yes: the Steam Deck runs Grand Theft Auto V. Valve has granted a particular wish by making it work almost flawlessly at low to medium settings. With almost every GTA title readily playable, it’s easily the Steam Deck’s best showcase. From start to finish, Rockstar’s full-fledged open-world game feels surreal over a handheld. GTA V’s expansive vision of Los Santos runs beautifully at an average of 60 frames. Players can customize GTA V to run as smoothly as possible – making it one of the best excuses for revisiting it.

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Valve’s Deck Verified features are an exciting feature to see as old and new games grow the list. Owners might be gratified at the possibilities of playing Elden Ring, Deathloop and Red Dead Redemption 2 without waiting on a port. As more AAA PC games come and developers keep the Deck in mind, owners have more reasons to be excited.

Battery Buzzkill

But sadly, not all of its hardware power can fix problems that hold portable gaming back. Like the Nintendo Switch, Valve’s Deck is hampered by short battery life. The highest possible settings for games like GTA V, Arkham Knight and Cyberpunk can even drain the battery in two hours or less This is because the Steam Deck carries a 40WH (watt hour) 5,313-mAh battery. Valve’s hardware easily puts the Switch to shame for performance. But Nintendo’s hybrid console still stays ahead for five to six hours of playtime.

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Owners will unfortunately have to keep their chargers close by and put up with low battery messages. Users can also cut down on some in-game settings for juice. Thermal Power (TDP) Limit makes the CPU weaker and limits the watts used with a cost of performance. The Manual GPU Clock Control lets players hold graphical performance back to buy more time. Turning on each of these settings can add an extra hour of battery. But owners paying top dollar shouldn’t have to cut down on the Deck’s potential for a battery with decent playtime.

Interestingly, Valve’s handheld feels even more rewarding for players enjoying older games for as long as three to four hours. Lowering the frame rate can be done through shortcuts to significantly boost playtime. As long as players don’t mind a playable 30fps, the Steam Deck can be a worthy companion outdoors. On a completely empty charge, it took 90 minutes or less to fully juice up before it was fully mobile again. Sadly, the Steam Deck is a handheld that can only be cable-free for hours at a time.

Connect, download, wait, repeat

I had no problems using blazingly fast 5GHz networks to install games on the Deck. Steam libraries can be instantly accessed for an overwhelming amount of games to start downloading.

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Since Steam is a digital platform, players also have to download other launchers. Eyes will roll for Max Payne 3 and GTA V, which require the Rockstar Games launcher to play. Jedi Fallen Order and Star Wars Battlefront II players can’t jump into the portable goodness without EA’s dreaded Origin launcher. Steam Deck users will be caught up in a frustrating whirlwind of logins, two-factor authentication drills and recalling passwords. Even worse, some games that are fully playable can still be unsupported without launchers. Titles like Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Future Soldier is unplayable without the dated Ubisoft Game Launcher. Valve’s magic console suddenly starts to be at the mercy of DRMs and broken launchers.

Not first, but right

I grew up hoping every new handheld would finally mimic consoles. But a controller and TV were still anchors for gaming’s biggest hits. Pixels or specially made titles that “supplemented” the real deal couldn’t quite fill the void whenever I was away from the TV. Valve’s Steam Deck didn’t just grant an awfully specific wish of playing Modern Warfare 3 on my porch outside. It also breathed new life into a backlog I could play differently.

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The Steam Deck feels like the very first true portable console that gamers have been waiting a lifetime for. A number of handheld gaming PCs have already hit the market to bring AAA titles anywhere. While Valve sets the record straight for a handheld system that runs full games efficiently and feels fun to play. Of course, Valve also directly gives players direct access to their online catalogue anywhere.

More importantly, the Steam Deck isn’t a proof of concept. While the Deck adds a new and exciting way to revisit my backlog with convenience. There’s still a bit of development to go before Steam opens its console up to more players. While Steam’s existing online platform’s third-party support is a perfect place to start for true handheld gaming.

Final Thoughts

REVIEW SCORE

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