I’ve owned the Steam Deck for nearly a month and I’m still amazed by it. As silly as this may sound, a part of me can’t believe I can play Steam games locally on a handheld device. I’ve owned systems like the PlayStation Portable and PlayStation Vita, which delivered console-quality experiences. I also bought a Nintendo Switch at launch. But these handhelds feel like prototypes compared to the Steam Deck.
To use a turn of phrase, the PSP, Vita and Switch walked so the Steam Deck could run.
The Steam Deck is exactly what I’ve always wanted in a handheld. There’s a reason it won Best Gaming Innovation in our Tom’s Guide Awards 2022. It’s a remarkable piece of technology. As far as I’m concerned, the Steam Deck should serve as the standard by which future iterations and rivals are measured. Though it’s not perfect, it’s the very best handheld ever released.
Below, I’ll discuss the pros and cons of the Steam Deck after a month of usage. For a full breakdown of the handheld’s specs and performance, be sure to read my full Steam Deck review.
Why did I get a Steam Deck?
As strange as this may seem, I’m actually not much of a handheld gamer. Yes, I owned the original Gameboy back in 1990 and went on to get the handhelds mentioned above. I also owned a Nintendo 3DS and even dabbled with systems like the Game Gear, Atari Lynx and TurboExpress at friends’ homes. But despite having spent hundreds of hours playing handhelds over the decades, I’ve always preferred playing on a larger screen or monitor. I obviously love handhelds, but I’m a console and PC player at heart.
So why did I secure a Steam Deck the instant pre-orders went live? While the ability to play Steam games anywhere was the main draw, I also wanted to show my support for such impressive technology. Valve hasn't had a great track record with hardware ventures like the Steam Controller and Steam Machines. But I loved the Steam Deck’s simplicity: Play PC games on the go. I wanted it to succeed.
And as petty as this may sound, I also wanted to take the Nintendo Switch down a peg. While Nintendo’s smash-hit handheld arguably has the strongest first-party lineup of the Big Three console manufacturers (Nintendo, Sony, Microsoft), the Switch’s unimpressive specs left me disappointed. Yes, it was more powerful than the PS Vita, but for a 2017 handheld, it could have been much more. To that end, I wanted (and want) Steam Deck to serve as a warning to Nintendo. If it doesn’t start releasing technologically competent handhelds, it’s going to lose that particular battlefield to Valve.
Lastly, I’m a fan of cool tech (naturally). How could I not buy what is effectively a handheld PC? To that end, I made the right call pre-ordering the Steam Deck over a year ago. Not only has it exceeded my expectations, but it’s already made me incorporate handheld gaming into my normal routine. Considering how I have a fancy LG CX OLED TV, getting me to play on a handheld is an accomplishment.
The Steam Deck experience
The SteamOS user interface is very similar to the desktop version of Valve’s application. Because of that, playing on Steam Deck feels familiar because almost all the same UI elements and options from Steam are present. I thought Steam Deck’s UI would be the same as the desktop’s Big Picture Mode, but it’s far more robust. From what I understand, Valve eventually plans to make Big Picture Mode resemble SteamOS. I’m all for that.
Unlike my previous handhelds, I don’t have to buy dedicated games for Steam Deck – I already own hundreds of Steam games. The fact Steam Deck comes with a slew of titles you can play right out of the box (provided you have a Steam account) is one of its greatest strengths.
Presently, there are over 2,000 “verified” and playable games on Steam Deck. So far, I haven’t run into compatibility problems. Granted, I mostly play multiplatform titles released in the past six years. Most compatibility issues I’m aware of involve older PC games. Though there are exceptions, if it’s a Steam game that’s also on console, it’ll likely run fine on Steam Deck. This means I’ve enjoyed titles like God of War, Doom Eternal, Elden Ring, Cyberpunk 2077 and others with little or no technical hitches.
Though playing graphically-intensive games on a handheld is fun, I tend to lean toward titles with simpler graphics. TMNT: Shredder’s Revenge, Streets of Rage 4, Sonic Mania, Street Fighter 30th Anniversary Collection are a blast to play on Steam Deck. Recent indie games like Death’s Door and Hades are also solid on this device.
Speaking of indie games, I generally don’t care much for them since they don’t tend to impress me as much as “blockbuster” titles. With that said, indie games look and run great on Steam Deck. I only ever play indie games I’m reviewing but the Steam Deck may get me to play these titles on my own time.
Steam Deck is still a work in progress
Though I’m generally pleased with the Steam Deck, it has a few issues.
The main one is its less-than-accurate touchscreen and trackpads. I sometimes have to tap the screen multiple times for actions to register. The trackpads located underneath the analog sticks (specifically the right trackpad that serves as a mouse cursor) either move too slowly or too fast.
Thankfully, I rarely play titles requiring mouse and keyboard controls, but I wish the touch interface were snappier and more responsive. Using the desktop mode can be frustrating because of the spotty touch controls.
Because of the dodgy interface and somewhat intrusive on-screen keyboard, it’s hard to use Steam Deck in desktop mode. I bring that up as a complaint because you need to enter desktop mode to search for and install programs via the web browser to play games outside the Steam ecosystem. I won’t specify what I mean by that, but I’m sure you can guess.
Needless to say, one of Steam Deck’s main selling points (installing your own programs) isn’t something I’m willing to put much time into since desktop mode is, quite frankly, a headache. Hopefully, future updates — along with community support — can make using the desktop more seamless.
The future of handheld gaming
Though Steam Deck isn’t perfect, I still think it’s amazing. It’s the handheld we deserve. Things are pretty good at the moment but I can see an even brighter future for Steam Deck. Updates that fix its touch controls and a bigger list of compatible games should make it a stronger device.
I may feel differently about Steam Deck six months from now. Will I grow bored with it as I did with the Nintendo Switch? That’s possible. But I’ve yet to fully delve into what this machine can do. And as I said, future updates will likely deliver a better experience. The PC port of Marvel’s Spider-Man drops on August 12, 2022 and I haven’t even tried to play Xbox Game Pass titles on Steam Deck. There’s a lot on the horizon. Because of that and more, I think the handheld will keep my attention for a long while.
Next: Check out our guide on how to customize your controller layout on your Steam Deck.