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Steam Deck: The comprehensive Ars Technica review


Enlarge / The Steam Deck has arrived.
Sam Machkovech

The Steam Deck, the new $399-and-up Switch-like PC made by Valve, sometimes feels like the most impressive portable gaming system ever made. But it’s also not finished.

Like other hot electronics in 2022, Valve’s first bespoke PC launch—which resembles a supersized Game Gear but is, at its heart, a Linux PC—is limited by a strained supply chain and an ongoing chip shortage. But if you’d like to feel better about missing the Deck’s first wave of preorders, or seeing a delayed shipping estimate of “Q2 2022” and beyond for new orders, this review is for you.

Produced by Sean Dacanay. Transcript available soon.

When the Steam Deck works as intended, it’s easily the best Nintendo Switch-like PC on the market. Its processing power, build quality, software flexibility, and Linux-to-Windows wizardry can breathe new life into (some of) your PC gaming back catalog. The Deck beats all other PC and Android options in this space. The right game, running at a smooth 30 fps with visual bells and whistles enabled (or 60 fps when possible), might even convince you to put your Switch into storage.

As a first-generation piece of hardware, the Steam Deck looks good, feels sturdy, and performs well (especially given its base price of $399). But the software side of the Deck is currently rough.

The Deck’s bugs, quirks, and outright failures stand in stark contrast to the Switch. In too many situations where the Nintendo Switch “just works,” you may find yourself saying to the Deck, “Just work, please!”

Windows and Linux support

Enlarge / A tighter zoom on the Steam Deck.
Sam Machkovech

One of the biggest caveats to this review is that the Deck currently lacks one potential selling point: compatibility with Windows 10. After providing Ars Technica with review hardware, Valve confirmed that certain Windows drivers for the Steam Deck were not ready. That remained the case as I wrapped up this review.

While I had the option to dual-boot Windows 10 and Linux during the review period, it didn’t feel fair to do so without full OS-level support for things like the CPU, the GPU, and audio playback. We’ll take a closer look at the Steam Deck’s Windows 10 experience once drivers are ready, but based on what I’ve found with the device’s built-in fork of Linux, I’m not confident that using Windows 10 will be a smooth experience.

Speaking of Linux, I’ve moved my testing of the Deck’s version of Arch Linux into a separate article. Can you go into the command line and install whatever you want? Can you bring Linux apps into SteamOS? Do you love Flatpak? Click here to dive into that stuff.

A history primer: Why the heck is Valve releasing a Linux PC?

Enlarge / Valve provided this image of various Steam Deck prototypes made over the years in its skunkworks labs.
Valve

The Steam Deck is Valve’s first stab at creating its own PC form factor. That separates the Deck from “Steam Machines,” i.e., desktop gaming PCs that Valve consulted on but didn’t produce. Both concepts arose from the same premise: make the massive ecosystem of Steam games work on non-Windows machines—and without requiring that Steam game devs patch or update their existing code.

In 2012, Valve co-founder Gabe Newell lambasted Microsoft’s increasingly draconian approach to software installation on Windows. At the time, Microsoft’s public statements and development efforts suggested that a “closed garden” might come to Windows—which, among other things, would threaten Valve’s ability to freely sell games on millions of PCs.

Fast-forward a full decade, and Valve has a much cozier relationship with Microsoft’s gaming division. (At press time, Microsoft has committed to Steam simul-launches for most of Microsoft’s major Xbox games. Last year, Valve even went to the trouble of sending Xbox head Phil Spencer his own prerelease Steam Deck.) Yet Valve still likes the idea of gaming PCs that can run games from its Steam storefront without needing Windows.

This probably boils down to money. Valve has already sunk years of work and tons of cash into its Steam Proton initiative, which combines a Wine compatibility layer and appropriate drivers to boot Windows games inside of Linux. If Valve can get most of Steam’s popular games running on the Deck without paying a per-device Windows license fee, the company could make out like a bandit—or, at the very least, keep the Deck’s launch prices down.

History primer, continued: A perfect SteamPal storm

Enlarge / Another peek at Steam Deck pre-release prototypes, as officially provided by Valve.
Valve

As I exclusively reported in May of last year, Valve had been toying with a device resembling the Steam Deck for years. The idea was inspired in part by small, powerful SoC (system-on-chip) rollouts from the likes of AMD and Intel. Chinese OEMs like GPD Win and Aya began integrating these SoCs into Switch-like chassis and releasing solid (if expensive) systems, yet Western manufacturers hadn’t followed suit. Alienware teased its own Switch-like PC in early 2020, only to go silent on the idea after COVID dominated the news cycle.

