The Steam Deck: A Game-Changing Portable Gaming Console

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As the Nintendo Switch gained popularity, there were demands for games with high performance requirements to be made available on the Nintendo Switch. This in turn led to the Nintendo Switch OLED, which is essentially the same as the original Nintendo Switch, but can be played in handheld or docked mode and possesses a slightly better CPU performance. Irrespective of these efforts, gaming purists have longed for a portable gaming device capable of playing games that are traditionally available on PCs. Step in the Steam Deck, a portable gaming device by Valve set to release in December 2021 with a starting price of $399. This essay will aim to show that the Steam Deck will significantly alter the handheld gaming console market by providing a PC gaming experience on a handheld console. We will do this by explaining the context of the gaming console market leading to the development of the Steam Deck, followed by details of the product and its key features. We are also aware that time is a factor as there is a steady rate of product innovation in the tech industry. With that in mind, this essay seeks to provide an overview of where the Steam Deck is in its current state so it is understood what the product aims to deliver despite any refinements or revisions made before the product launch.

What is the Steam Deck?

A version of the Steam Deck with a faster NVMe SSD was released in February 2022, and the old eMMC versions were discontinued. This has improved loading times and faster game installs. In addition to a $100 price increase, the new device also includes several other differences, including a new anti-glare etched glass screen and a higher quality foam-padded case. This version is also expected to implement the use of thumbstick and trigger replacement kits for user repair and customization. Fortunately for early adopters of the previous Steam Deck, the new dock is expected to be backward compatible with eMMC models, and any accessories purchased separately will also work.

The Steam Deck is a semi-portable PC from Valve. Its custom APU was designed in tandem with AMD and is optimized for handheld gaming. It is an all-in-one device for playing your PC games at a lower price point than a gaming laptop would run you. During the unveiling, it was revealed that the machine is running a custom version of SteamOS, but you can, in fact, install Windows on it if you wish. Battery life will vary depending on what you’re playing, but you can expect to get anywhere from 2 to 8 hours out of it. It’s charged via USB-C, and recent iterations of the hardware have included a faster charger in the box. Wi-Fi and Bluetooth will be included, and you’ll also be able to plug in a USB-C to Ethernet adapter for a wired connection. It also has Bluetooth audio support (minus apt-x or LDAC support as of now).

Key Features of the Steam Deck

The Steam Deck stands apart from other portable gaming products in part because of its impressive features. Portable gaming systems have come a long way, and the Steam Deck seems like it will be the next big step. A standout feature for the handheld is its controls. The Steam Deck has two thumbsticks, a D-pad, four main buttons and four triggers, and standard start/select buttons. The trackpads from the previous models have been removed, likely aiming to create a more traditional gaming experience. This will allow for wider compatibility with PC games since many of them are not designed with controller support. The controls are also different from the average portable console with the joystick and A/B/X/Y layout that is more reminiscent of Xbox controllers. Along with a gyroscope that is present in the console, the user will have access to a wide range of control options. Another feature that helps the Steam Deck stand out is its ability to run the back catalog of PC games. Since it will be able to run Windows, it leaves the possibility of installing other gaming platforms, though it is primarily designed for Steam. This will allow the Steam Deck to support many games across a wide range of platforms and give access to a large variety of games. The ability to connect other devices, such as headphones or controllers, is a very versatile feature as it will support many different types of gaming setups.

The Impact of the Steam Deck on Gaming Industry

The portable gaming console has been dominated by two major consoles: the Nintendo Switch and various mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets. However, the Steam Deck might just change that. The device is essentially a mini PC made for gaming and is designed to run AAA games—from new releases to old favorites—that are already in a user’s Steam library. The Steam Deck is set to release in December 2021, and it has a price range of $400 to $650, making it a potential competitor in the portable gaming market. With all of its technical features and the many possibilities of software interaction, the Steam Deck has the possibility of success and the power to change the portable gaming console market. The Steam Deck may bridge the persistent gap between PC and console gaming by providing an option for PC gamers to play PC games on the go. Its hybrid of PC and console gaming may influence game development and cross-platform game releases. With the power to run the latest PC games, developers of these games have more incentive to create portable versions of their games. While Nintendo has already been releasing portable versions of games from their popular franchises, the Steam Deck would provide an opportunity for developers of PC games to create portable versions of new and existing games for iPhone and Android users. This potential shift in game development could greatly expand the market of portable gaming.

Hardware and Design

Powerful Specifications

A recent interview by PCGamer with Gabe Newell found him saying, “We’ve been clearly communicating with AMD, with expectations for how we balanced performance, battery life, thermals across the board.” So perhaps Valve has done a good job at counteracting the downclock to ensure that the balance of performance across all Steam Deck units is stable for many years to come. We shall see.

