Being able to play almost all your PC games wherever you want: that's the tempting proposition that the Steam Deck wants to make. Unique and avant-garde in many ways, Valve's new portable machine is not without its flaws.
Here it is at last in our hands, this famous hybrid between the PC and the portable game console designed by Valve. Proudly presented by its creators as the initiator of a "new category" of game machines, the Steam Deck is conceived as a refinement of the concept popularized - on a very modest scale - by the products of Chinese manufacturers GPD and Ayaneo.
However, the Steam Deck differs greatly from these predecessors by its design, which makes use of bricks that are much more extensively custom-made. Understand that where GPD Win and Ayaneo did nothing more than integrate components and a Windows operating system borrowed as is from the world of laptops into an unusual "form factor", the Steam Deck is not satisfied with this easy solution.
On the hardware side, it embeds a central chip designed especially for the occasion by AMD, in partnership with Valve. This APU combines 4 Zen 2 CPU cores (8 logical cores in multi-threading) with a variable clock frequency between 2.4 and 3.5 GHz, as well as 8 RDNA 2 graphics processing units clocked between 1 and 1.6 GHz. This architecture is very close on paper to that of the new generation consoles, the PS5 and the Xbox Series X/S, but with raw computing capacities more in line with the previous generation consoles.
As far as the software is concerned, the operating system is once again a SteamOS 3.0 custom-built for the needs of the machine. Based on the Arch Linux distribution, it adds a user interface built around the Steam store and ecosystem, as well as the Proton compatibility layer, which allows it to run most Windows games and applications.
All these elements put together lead to the promise of being able to run almost all the games in its PC library, with performance never seen on a mobile machine, and on the other hand a convenience and comfort of use worthy of a console - the best of both worlds, in short.
The Steam Deck comes in three configurations, whose specifications differ only in flash storage. We are given the choice between 64 GB in eMMC format, 256 GB SSD on NVMe PCI-Express Gen 3 interface, or 512 GB of "faster" PCIe 3 SSD. The 512 GB version also has the exclusive use of a screen with micro-textured anti-reflective glass. At the time of writing, all of these models are available exclusively by reservation through the Steam store.
Manufacturing and ergonomics
As portable as it is, the Steam Deck is undeniably a very imposing object. This size, combined with its very rough look, has already inspired a number of sneering comparisons with products from the past - that is, from the 90s - such as the Atari Lynx or the Sega Game Gear. Without venturing into such low-level mockery, we must at least admit that the inevitable juxtaposition with the Switch Oled is not flattering: Nintendo's console looks like a dwarf next to Valve's, despite an almost identical screen size.
In another register, we can even have fun noting that when it is stored in its hard case (supplied as standard), the Steam Deck occupies almost as much volume... as an Xbox Series S!
These generous dimensions are not without their advantages, however. In particular, they allow for ergonomics that are close to those of a standard gamepad, with its thick handles that fully fill the palm of the hands, and its full-size sticks and triggers. However, the first grip is not necessarily obvious: the curves of the machine are still rather rough, do not naturally follow the curves of the hands, and may require a little time to adapt.
The weight of the machine is not anecdotal either: its 670 grams seem to be quite light, considering its size, but they weigh quite quickly on the fingers. This is all the more true since the very ordinary plastic covering the machine is not particularly pleasant to the touch, and can even become quite slippery if you have the misfortune of sweating your hands.
As for the control interfaces, we can only admire the abundance offered by the Steam Deck: haptic feedback touch surfaces, capacitive sensor sticks, gyroscope, back buttons... This abundance is not without a counterpart, especially on the front panel, which is a bit too crowded. The proximity between the left stick and the directional cross, in particular, makes it almost impossible to play mainly with the latter without feeling discomfort. Fans of 2D platform games, Tetris or Puyo Puyo will be disappointed.
All this being said, we must still note the excellent quality of the assembly. The buttons are a bit long and spongy, which will not please everyone, but that's a matter of personal taste; in any case, their movement is perfectly assured, and their activation is reliable. As for the touchpads, their precision is quite satisfactory. Finally, the finishing touches are not luxurious and show some irregularities, but this is anecdotal. The machine seems to be very rigid, and we are rather confident about its solidity.