Before the Deck (originally codenamed SteamPal), Valve had been locking down its manufacturing pipeline by releasing increasingly complicated devices over the years. These devices ranged from a streaming box to a custom gamepad to a professional-grade VR system. During that time, the skunkworks teams at Valve’s headquarters in Bellevue, Washington, worked on increasingly ambitious ideas—some of which I’m intimately familiar with but doubt will ever see a formal launch. Even SteamPal entered developmental limbo at Valve HQ before getting picked up again as a viable project.

Steam Proton had made significant progress in terms of game compatibility. Compact x64 computing architecture had matured in ways that could viably deliver legitimate, battery-efficient 3D PC gaming on the go. Valve had established a decent track record for every step of the physical manufacturing process, which included crucial testing on handheld devices (like the cult-favorite Steam Controller and the immaculate Valve Index Controller). Valve therefore was primed to deliver a portable, powerful, comfortable, and affordable PC that no other company could match.

Build quality: Steam Deck melts into hands

Enlarge / Xbox-like curves on the grips.
Sam Machkovech

The resulting device, officially dubbed the Steam Deck, was originally slated to ship to preorder customers by the end of 2021. According to sources familiar with the system’s development, the rollout was delayed at least in part thanks to feedback about the Deck’s physical components. The feedback was gathered after Valve sent early hardware to developers responsible for some of Steam’s most popular games. (Those shipments became an open secret once Valve’s official Steam Deck social media account began tweeting devs’ humblebrags about owning early Deck hardware.)

Whatever feedback those devs gave about the Deck’s physical aspects appears to have paid off. The device is by no means an ergonomic slam dunk, but it’s quite nice.

The mere act of picking up a Steam Deck before playing any games feels decidedly “melty.” Wrap your hands around this Xbox-like pair of grips, and every finger lands in the perfect place.

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Crucially, thumbs can find the d-pad, the joysticks, and the buttons via a sensible radial arrangement, and these all feel solid. The “ABXY” array resembles the same buttons on beloved Xbox One gamepads in terms of size and button travel. The d-pad is mushier than it is clicky, yet it still delivers a clear sense of directionality during frantic tapping. (Remember, unlike the Nintendo Switch’s Joy-Cons, the Deck features an actual d-pad.) And the joysticks are absolutely robust, up there with the Xbox Elite Gamepad in terms of travel, tension, and sensitivity.

While the system is noticeably heavy—150 percent the weight of a standard Nintendo Switch—its weight is distributed evenly enough to be almost unnoticeable, at least while you’re playing. To feel what I’m talking about, pick up and hold a Steam Deck with only one hand for a few seconds, which feels unwieldy, then grab the other handle. As settled into a pair of hands, Deck feels sturdy, not overly dense—arguably because it gives middle, ring, and pinky fingers room to brace the system without cramping one another.

Trackpad talk: Valve’s best yet, if you’re into that sort of thing

Enlarge / A closer look at Steam Deck’s right-side trackpad, along with a clear look at the height and build quality of the ABXY button array.
Sam Machkovech

Are you a big fan of Steam Controller’s pair of trackpads? If so, the Deck is absolutely for you, as this concept has returned—and it’s better than ever. (If you’re unfamiliar, catch up by revisiting our Steam Controller review.) The Deck’s version of trackpads includes the same mix of high sensitivity, mild haptic feedback, and trackball emulation, which allows a thumb to carefully nudge a mouse pointer or rapidly spin the viewport in a first-person shooter.

The only real change is that the trackballs now demand much less space on the gamepad portion of the controller, yet they somehow feel more precise. The sensation comes from a carefully engineered combination of haptic feedback and glide-friendly plastic. That means every unit of movement triggers a tiny rumble against your thumb. I’ve come to look forward to moments when a game supports a mouse pointer, because this touch-and-movement system stimulates my brain in a funky way.

That being said, I’ve never been a trackball aficionado in frantic video games, and my weeks of testing the Steam Deck didn’t change my mind. This is a better trackpad, but it’s still a trackpad.

There’s also the weirdness of the left-side trackpad not being useful in practice, at least for trackpad novices. I would have preferred that Valve break some fans’ hearts and nix the left-side trackpad in favor of something else, especially since the Deck’s screen already supports 10-point capacitive touch. How many touch-friendly surfaces does a handheld gaming system need?

Downside: A ho-hum screen

Enlarge / An off-screen shot of the Steam Deck’s screen. This isn’t necessarily indicative of its quality or color reproduction since I didn’t snap it in a well-controlled environment.
Sam Machkovech

The screen is the system’s biggest heartbreak, at least on the hardware side. As a control option, Deck’s touchscreen is tough to recommend in unoptimized software. This headache is familiar to anyone who has tapped around a touch-unfriendly app on a Windows touchscreen—but even in those cases, a tap of the finger usually touches something larger than a single pixel at a time. Depending on the game, the Deck’s incredibly narrow touch radius ranges from tolerable to maddening.

