There’s a hard-to-get new game console this year that isn’t a PlayStation or an Xbox. It is sold only online. Most casual gamers probably haven’t heard of it.
It’s the $400 Steam Deck, as utilitarian a console as that sounds. The handheld device, a chunky black plastic slab with an integrated game controller, has the guts of a supercomputer and a touchscreen. It’s like a gaming computer and a Nintendo Switch had a child.
Valve, the Bellevue, Wash. company known for its Steam online game store, started taking orders for the Steam Deck last year and the consoles arrived recently. The company hasn’t released sales figures, but estimates suggest hundreds of thousands have been shipped. People trying to order one today won’t receive the device until the fall.
The Steam Deck is the result of Valve’s ambitious efforts to combine the benefits of modern gaming devices. This includes dedicated gaming computers; Nintendo’s portable Switch, which focuses on family games; and Sony’s PlayStation 5 and Microsoft’s Xbox Series X, which are home consoles with faster computer chips for playing more intense games.
The Steam Deck tries to be a jack of all trades. It runs Linux, the open-source operating system, which makes it capable of loading a huge amount of new games, including titles made for personal computers and some PlayStation and Xbox games. And just like with a computer, the Steam Deck can be customized to run older games by installing emulation software, which are applications that can run digital copies of games for older consoles.
As someone who grew up with consoles all the way up to the Atari, I decided to give the Steam Deck a try. The verdict: This is the console I recommend for serious gamers who don’t hesitate to tinker to enjoy games new and old. But it has major flaws, and it’s definitely not for people looking for the plug-and-play experience offered by a traditional gaming console.
Unlike normal consoles, like PlayStations and Nintendos that can play games stored on discs and cartridges, the Steam Deck is completely digital, meaning it only plays games downloaded from the internet. Players will primarily obtain titles through the Steam App Store. So, to start with, users create a Steam account to download games.
From there, there are plenty of options. Players can choose from Steam’s library of tens of thousands of games, including popular games like Counter-Strike and Among Us. Some big titles that were previously exclusive to PlayStation, like Final Fantasy VII: Remake, are also now on Steam.
Those feeling adventurous can exit Steam to get more games. This involves switching to desktop mode, which converts the Steam Deck into a miniature Linux computer that can be controlled with a virtual keyboard and a small trackpad built into the controller.
Here you can open a web browser to download files to configure the Steam Deck to work with Xbox Game Pass to play Xbox games, or to install emulators to run games designed for older consoles like the classic 1970s Atari and 2005 PlayStation Portable.
DIY, if you dare
In my testing, the Steam Deck was fun to use for playing Steam games. It ran modern games with intense graphics like Monster Hunter Rise smoothly, and the controller, which includes triggers, joysticks, and buttons, was comfortable to use.
But tinkering with it to run games outside of the Steam store was a daunting and, at times, infuriating task. I watched several video tutorials to run EmuDeck, a script that installs emulators on the device. The process took over an hour. I ended up having to plug in my own keyboard and mouse because the Steam Deck’s trackpad and keyboard often didn’t register clicks and keystrokes.
Valve said it’s always improving desktop navigation and there are situations where people need to plug in a keyboard and mouse.
After finally launching emulators, I had a nice setup to run games new, new, and old, like Vampire Survivors, Persona 4, and Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII.
The Steam Deck lacks the polish and functionality of mainstream gaming devices, which makes it difficult to recommend to casual gamers.
While it’s fine to have around the house, I wouldn’t take one with me on trips or to a cafe, which defeats its purpose as a mobile device. Main among its flaws, its battery life is below average. In my sessions, the Steam Deck lasted about 90 minutes before needing to be plugged in, even when I was playing games with minimal graphics, like Vampire Survivors.
On the other hand, it’s big (about 12 inches long) and heavy (1.5 pounds) for a portable gaming device. That makes Nintendo’s smaller and lighter Switch, which lasts over four hours on a charge, a superior portable.
While DIY is purely optional, it’s one of the Steam Deck’s main selling points – and compared to using a gaming computer, customizing the Steam Deck isn’t fun or easy with its keyboard, mouse and office software.
Finally, while some don’t mind the Steam Deck’s digital approach to buying games, many who prefer to own physical cartridges and discs – which can be easily shared with friends and resold to others – will see it as a dealbreaker.