The Steam Deck is equipped with an IPS LCD touchscreen with a definition of 1280 x 800 px and a refresh rate of 60 Hz, on a diagonal of 7 inches. These figures allow for overall very decent spatial readability - which is not equal on all games, however. That's the price of trying to run PC games on a portable machine: not all of them have an interface that works properly on a small screen. When the situation arises, one can't help but complain about the rather thick borders of the display: the few millimeters that could have been saved in both height and width with slimmer margins could have had a significant impact on visual comfort.
But the biggest complaint about the Steam Deck screen is its colorimetry. We have already devoted a full article to the problem, and we invite you to consult this article to discover in detail all the results of our tests. Let's sum it up here in a few words: this display suffers not only from the relatively limited contrast expected from IPS technology, but also from colors with a very large lack of saturation. Added to this is a very noticeable drift of the grays towards the blue, which completes the picture extremely cold, dull, sadly washed out. This display fidelity is barely up to the standard of an entry-level smartphone and is not worthy of the artistic sophistication of today's games, nor of the graphic prowess of which the Steam Deck's processor is capable - and to which we will return below.
What's more, this weakness can't even be excused assuming the screen was selected with the needs of competitive gamers in mind. Its responsiveness is also very ordinary: the remanence is 20 ms, and causes noticeable drag effects on fast-moving games.
Finally, the readability in full light does not invite any reproach. The maximum brightness of 577 cd/m², without being admirable, is comfortable, as is the 48% reflectance on our 256 GB model. Let's not forget that the latter is equipped with a laminated screen with a "standard" glass coating, just like the 64 GB model. The 512GB model has a micro-textured anti-reflective glass coating, but the screen is identical to the other variants.
The Steam Deck is equipped with two front speakers of rather generous size. They offer an excellent power reserve, and also ensure a surprisingly wide stereo image.
In all other respects, however, their performance is far less remarkable. The bass extension is very weak, even on the scale of mobile device speakers; their crossover frequency is 125 Hz, which is worse than the already very commonplace speakers of the Switch Oled (100 Hz). Even more annoying is the fact that the sound is polluted by a rather strong harmonic distortion, caused by a rather strong transmission of vibrations to the plastic chassis of the machine. The result is a rather shrill and unbalanced sound.
Obviously, to get the most out of the soundscapes of your games - and to cover the noise of the fan, as we'll see below - it's much better to use headphones. The Steam Deck allows the connection of headphones or Bluetooth headphones, but we strongly recommend the use of the mini-jack output - on the one hand to avoid any broadcast latency, and on the other hand because this output provides a signal of absolutely remarkable quality.
Background noise is well below the audible threshold, despite the extremely generous power reserve and current handling. This headphone output will have no trouble feeding even very high impedance monitoring or hi-fi headphones, without any compromise in dynamics and transient responsiveness. Finally, the stereo separation is beyond reproach.
Games and performance
The main attraction of the Steam Deck is of course its AMD Van Gogh core chip, which carries the most exciting promise of the machine: to be able to run most of today's PC games, even the most demanding "AAA" titles, on a mobile device in decent conditions. And the fact is that the performance you can get in games is absolutely unheard of for a device in this category.
Of course, the chip is helped in its task by the rather modest definition of the screen, which contributes to greatly lighten the work of the GPU. It is also important to remain reasonable in the graphics settings you select: exceeding the average preset does not often make much sense, if only because the visual differences from the higher settings are minimal on a screen of this size.
The Steam Deck also gives users all the tools they need to adjust the settings and performance of their games to their liking. First of all, it offers an option to lock the framerate at 30 fps at the system level, which can be activated and deactivated in just a few clicks, ideal for ensuring a perfectly constant frame rate and preserving autonomy as much as possible - we'll come back to this later. Be careful though, this option also has its drawback: on some games, without really being able to explain why, it causes a violent increase in input lag, and therefore controls become rather unpleasantly heavy; this is the case for example on God of War, whose controls go from a latency of about 80 ms to nearly 200 ms when the lock is activated.
In addition, there is a performance checker on the screen, which can be adjusted to several levels of detail (from a simple instantaneous frame counter to a complete table with frame rates, occupancy indicator for each logical CPU core, APU power consumption...). This performance monitor is very practical, but as it stands, it has one limitation: the GPU occupancy indicator is not really informative, simply because it almost always shows 100% - presumably as a result of the way the clock frequency of the RDNA 2 units is managed. Hopefully, the calculation method can be adjusted in the future to give more relevant numbers.
