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The Steam Deck’s First Year in Review

The Steam Deck has been widely available for a year now. Is it worth the price? Is it really a competitor to the Nintendo Switch? And, really, why is it so massive?
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This year, Valve’s latest piece of hardware, the Steam Deck, finally landed in the hands of consumers. The company has consistently impressed customers with its Steam software, but it’s left a lot to be desired with its hardware, like the Steam Controller or a series of ill-fated micro-consoles that sold about as well as ice in Alaska. Despite this spotty track record, the Steam Deck has proven to be something much more than just a gimmicky micro-console.

The Steam Deck is a roughly footlong, pound-and-a-half handheld gaming PC that lets you take your Steam library with you on the go. It’s got a big seven-inch screen, a pair of analog sticks, and a set of clicky buttons that feel like what you’d expect on a real console controller. In short, it’s a Nintendo Switch for PC gamers.

The Steam Deck came out in early 2022, but it’s only been widely available for purchase for the past few months. You can actually go on Valve’s site and buy one now; they’ll ship it to you right away rather than putting you on a long waiting list. So, how was the Steam Deck’s first year in the wild? Is it the Nintendo Switch killer some people predicted, or will it meet a similar fate as the Steam Machines?

The Specs

Steam Deck
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The Steam Deck is basically a handheld PC. It’s got standard specs under the hood, though it’s sold in three price ranges: the $400 variant comes with a paltry 64 GB of storage, the $530 version has 256 GB, and the full-blown $650 version has a whopping 512 GB in addition to an anti-glare screen. 

Speaking of the screen, it’s notably an LCD screen–this means it’s not nearly as luminous or clear as the OLED Switch’s gorgeous display, despite the Deck being a much more powerful machine. If you’re accustomed to an OLED Switch and make the jump to the Steam Deck, you’ll probably have some mixed emotions about the larger, dimmer screen paired with the inarguably smoother graphical performance. It’s a bizarre design choice, but only noticeable if you look at a lot of OLED screens.

As for the device’s performance, it’s got some surprisingly beefy components under the hood that allow it to play modern PC games at respectable performance levels. Even resource-heavy games like Elden Ring and God of War run quite well on the device, which makes it a no-brainer for people who want to take true AAA games on the go with them.

Deck Verified

Steam Deck
Valve

To help people find the games that would run well on the system, Valve introduced a badge system for the Steam Store that shows whether developers have optimized their games for the handheld system. Since every Deck shares the same specs, unlike standard PC gaming rigs, devs can make their games work for the system in a manner similar to console games. 

When a game is “Deck Verified,” that means you can rest assured that it will run well on the handheld system. It also means that the unique control scheme offered by the Deck will be adequate to play the game in question. For instance, some real-time strategy games that need a mouse and keyboard control setup aren’t feasible to play on the Deck.

On the other hand, console-first games that support controller inputs are perfect for the Deck. Indie titles like Hades and Slay the Spire are Deck favorites, and the aforementioned Elden Ring topped playtime charts for 2022 among Deck users. The concept here is compelling. Getting to take your Steam library with you where you go is a huge boon for some players.

Mini PC

Another aspect of the Steam Deck that helped it have a good 2022 is that it’s a mini PC. You can install Windows on it and use it as a tiny productivity computer. You can even use it as an emulation machine to play games from older systems like the NES and SNES–though this does land you in the legally murky area of downloading ROMs or using file dumps of your own game cartridges.

In some senses, though, the Deck never quite lets you forget it’s a PC in ways that make it a bit worse than a “walled garden” handheld like the Switch or even the ill-fated PlayStation Vita. It’s a battery hog, especially if you install Windows on it and try to play games through launchers that aren’t Steam. The fans are always whirring at their highest setting, and the top vent will expel hot air for the duration of every play session.

You should also expect to encounter far more game crashes and compatibility bugs if you step outside the “Deck Verified” sphere than you would with a more traditional console. Again, this is a PC. PC gamers might be accustomed to these low-level compatibility issues constantly pestering their experience, but for gamers familiar with consoles, these problems could be a deal-breaker–especially considering just how expensive the Deck is.

Is it a Switch-Killer?

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The big question people asked when they first saw the Deck was, “will it kill the Nintendo Switch?” The short answer to that question is no. The long answer is that anything with as niche appeal as a portable gaming PC will always struggle to compete with the far-reaching power of franchises like Mario and Zelda. That’s before even getting into the weeds with how many workarounds and comprises it takes to play some titles on the Deck.

If you’re looking to play a game in your Steam Library that isn’t Deck Verified, you’re going to need to jump through some hoops. You might need to play with the control and graphics settings to get things to work properly. That’s a bit more homework than your average gamer might want to do just to play a game on their portable console.

Another issue that will continue to plague the Deck for as long as it positions itself as a “portable AAA machine” is that it chews through battery life when you use it for big-budget games. For smaller indie titles, it can go for hours. If you want to play something like God of War, though, you’re going to burn that battery down in about an hour and a half. There are few scenarios in which a session that short would make much sense for a portable system–especially when the Switch can easily put out six to ten hours of battery life with its own first-party games like Xenoblade Chronicles 3 and Breath of the Wild

What It Gets Right

It’s not all doom and gloom, though. Just because the Deck isn’t going to be putting Nintendo out of business overnight doesn’t mean it’s a failure. It’s a great system that fills a truly great niche. A handheld system that can take your existing Steam library out of your computer room and into your living room is well worth the cost. Weirdly enough, the Deck excels more as a “comfortable gaming platform for the couch” than it does as a “true portable gaming PC.”

Sure, you could take your Deck on the bus with you or on a long plane ride. However, its most common use case is probably allowing existing Steam users to empty games off their backlogs while lying on the couch with their significant others and half-listening to some show on Netflix. That’s a compelling use case, but perhaps not one that looks flashy in a commercial like Nintendo’s infamous “playing Switch at a rooftop party” motif. 

Beyond that, the Deck can be used as your primary game console if you’re comfortable with doing a bit of shuffling to get everything to work properly. With the right peripherals, you can set up a Steam Deck on your TV and use a wireless controller to play your games. This is basically a Steam version of the Switch’s lauded hybrid design. 

Should You Buy One Now or Wait?

So, it’s been about a year since the Deck came out. Is it worth it to buy one now, or should you hold off and wait for a price drop or hardware update? There are two notable hardware shortcomings on the Deck. It’s got that aging LCD display, and it chugs battery life with the desperation of a person guzzling water after crawling through the desert. 

Will Valve roll out a hardware refresh on the Deck that mirrors Nintendo’s OLED Switch model? The OLED Switch notably addressed both the LCD screen and skimpy battery of its predecessor, but it took Nintendo roughly four and a half years to release that follow-up system. If Valve follows a similar release pattern, that would see you waiting another three years before buying a Deck.

If you’re intrigued by the possibilities the Deck presents and already have a sizable library of Steam games you want to play, it’s probably time to think about buying one. However, if you’re a console player who already owns a Nintendo Switch or doesn’t like the idea of fiddling with a PC interface, you can safely skip this one. It’s no Switch killer, but it’s a neat little system that serves its niche quite well.