There’s a new hard-to-find gaming console this year that isn’t a PlayStation or an Xbox. It is sold online only. Most casual gamers probably haven’t heard of it.
It’s the $400 Steam Deck, a console as utilitarian as it sounds. The handheld, a bulky slab of black plastic with a built-in game controller, has the guts of a supercomputer and a touchscreen. It’s as if the gaming PC and the Nintendo Switch had a child.
Valve, the Bellevue, Wash.-based company known for its Steam online game store, began taking Steam Deck orders last year, and the consoles just arrived. The company hasn’t released sales numbers, but estimates suggest hundreds of thousands have been shipped. People trying to order today won’t receive the device until the fall.
Steam Deck is the result of Valve’s ambitious efforts to combine the advantages of modern gaming devices. These include gaming computers; Nintendo’s handheld Switch, which focuses on family gaming; and Sony’s PlayStation 5 and Microsoft’s Xbox Series X, which are living room consoles with faster computing chips for more intensive gaming.
The Steam Deck tries to be the jack of all these deals. It runs on Linux, an open source operating system, which allows it to load a huge number of new games, including titles made for PCs and some PlayStation and Xbox games. Just like with a PC, 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 before the Atari, I decided to give the Steam Deck a try. Verdict: This is a console I’d recommend to serious gamers who don’t mind putting in some extra effort to enjoy new and old games. But it has major flaws, and it’s definitely not for those looking for the plug-and-play experience offered by a traditional gaming console.
Unlike conventional consoles like PlayStations and Nintendos, which can play games stored on discs and cartridges, the Steam Deck is fully digital, meaning it only plays games downloaded from the Internet. Players will first get the titles through the Steam app store. So, to get started, users created a Steam account to download games.
From there, there are many options. Players can choose from a Steam 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 head outside of 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 some files to install Steam Deck with Xbox Game Pass to play Xbox games, or install emulators to run games made for older consoles like the classic Atari from the 1970s and the PlayStation. Portable since 2005.
Tinker if you dare
In my tests, Steam Deck was fun to use for Steam games. It ran modern graphics-intensive games like Monster Hunter Rise smoothly, and the controller, which includes triggers, joysticks, and buttons, felt comfortable to use.
But running games outside of the Steam store has been a difficult and, at times, maddening task. I watched some video tutorials to run EmuDeck, a script that installs emulators on a device. The process took more than an hour. I ended up having to plug in my own keyboard and mouse because the Steam Deck track and keyboard often didn’t register clicks and keystrokes.
Valve said it’s still improving desktop navigation, and there have been situations where people will need to connect a keyboard and mouse.
After I finally got the emulators up and running, I had new, new, and old games like Vampire Survivors, Persona 4, and Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII.
The Steam Deck lacks the polish and practicality of mainstream gaming devices, making it difficult to recommend to casual gamers.
While it’s good to have around the house, I wouldn’t take it with me on a trip or to a cafe, which defeats its purpose as a mobile device. Among its shortcomings, the main one is the low battery life. In my sessions, Steam Deck lasted about 90 minutes before I had to plug it in, even when I was playing games with minimal graphics like Vampire Survivors.
For another, it’s large (about 12 inches long) and heavy (1.5 pounds) for a portable gaming device. This makes Nintendo’s smaller and lighter Switch, which lasts more than four hours on a charge, the ultimate portable.
While customization is only 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 its keyboard, mouse and desktop software.
Finally, while some may not mind Steam Deck’s digital-only approach to purchasing games, many who prefer owning physical cartridges and discs — which can be easily shared with friends and resold to others — see it as a deal breaker.