In practice, the vast majority of the games we were able to try out on the Steam Deck were able to offer amply satisfactory framerate. In particular, the titles ported directly from the console world give a clear idea of the level of performance offered by Valve's machine. It is thus possible to play games like Horizon Zero Dawn or God of War, in native 1280 x 800 px definition and with graphic parameters equivalent to the PS4 versions, with a framerate almost never falling below 30 fps. And if you think this "almost" is too much, the AMD FidelityFX Super Resolution upscaling processing, natively integrated in both games, ensures once and for all a perfect adherence to the 30 fps line - in "ultra quality" or "quality" mode, the FSR causes a loss of image quality that is certainly visible, but quite acceptable on a screen of this size.
In an even more recent register, Forza Horizon 5 also impresses. The 30 fps line is invariably held in the medium preset, and you can even afford to switch some options to "high" without deviating from this target. Even better: if you are willing to sacrifice the visual splendor of the game by switching to the low preset, you can almost reach 60 fps, with some minor drops to 55 fps.
These results are impressive, but they fall short of Valve's original promise that the entire Steam catalog would be playable at a minimum of 30 fps. The claim was insanely bold, and unsurprisingly, it's not really met in the end. It is mainly the most CPU-intensive games that show us the limits of the machine. No one will be surprised to learn that Cyberpunk 2077, even at the lowest settings and with the help of FSR, does not avoid slowdowns of around 20 fps in some scenes - even though the average framerate is around 50 fps. Assassin's Creed Odyssey is in the same situation: despite all our efforts, we couldn't find a setting that didn't show regular slowdowns at 25 fps. Even more surprising was the case of Eidos Montreal's Guardians of the Galaxy, whose PC version is known for its very good optimization: even at low settings and with the FSR in performance mode (corresponding to an internal 640 x 360 px rendering!), each combat sequence causes a plunge in frame rate around 20 fps. Needless to say, gameplay is highly compromised.
Let's be clear: these criticisms are only relevant because they bring a negative response to an expectation generated by the manufacturer's own communication. It's simply a matter of not having any illusions about what the machine offers: at a time when titles optimized specifically for home consoles and next-generation PCs are becoming more and more numerous, the days of the Steam Deck as a "portable AAA machine" are already numbered. It will, however, remain perfectly competent to run indie games and games from previous generations... as long as there are no compatibility issues.
Indeed, the Proton compatibility layer, developed by Valve itself to run Windows games and applications on Linux, is not always perfect - even when it claims to be. And if Valve can proudly boast that it has now inducted more than 1000 games into its "Perfect on Deck" certification program, it is also apparently because the said certification process is quite permissive. We have regularly encountered bugs on some of these "perfect" games: anomalies in the display of textures and lighting, audio crackling, or loss of lip-sync during cinematics, are just a sample of the problems we have seen on several different titles.
Finally, let's conclude this section with a small point on storage. When you talk about a machine running PC games, you are talking about installations that can require a very large amount of space, up to more than 100 or even 150 GB for some titles. At this rate, even the 512GB version of the Steam Deck will quickly become saturated. That's why it's fortunately possible to expand the storage via a microSD port. For this test, we didn't have time to thoroughly evaluate the impact that a microSD card installation can have on a game's performance and load times. We will come back to this subject in a separate article. However, we can already tell you that the most noticeable impact is actually seen when downloading games: the microSD format is often uncomfortable with writing many small files, and can slow down the installation process considerably, up to several hours for a game of a few dozen GB. So be sure to choose a card that is fast enough to avoid this type of inconvenience.
When first turned on and in normal use, the Steam Deck presents the user with a SteamOS interface that deftly adapts the design principles of the desktop application's Big Picture mode to the mobile format. It offers relatively intuitive access to all the machine's features - even though there are so many of them. Navigation on the home screen is fluid and fairly natural, despite a few teething problems; for example, when browsing your game library, you may be surprised at the number of clicks required to finally arrive at a page listing only the games already installed and not all the games you own on Steam.
However, these little blunders should disappear quickly: at the time of this test, a few days after the launch of the machine, Valve is releasing system updates at a frantic pace, up to several times a day, each time bringing small refinements to the interface and bug fixes. This last point is not a luxury, since the operating system is not yet a model of stability. Without being unbearable, crashes are still relatively frequent, and give the clear impression of using software that is not yet completely out of its beta phase.