The Deck’s LCD panel also disappoints thanks to its somewhat washed-out color reproduction and its obvious light bleed. I wouldn’t call the panel a disaster. It keeps high-motion issues like pixel ghosting to a minimum and maxes out at 500 nits of brightness, which is serviceable enough for outdoor play on a sunny day. But the screen certainly isn’t up to the color reproduction on the default Switch configuration, let alone the handsomely upgraded Switch OLED. And this cost-saving panel isn’t compatible with variable refresh rates (VRR).

Enlarge / Duck, Deck, goose. Also, an example of how the Deck’s screen can look on an incredibly bright day in direct sunlight.
Sam Machkovech

The Deck’s screen ultimately feels like a place where Valve cut corners to save cash, and I wish the system included an option to spend an extra $100 for more screen quality.

Downside: Button placement nitpicks

The fact that the Steam Deck’s controls feel better than a stock Nintendo Switch isn’t surprising, since Joy-Cons are famously dinky. But Valve’s configuration isn’t perfect. I was still able to burn through puzzle-y delights like Tetris and Lumines on the Deck, but my left palm didn’t quite cradle the controller when my thumb was aligned with the d-pad.

The Deck’s ABXY array is arguably less comfortable than the d-pad—at least for anyone who, like me, places a thumb diagonally over all four buttons. Maybe Valve’s testers prefer to directly cover the Y and A buttons with their thumbs, but my muscle memory is aligned with SNES and all gamepads that followed: my thumb is the river that divides the nations of “XA” and “YB.” Holding the Deck like this requires additional space between the hardware and the right palm.

Enlarge / I like the analog trigger button (here, “L2”) on Deck, but I can’t say the same for the bumper button (“L1”), which is recessed ever so slightly behind a thin bit of plastic.
Sam Machkovech

The Deck’s pair of analog triggers are top notch, with minimal tension and a short-yet-healthy amount of analog travel. The bumpers, on the other hand, are slightly blocked by a piece of plastic molding, at least as compared to similar orientations on Xbox and PlayStation gamepads. For some Deck users, this millimeter-long gap may go entirely unnoticed, but I generally access bumper buttons (LB/RB on Xbox, L1/R1 on PlayStation) with the middle pads of my index fingers, not the fingertips. Deck’s design isn’t optimized for my fingers’ middle pads to slide from the bumpers to the triggers and back.

I’m a fan of the joysticks’ size, rotation, and clickiness, but be warned: they match the optional “higher-tension” setting on the Xbox Elite Gamepad (as accessed by lifting Elite’s joystick heads and rotating a small lock). By default, Xbox gamepads feel looser than this, and the additional thumb tension can add up over hours of virtual adventures. If you can walk into a brick-and-mortar store and sample an Xbox Elite Gamepad, you can see the difference for yourself by toying with Elite’s joystick-tension adjustments. My smaller-handed friends don’t like this Deck aspect as much as I do.

Downside: First-gen “grip” buttons need a revision

Enlarge / The Steam Deck’s backside grip buttons.
Sam Machkovech

Yet we all agree that the four buttons (two per hand) placed on the system’s grips don’t quite cut it. By default, your middle and ring fingertips will land on top of these buttons, and for some players, the best part about them is that it’s very difficult to accidentally touch them.

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Should you want to use them, however, you have a problem. Their resistance is so firm, and their size is so big, that they demand more force than a smaller, more passive ABXY button—and they must be pressed by fingers that aren’t as comfortably braced or traditionally used to gamepad buttons.

Enlarge / A closer look at Steam Deck’s grip buttons.
Sam Machkovech

Again, going back to the Xbox Elite Gamepad, its own series of grip buttons are a wonderfully engineered system that hinges on small, clicky triggers—which attach magnetically and can be removed. I understand why detachable triggers aren’t ideal, but even 8Bitdo nailed its own pass at grip buttons with last year’s Pro 2 Gamepad, which errs on the side of the buttons being a bit too easy to press and has them disabled by default. Steam Deck should have copied 8Bitdo’s solution, and I’m hopeful Valve revises the grip buttons in future Steam Deck models.

A gyro surprise: The motion in the Deck’s ocean

Enlarge / The Steam Deck beside its carrying case.
Sam Machkovech

Gyroscopic controls in video games used to be limited to features like the Wii waggle, but that situation has changed in recent years, thanks to support for a mix of motion and joystick controls in popular Switch and PlayStation games. Combining joystick control with granular wrist adjustments is arguably as close as console players can get to mouse-like precision. In great news, the Deck packs in modern gyro controls on day one—and adds a novel party trick to the concept.

