There’s a new hard-to-get game console coming this year and it’s not the PlayStation or the Xbox. They are only sold online. Most casual players probably haven’t heard of it.
It’s a $400 Steam Deck that’s as utilitarian as it sounds. The handheld, a massive black plastic slate with a built-in game console, has the guts of a giant computer and a touchscreen. It’s as if the gaming PC and the Nintendo Switch had a baby.
Valve, the company in Bellevue, Washington, known for its online Steam game store, started taking Steam Deck orders last year and consoles arrived recently. The company hasn’t released sales figures, but estimates suggest hundreds of thousands have shipped. People trying to order one today won’t receive the device until fall.
Steam Deck is the result of Valve’s ambitious effort to blend the advantages of modern gaming hardware. Includes gaming PCs; Handheld Nintendo Switch, which focuses on family-friendly games; and PlayStation 5 from Sony and Xbox Series X from Microsoft, which are living room consoles with faster computing chips for playing more intense games.
Steam Deck tries to be a jackpot for all those deals. It runs on Linux, an open source operating system, which makes it capable of loading a wide range of new games, including titles intended for PC and some PlayStation and Xbox games. Similar to the computer, Steam Deck can be customized to run old games by installing emulators, which are applications that can run digital copies of games for old consoles.
As someone who grew up with consoles all the way back to Atari, I decided to give Steam Deck a try. Verdict: This is the console I would recommend to serious gamers who don’t mind doing a few tweaks to enjoy both new and old games. But it has major drawbacks, and it’s definitely not for people who are looking for the plug-and-play experience that a traditional game console has to offer.
Unlike regular consoles, such as PlayStations and Nintendos that can play games stored on discs and cartridges, Steam Deck is completely digital, meaning that it only plays games downloaded online. Players will mainly get titles through the Steam App Store. To get started, users created 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 Between Us. Some of the big titles that were once exclusive to PlayStation, like Final Fantasy VII: Remake, are now available on Steam.
Those who are feeling adventurous can go outside of Steam to get more games. This includes switching to desktop mode, which turns the Steam Deck into a Linux microcomputer that can be controlled using a virtual keyboard and a small trackpad built into the console.
Here, you can open a web browser to download some files to set up Steam Deck to work with Xbox Game Pass To play Xbox games, or to install emulators to play games designed for old consoles like the classic Atari from the 70s and PlayStation Portable from 2005.
Tinker, if you dare
In my tests, Steam Deck was fun to use for playing Steam games. Modern games ran smoothly with intense graphics like Monster Hunter Rise, and the console, which includes triggers, joysticks, and buttons, felt comfortable to use.
But fiddling with it to play games outside of the Steam store was a daunting task, and at times even insane. I watched several video tutorials to run EmuDeck, a script that installs emulators on the device. The process took more than an hour. I eventually had to connect my keyboard and mouse because the Steam Deck’s keyboard and trackpad don’t log clicks and keystrokes very often.
Valve said it’s still working on improving desktop navigation and that there are situations where people need to connect a keyboard and mouse.
After finally running the emulators, I had a great setup to play new, new and old games, such as Vampire Survivors, Persona 4, and Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII.
Steam Deck lacks refinement and practicality for mainstream gaming hardware, which makes it difficult to recommend to casual gamers.
Although it’s nice to have at home, I wouldn’t take one with me on a trip or to a coffee shop, which would go against its purpose as a portable device. Among its drawbacks, the battery life is below average. In my sessions, Steam Deck took close to 90 minutes before I needed to plug it in, even when I was playing games with minimal graphics, like Vampire Survivors.
On the other hand, it is large (about 12 inches long) and heavy (1.5 pounds) for a portable gaming device. This makes the smaller and lighter Nintendo Switch, which lasts for up to four hours when charged, an excellent portable device.
While patching is purely optional, it’s one of Steam Deck’s main selling points — and compared to using a gaming PC, customizing Steam Deck isn’t fun or easy with keyboard, mouse, and desktop software.
Finally, while some might not mind Steam’s digital-only approach to buying games, many who prefer having physical cartridges and discs — which can easily be shared with friends and resold to others — will view it as a deal breaker.