Valve seems to have perfectly understood that one of the key elements to take care of for a nomadic device like this one is the "quality of life", and as such has tried to bring to its machine some little luxuries coming straight from the console world. The most significant of these is of course the ability to suspend games for standby. At any moment, a simple short press on the on/off button is enough to "freeze" the game in position and put the machine on standby in a few seconds. Later on, the game can be restarted in an instant, and you can find your game exactly as you left it. A comfort that may seem perfectly trivial if you are used to playing on a handheld console, but which is unheard of in the PC gaming ecosystem.
Beware, however, for those wishing to use the Steam Deck in addition to a fixed computer game, it is still necessary to regularly stop its games manually. Indeed, it is only after closing a game that the synchronization of backups on Steam Cloud is done, and thus allows you to resume your game on another device. We know that Valve is working on an evolution of its Steam Cloud infrastructure, which will allow games to synchronize their backups continuously while they are running; but this new feature has not yet been deployed.
But beyond SteamOS, the other essence of the Steam Deck, the one that Valve insisted on abundantly before its launch, is that it is not a portable console, but a PC, which leaves the user free to do whatever he wants. In fact, behind SteamOS is a perfectly standard Arch Linux system, and very easily accessible for the user - a simple long press on the on/off button is enough to bring up the "Switch to desktop mode" option. This environment includes the Flatpak application manager, giving access by default to the applications of the Flathub repository. It is thus possible, if you are interested, to install GIMP, Blender or Musescore on your Steam Deck, to connect it to a monitor, a keyboard and a mouse via a USB-C hub - while waiting for the official dock expected for the summer of 2022 -, and to transform it in this way into a spare workstation. Not sure if this will interest a large proportion of Steam Deck users, but it's a good thing nonetheless.
Even better, the Steam Deck allows its owner on paper to install any third-party operating system, which of course includes Windows. However, it's impossible to imagine right now what this will mean for the machine in the long term. At the time of writing, Valve has just released Windows drivers for the GPU and the Steam Deck's Wi-Fi and Bluetooth interfaces; but there are still no drivers for its audio hardware (speakers and headphone output), and it's not possible to install Microsoft's OS in dual-boot with SteamOS either.
So for the time being, it's more a possibility for tinkerers and experimenters than a really feasible usage scenario for the average gamer. It's a shame, because as it stands, one of the main limitations of SteamOS and the Steam Deck, if you consider it as a gaming PC, is the difficulty of installing non-Steam games on the machine. The process is technically possible, but it is horribly tedious, unreliable, and ultimately contrary to the philosophy of convenience and immediacy of use that is supposed to be the engine's.
We'll come back to the possibilities of the Steam Deck as a PC in a separate article in the future, once its internal software and component drivers have stabilized.
Autonomy, heating and noise
Valve promises an autonomy varying between 2 and 8 hours depending on the use that is made of the Steam Deck, and these figures turn out to be relatively overestimated according to our experiments. For example, a game like God of War, which is known to be particularly energy-intensive, was able to completely drain the 40 Wh of the built-in battery in less than 1 hour and 30 minutes with its framerate unlocked. Enabling the 30 fps limit with the standard graphics settings significantly improves the situation, and teases the 2 h 30 min. Generally speaking, playing a greedy 3D game rarely allows you to exceed 3 hours, while 2D games can push the bar towards 5 hours.
It would probably have been unreasonable to expect more from a machine designed around a chip whose architectural technologies were originally designed for desktop computers. Nevertheless, it is better to take care when using its Steam Deck to always have a power outlet at hand ... and a sufficiently insulating headset.
Because when you say high power consumption, you obviously mean high heat production. This is evacuated by a very powerful fan, which unfortunately is coupled with painful noise pollution.
The fan starts to move as soon as the APU is given the slightest workload and emits a noise that is not only very high (41 dB(A) measured at a distance of 30 cm), but also and above all very irritating because of its spectral profile. The noise is indeed very high-pitched, almost whistling, and titillates the eardrums in a very unpleasant way.
Evaluating and rating a product like the Steam Deck is a highly perilous exercise. Like no other, Valve's machine almost flawlessly delivers on the first of its promises, namely to offer game performance never before seen in a mobile product, adequate to run most - if not all - existing PC games correctly. There is no doubt that gamers seduced by this proposal will not care about the few reservations that we would like to express following this statement. The fact is, however, that the beast also commits numerous missteps (small compatibility problems, mediocre screen, poor autonomy, irritatingly loud fan...) which, when put together, seriously undermine the pleasure of using it every day. Impressive as well as unfinished, fascinating as well as frustrating, the Steam Deck looks like a very promising prototype, but which would need many refinements to become a fully convincing whole.