You have to activate gyro controls on a per-game basis. The toggle includes an option to have gyro turn on only when a finger is on the Deck’s touch-sensitive joysticks or touchpad. With this option selected, you can pick up and put down your Deck while a game is active without motion controls bouncing your view all over the place. As soon as you rest your thumb on a joystick or touchpad, motion control will return. Lift your thumb off, and the motion control turns off.

It’s neat! Since getting my Deck, I’ve started toggling this feature on to work on the left-side joystick so that motion control is on when I’m running around in a shooter yet turns off if I’m standing still to focus my aim. You’ll likely want to test out the feature on all of the Deck’s joysticks and touchpads to decide whether it’s right for you.

The Deck’s gyroscopic sensitivity is nicely tuned by default, and it includes a per-game slider to tune not only the sensitivity, but also motion-acceleration curves on both the x- and y-axis. The built-in sensors parse lateral and curved motion equally well, meaning that the Deck adapts to how you move instead of expecting you to follow a rote movement model.

Best-in-class speakers, so-so “rumble”

Enlarge / The Steam Deck inside its default case.
Sam Machkovech

Valve’s work on the Index VR system included a labor of sound-engineering love, with the company producing a pair of float-above-the-ears speakers designed to deliver positional 3D audio without touching users’ heads. These wacky orbs are possibly my favorite thing about Valve Index (and I love a lot about Valve Index). In great news, the Deck gets similarly brilliant built-in speakers.

Deck owners can test the speakers by playing a 5.1 surround demonstration file on the device. This is the clearest way to recognize the frequency trickery that the Deck’s speakers use to send sound toward your ears. The speakers do a good job of separating the sound coming from, say, the front-right from sound coming from the rear-left. The Deck doesn’t deliver the utter precision of dome-like, 360-degree audio, but it’s quite close. Also, to get the most out of this effect, I recommend turning down or disabling in-game music whenever possible, as the Deck’s speakers don’t produce nearly as much low-end boom as the orbs on Valve Index do. Once a sound mix gets too crowded, picking out directional audio becomes much tougher.

Speaking of “boom,” Valve opted to err on the side of wimpy haptic feedback in games with “rumble” features. It’s unclear whether Valve made this decision to save money on cheaper haptic motors or if it ran out of space in the Deck’s crowded interior. Either way, I hope that a second-gen Deck will have better rumble support across the board. Still, this seems like a more forgivable first-gen fumble than, say, short-shrifting the joysticks would be.

Unlike the software side of the Deck, of course, the system’s feel in the hands is locked down—unless, of course, you use Valve’s published schematics to 3D print your own plastic-molding tweaks. Ultimately, though, I am pleased with how the Deck’s controls feel across a large variety of software. I’ve never used a portable console with joysticks this fantastic, and the rest of the system’s buttons, weight distribution, and general melt-in-the-palms sensation make for a better experience than that seen in my prior portable console favorite, the PlayStation Vita. Think of the above nitpicks as a wishlist for an eventual Deck 2 as opposed to a series of dealbreakers.

The Deck’s shaky power-and-battery relationship

Before moving into the software half of the Steam Deck, there are two major hardware considerations to sum up: processing power and battery life.

Official Deck specs, as provided by Valve.
Valve

The Steam Deck’s power draw maxes out at 15 W, which the system splits between a four-core CPU that maxes out at 3.5 GHz and an eight compute-unit GPU that runs at a maximum boost clock of 1.6 GHz. For much of our testing phase, the Deck tended to draw near-max power by default—which, among other things, kicked the Deck’s cooling fans into high gear while the system was doing little more than downloading update data. (When the fans turn on, you can expect roughly 35 dB of fan noise—a somewhat typical noise level to other modern, Switch-like x64 PCs but much louder than the efficient, lower-powered Switch itself.)

At the 14-day mark of our review testing period, Valve pushed a system update accounting for how much power was needed to get games running at target frame rates, which Deck owners can set to either 60 fps (the default) or 30 fps. Should a game fail to reach either target frame rate, the hardware will typically run near the 15 W maximum—and it usually devotes more of that wattage to the GPU than the CPU because of how 3D game performance usually leans on the graphics side to achieve higher frame rates.

More official Deck specs, as provided by Valve.
Sam Machkovech

What kind of battery life can you expect, then? At near-max settings, the recently launched PC version of Monster Hunter Rise, which runs quite efficiently on PC thanks to its designed-for-Switch assets, sustains a frame rate close to 60 fps on the Deck at near-max settings. At 40 percent brightness (200 nits), a full Deck charge will give you 150 minutes of gameplay with these settings. In comparison, the more demanding Dying Light 2, at a target frame rate of 60 fps, hovers in the area of 35–50 fps with low-to-medium settings, and the battery lasts only 105 minutes, also at 40 percent brightness.

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Better battery news with simpler games

That’s not very long in either case, but this is x64 PC architecture beholden to a 40 WHr battery. Despite efforts by the Deck’s custom APU supplier AMD to deliver power-efficient performance, we’re still dealing with brave, new portable gaming territory. (As a comparison, take an average gaming laptop from the past five years and run a high-end game on battery power with its GPU set to max speeds, and it will typically drain much bigger batteries in the two-hours-or-less range.)

In an extreme example of power efficiency, the Deck lasts for 496 minutes (a bit over 8 hours) in Ars Technica’s classic 200-nit web-browsing battery test, which we have used in smartphone reviews for years.

You’ll probably want to play something beefier than a web browser instance of Wordle for the entirety of a cross-country flight, and you can still get decent power efficiency with some games. Lighter 2D fare like Spelunky 2 and simple 3D games like Death Squared get closer to the six-hour mark on a fully charged battery.

Before that system update, though, I had to go through system menus to manually reduce the system’s maximum power draw to boost a session’s battery life. And this option is still available. At any time, tap the Deck’s physical “…” button to bring up a quick options menu. One of its five tabs hides power consumption limits behind an “advanced options” button. Here, you’ll find the option to limit the system’s TDP (thermal design power) and max GPU clock speed.

However, as I wrapped this review and retested how much these settings contributed to battery savings, I found that trying to reduce the max GPU clock speed would consistently make the Deck crash. The image on my screen would freeze the instant I tapped “GPU clock” on the menu in question. I reproduced the bug ten times in a row, each time in a different game, until I gave up on those tests.

I did not consent to late-night DMs about your Deck

The Steam Deck’s propensity to crash, display error messages, freeze, produce glitchy visuals, and exhibit other unexpected behavior has been a constant pain during the system’s review period. So much so, in fact, that I paused a lot of my software-specific testing until I was closer to today’s embargo date. I didn’t know how many issues would be patched or resolved by the flurry of Steam Deck and SteamOS 3.0 updates that landed on the system on a near-daily basis, and I wanted to best represent the state that the system would launch in. Why report a two-week-old bug that an average user may never see if Valve could squash it?

Yet, in spite of near-daily updates, Valve’s fixes didn’t come quickly enough to resolve every issue. Game journalists are normally hesitant to talk with each other about anything we’re testing in private. But in the case of the Steam Deck, my inbox began to light up with messages from peers asking the same question: Is it just me, or is something wrong with the Steam Deck?

To be clear, for every unfortunate bug I witnessed or heard about, my testing period gave me at least as many delightful gaming experiences that proved the power of AMD’s impressive, custom-built SoC. The Deck certainly gets close to fulfilling the promise of delivering a power-efficient, comfortable, and open alternative to the Nintendo Switch. But the issues are concerning.

Desktop? Hard stop

For instance, as I was finishing my review, Shacknews’ Asif Khan told me about a freak system crash he experienced. “I believe I broke this thing,” Khan wrote to me unprompted, along with a brief video of his Steam Deck seizing up into a DOS-like prompt. That was the only thing that appeared on his hardware every time he rebooted his Deck until Valve reached out with system-restore instructions. The cause? “I tried to go into ‘desktop’ mode,” Khan said.

At any time, Steam Deck users can close the SteamOS front-end, which is essentially a redesigned “Steam Big Picture Mode” interface that includes an automated process that downloads Windows builds of Steam games and then runs them with the Steam Proton compatibility layer enabled by default. With that interface closed, a KDE desktop instance of Arch Linux appears, with installs of basic software like Firefox already loaded and available. Users must go through this mode to add certain features to the Steam Deck.

This functionality is clearly advertised on the Steam Deck any time a user picks the “power” option within the main menu. It’s here that users can shut down or restart the system, change the logged-in user, or perform other basic system functions. As critics furiously finished tests and demos of the Steam Deck, the advertised “restart in desktop mode” toggle left at least one critic in the absolute dark.

Thankfully, I could not reproduce this bug. And with an external keyboard and mouse, connected via USB Type-C dongle or through Bluetooth pairing, I can use the Deck’s KDE Plasma desktop instance as if it were a normal Linux laptop—though I’ll get back to this point.

Grand Theft of my time

My weirdest game-specific bug came from Grand Theft Auto V, one of Steam’s most popular games, which is marked as “playable” in Valve’s official Steam Deck database. The game provides a solid test of SteamOS’s juggling act, as it doesn’t just boot GTA V‘s Windows EXE in a Linux-friendly sandbox. It must also run a number of Rockstar Social Club apps and dependencies in the same ecosystem.

Any first boot of GTA V on the Deck will present users with a few prompts from developer Rockstar, and the Steam Deck warns users when booting games like GTA V that they’ll need to use fingers to tap these prompts when they appear. That’s the only way to emulate the necessary mouse clicks in these moments, as the Steam Deck doesn’t always enable a mouse pointer, which is usually controlled by the right-side trackpad.

After clicking through the initial setup process, mostly to agree to Rockstar’s ToS and EULA, the Rockstar Social Club loaded a pair of “one moment, please” windows. Then a Steam logo filled the Deck’s screen and animated for a moment before the system reverted back to GTA V‘s Steam Library page. The word “Play” was displayed in a green box, as if the game was not running, but the Deck hadn’t produced an error message confirming that the game had abruptly shut down. Hmm.

I tried again and got the same prompts, the same Steam logo animation, and the same abrupt crash without an error message. I was confused. Steam’s library listing insists this game is “playable” on the Deck, only warning me about the requirement to use my fingers to click prompts at the outset. I tried again.

And again. Still nothing. I powered down and rebooted the Steam Deck and tried again. Same result.

I tried a sixth time. Same result.

You gotta be kidding me

Somehow, my seventh attempt to boot GTA V on the Steam Deck worked. Even then, however, I ran into another weird issue: I had to restart the game four more times before it would accept any settings changes.

Even after all of that, GTA V still exhibited a few errors. First, in the main menu, I could emulate mouse clicks… but only within an 800 x 600 block of pixels. This meant I could not tap the bottom-right text that set the game’s modes and menus. Thankfully, I could access them with the Deck’s d-pad.

I then loaded GTA V‘s in-game benchmark to determine which visual settings the Steam Deck ran most efficiently with. The first time I ran the benchmark, I saw something I’d never seen before. I’ve run the GTA V benchmark roughly 5,000 times, since I use it in each of my GPU reviews at Ars Technica. It always shows the same thing: fighter jet flying through the game’s desert toward a bustling city. That scene disappears, and you get a standard GTA V sequence: a character begins driving a car, engages in a drive-by shooting, and crashes into an exploding truck.

Only on the Steam Deck, however, have I ever seen a car in this benchmark sequence sink into the ground. The car in question rose before going into submarine mode, but the glitch was still quite bizarre. Even my tests of the weakest GPUs never made GTA V bug out that way. What gives?

Sonic Generations in the bottom-right corner because it is most certainly not great on Deck. This game’s PC port is famously unoptimized, and whether you leave the Deck in 60 fps mode or turn on its 30 fps cap, the game will frequently dip into the 10–20 fps range. The Steam Deck doesn’t warn you about this.”>

The screen output on the Steam Deck when using the device’s remote play option. Notice the blurry text; in motion, this actually looks blurrier, thanks to whatever streaming protocol Valve currently has in place.

  • The same game’s direct 800p feed, as run on my desktop computer.
  • I wanted to test Halo PC content on the Deck since the series is among my all-time favorites and is unlikely to ever launch on the Switch. But the series’ reliance on Easy Anti-Cheat (EAC) has thus far hobbled its Deck compatibility. Steam Proton’s compatibility wrapper currently cannot reckon with EAC in a way that works with server check-ins, and this makes any EAC-reliant fare, like Halo: Master Chief Collection or Halo Infinite, a Deck nonstarter.

    Valve insists it’s close to getting EAC working on Deck for compatible games, which is good news for the myriad games that depend on it (particularly Elden Ring, which currently defaults to an offline mode on Deck). But I didn’t get that luxury during the review period, so I tried to use Steam Remote Play to get Halo games working on the Deck. Valve has been pushing this option ever since Steam Link worked as a streaming hub for living room TVs, and the idea is the same on the Deck: stream higher-fidelity gameplay from a desktop PC in your home to the Deck’s screen while only suffering a mild button-tap delay. It’s all conducted over your local Wi-Fi network. The problem, as the above gallery demonstrates, is that Remote Play currently sends a disappointing stream from a desktop to a Deck.

    I tried streaming Halo: Master Chief Collection from my Ethernet-connected desktop PC to my Deck via 5 GHz Wi-Fi, and once I got the game working, the image on the Deck was noticeably blurry. Above, you’ll see the Deck’s native 800p signal and the 800p output from my PC. It only looks worse in motion, thanks to blur and constantly shifting pixels while Steam Remote Play is active on the Deck. The same results arose with other Steam Remote Play tests on the Deck, not just Halo.

    Could you get crisper fidelity when the game is streamed via Xbox Game Streaming on a Deck web browser? Based on my prior experience with Xbox’s streaming options, it’s possible, but as of press time, Microsoft’s service is not yet working on the Deck. Thirty-six hours before this review went live, Valve directed critics to a “flatpak” version of Google Chrome that is compatible with SteamOS’s version of Arch Linux. But it came with a catch: no support for the Steam Deck to act as a connected gamepad. Valve insists the issue will be corrected via driver updates, but until those go live, Xbox Game Streaming, Google Stadia, and other game-streaming options won’t work on the Deck’s browser.

    Some better news: The Deck’s showcase games

    In spite of the disappointments exposed through my testing, I did manage to flex the Deck’s muscles with certain beloved games, completely crash-free. The best result came from Control, Ars Technica’s 2019 game of the year, which famously launched as an exclusive on another launcher before landing on Steam one year later. Two years later, Remedy’s hit game has emerged as a must-own action-adventure game on the Steam Deck. What a turnaround!

    Control‘s Deck version can’t tap into the ray-tracing effects provided by higher-end graphics cards, but it can still run with pretty much every other visual preset at or near max values while easily exceeding 30 fps on the Deck. At that point, you have the option to either endure slightly jumpy frame rates (in the 35-42 fps range) or cap the frame rate at 30—and in this case, the 30 fps cap works perfectly. Thanks to the Deck’s lack of variable refresh rate (VRR), you will probably enjoy a smoother experience with a lower, locked frame rate. But that choice is yours.

    Control is available on the Switch through a cloud-streamed version that Remedy sells on Nintendo’s eShop. But that streamed version doesn’t provide Control‘s highest ray-tracing setting, and it gives up the fidelity and button-tap responsiveness you get from a locally installed version. If you want to play Control on the go and feel like you’re in the future, the Steam Deck version is where it’s at.

    Death Stranding in the Steam Deck’s menus.”>
    Enlarge / The microSD card slot at the bottom of the Steam Deck and a microSD card for scale.
    Sam Machkovech

    But Valve’s data-driven approach ignores the reality of what picking up a Deck can feel like, especially for someone like me, whose Steam library exceeds 1,000 games. Yes, that high count is an indicator that I review games for a living, but it’s easy for an average, decade-old Steam user to rack up hundreds of games. The Deck was sold in part on the promise that Steam Proton could truly get a ton of classic games working without incident, with one Valve engineer suggesting in an interview that he expected “really the entire Steam library” to work on Deck. My testing hasn’t borne that out.

    Inside of the Deck’s menus, Valve warns users that games outside the “Deck Verified” silo may either malfunction or not load altogether. But this information is conveyed with small text and gray icons, not massive red flags or orange warning signs. Valve should be much more forthcoming when talking to its customers about the realities of Steam Deck.

    As I made my way through less popular Steam fare in search of weird edge cases, I found examples of both Deck’s promise and problems. Take Crazy Taxi, a Dreamcast-era Sega classic that received a PC port over a decade ago. The Steam Deck runs the game mostly fine at 60 fps; there are a few annoying frame-rate hitches but nothing as bad as what I saw with GTA V. The gamepad works. The graphics render correctly. The sound, the rumble, all of it—it’s fine. Even better, because SteamOS is somewhat open, I can go into my Crazy Taxi installation folder and mess around with the game as I see fit, without making Steam Proton buckle. In Crazy Taxi‘s case, that means manually replacing all of its generic music with the licensed Offspring and Bad Religion songs that had been removed from the PC port. Try to do that on a Nintendo Switch.

    Then I booted a pair of great 2D games: the roguelike physics-magic adventure game Noita, which doesn’t have a Switch port, and the roguelite grapple-action title Flinthook, which is available on Switch. Noita is marked as being “Deck Verified,” but this badge only promises a steady 30 fps refresh. Noita can exceed 60 fps regularly, thanks to its incredibly simple sprites, but the game also brings the Deck to its knees when its wacky physics system kicks in. A bummer, but not a dealbreaker.

    Flinthook, on the other hand, is not yet Deck Verified. While its entirely 2D visuals look much simpler and cleaner, without Noita-like physics-driven insanity, the game still exhibits unpredictable one-second pauses on the Deck. These hitches usually happen during tense battles and can lead to unavoidable damage. This kind of stuff is unacceptable in a Spelunky-like adventure, where health can be precious.

    The Deck’s first customers are going to feel like beta testers

    Enlarge / Retroarch’s Kronos core, as running on Steam Deck. Those real-time performance stats at the top-left can be turned on or off at any time in any game.
    Sam Machkovech

    The Steam Deck could benefit from a community database that summarizes how every game performs. You can find a hint of this in the Steam Proton database, which estimates how an average Linux PC will react to Valve’s compatibility layer, but information on Steam Deck games will also need to account for factors like hardware-specific glitches and whether the Deck’s 30 fps lock functions correctly.

    My three weeks of testing have been a head-spinning experience of getting a disappointing test result, then seeing something receive an update (an individual game patch, the entire SteamOS front end, or something in between). I would then retest the game and sometimes see significantly different results. Right now, Valve is clearly scrambling to finalize its optimizations.

    By the time you get your hands on a Steam Deck, things may have settled into a good place for the games you care about. I can’t predict that future. But I can say that Valve has made progress since the first day I booted the machine and saw even more games struggle, especially with a system-level 30 fps cap that, for some time, simply didn’t work for any game. That cap still isn’t ironclad for all games, but it’s getting there.

    As stated earlier, I’ve written a brief additional report for Linux fans who want to employ command-line trickery and application installs to customize the Steam Deck as they see fit. But at this point, discussing such concerns feels like asking the kitchen to serve an exact one-gram dollop of fresh aioli when they’re busy trying to cook the damned hamburgers. Valve is already mad-dashing to get its not-quite-open SteamOS framework functioning to a level that I’d recommend people buy into. I’m still seeing weird bugs as I move from one app to the next. My Deck still downloads roughly 2–5GB of system and game updates every day.

    Duke Nukem 3D. Getting this game working required fussing with the Steam Deck’s per-game controller toggles, but once I did so, I found it ran fantastically.”>A romantic night out with Steam Deck at one of my favorite Seattle pubs. Also, a reminder that some very weird edge cases will work fine on the Deck, including the Windows 98 version of <em>Duke Nukem 3D</em>. Getting this game working required fussing with the Steam Deck’s per-game controller toggles, but once I did so, I found it ran fantastically.” src=”https://cdn.arstechnica.net/wp-content/uploads/2022/02/PXL_20220209_045155137-980×738.jpg” width=”980″ height=”738″></a><figcaption class=
    Enlarge / A romantic night out with Steam Deck at one of my favorite Seattle pubs. Also, a reminder that some very weird edge cases will work fine on the Deck, including the Windows 98 version of Duke Nukem 3D. Getting this game working required fussing with the Steam Deck’s per-game controller toggles, but once I did so, I found it ran fantastically.
    Sam Machkovech

    I understand why Valve is shipping the Steam Deck to customers now. The parts of the system that cannot be tweaked with downloads and patches are good enough. And the Deck’s 3D rendering potential is already evident in its most impressive 30 fps and 60 fps scenarios. Heck, I managed to play brand-new PC games like Dying Light 2 and Elden Ring on the Deck. The former, with all settings turned down, generally clears a 30 fps threshold, and it feels like holding the future in my hands. The latter still needs some serious optimizing on all PCs, not just the Deck.

    With the Steam Deck, I don’t have to beg for games like that to receive ports like I might for the Switch. Instead of begging, I have turned to praying—that a brand-new game, a beloved classic, or a weird indie game will work inside of SteamOS 3.0’s Windows-to-Linux system. If you’re fine hovering somewhere between praying and endlessly picking through menus, you’ll love being on the cutting edge of Steam Deck. If not, either wait out Valve’s unfinished business of Deck optimizations or join the club of 103 million Switch owners.

    The good

    • No portable console has ever had such killer joysticks, and most other buttons are up to their caliber.
    • Built-in gyroscopic options, 3D audio add some next-gen hardware sparkle.
    • Relative openness with Linux means you can expect compatible apps to work in the background in a pinch.
    • Mid-grade games can run on a full charge for a little over six hours at decent brightness.
    • When a game simply works as advertised, Deck can turn around absolutely impressive 30 fps and 60 fps performance.
    • Deck’s base $399 tier is an incredible value for its power and build quality.

    The bad

    • …but that price point is low in part because Valve skips an install of the gaming-friendly OS Windows, and Deck too often struggles to parse games through its Wine compatibility layer.
    • Want to get your favorite game running on Deck? Prepare to tap around a mix of in-game menus and Deck’s system-level toggles to either maximize power or battery life on a game-by-game basis.
    • When a game doesn’t work, you might have to flip through menus—again, on a game-by-game basis—to troubleshoot possible problems like Steam Deck’s buttons being incorrectly mapped or a Steam Deck element randomly freezing.
    • Valve cheaped out on Deck’s 7-inch LCD panel.
    • Grip buttons, rumbling motors feel like an afterthought.
    • Deck owners may find themselves juggling microSD cards just to maintain a solid portable game library.
    • Despite Deck’s power efficiency, it can only last so long when demanding games rev to 100 percent power.

    The ugly

    • When your favorite game glitches, crashes, or fails to boot.

    Verdict: You have to be a specific kind of patient PC gamer to enjoy Deck in its current state. If you’re not, wait for its software side to match the value of its price-to-performance ratio.

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