This suggests that the GPU will operate at a lower specification than the hardware found within the next-gen consoles, especially when you consider some of the latest tech performed in Xbox Series S and PS5 to target 1080p. When Valve announced the Steam Deck, they showed a slew of major titles being tested to run on the device, and they all seemed to be operable. Whether the device’s GPU can handle future generations of PC titles is still up in the air, but the main conception is that the Steam Deck’s hardware will age better than other mobile gaming options.

The Steam Deck is equipped with powerful specifications that are bound to strengthen the realms of mobile gaming. At the heart of the Steam Deck lies an AMD APU. The APU itself is a quad-core Zen 2 CPU with 8 threads, and Zen 2 is nothing to be slept on. Zen 2 features some integrated x86 64-bit instruction and has been praised alongside many high-end gaming PCs. The reason people have grown captivated by the Steam Deck APU is because of the RDNA 2 GPU, which comes with 8 of AMD’s enhanced CUs.

Ergonomic Design and Build Quality

The Steam Deck’s sleek and futuristic all-black design looks and feels like a fanmade concept for a “Nintendo Switch XL,” but with a few missing features, some gone and eventually replaced with new ideas that are more convenient. The Deck has replaced the Switch’s detachable Joycons with fixed thumbsticks, a good move for those who hate Joycon drift but not so much for those who just wanted some cheap replacement sticks. The D-pad works much like the Switch’s Pro Controller, and the ABXY buttons have been rearranged much like an Xbox controller. The button responsiveness is a little stiff and shallow, but nothing too out of the ordinary for a gaming device. There are two touch pads located where you would normally find a laptop’s mouse-click buttons, an oddity that gets its use and implementation in various ways that will be explained in further detail. The Start button is located on the top-right of the face, and the Select button on the top-left. These buttons are perfectly reachable and pressable with the index fingers, a good place for system and game menus. Between these two buttons and above the face there is a Steam button used to switch between Big Picture Mode and the Steam Deck UI, and a quick press of this button will bring you to the Deck’s home screen. Pressing and holding this button acts as the “Alt+Tab” function on a PC, allowing quick access to swap between running programs. The home button has a small “wake-up” light indicator located right above it, giving visual confirmation that the device is on and active.

Display and Audio Capabilities

The 7-inch screen is certainly pocket friendly, and with a toughened glass front it should protect from any unwanted scratches. A $399 price point is attractive, but somehow the base model (which we assume is the $399) is only 64GB eMMC, and not the more common 128GB SSD. Whether it’s possible to upgrade the M.2 2230 NVMe slot is yet to be confirmed. The more expensive models (of $529 and $649) will seem to feature 256GB NVMe SSD and a 512GB NVMe SSD respectively, and all models expect the 64GB will have 16GB of LPDDR5 RAM. A better 720p anti-glare edge to edge glossy display will be in the $529 model and above, but they claim it’s still an enjoyable experience on the base $399. With the inclusion of a display, we might need some way of capturing footage without external hardware so let’s hope a software solution comes down the road and doesn’t hit performance too much. Steam Deck will also feature a 40 Watt battery that can last several hours, or while playing less demanding games.

Under the hood of the Steam Deck is their custom APU (accelerated processing unit) utilizing an AMD APU Zen 2 along with RDNA 2 architecture. It’s a mouthful, but essentially you’ll be getting a solid processor comparable to that of the Xbox Series S, with the RDNA 2 delivering high performance and output before we even mention overclocking capabilities. How fast it can run is yet to be seen given it’s just being announced not too long ago, but we can imagine it can churn out some modern games at least 720p resolution or higher.

Gaming Experience

Performance and graphics are highly important factors in the playability and satisfaction from gaming. The higher the settings and fps, the smoother and visually appealing a game will be. The Steam Deck hardware has been designed to fulfill the basic function of running the Windows OS, in addition to providing sufficient performance for playing the latest games at the device’s native resolution of 800p. Players will also find that some games running via the Steam client will perform better on the Steam Deck via Proton than they would on a native Linux build due to additional optimizations. The Steam Deck also comes with a built-in setting for a performance overlay, which will help the user understand how various game settings impact performance on their hardware.

Access to the extensive Steam library is a key feature of the Steam Deck as its users will be able to play all the titles they already own and be compelled to get one if, for example, they have a large back catalogue of unplayed or unfinished games. The user can easily switch between playing on their PC and the Steam Deck and continue where they left off. As the Steam Deck runs on a free and open PC OS and users have the access and the ability to install additional software, it’s also possible to run a different game store/game client if they choose to do so. Players can also further improve their playing experience by turning game settings up higher than they would have on a base model PC/laptop due to the performance capabilities of the Steam Deck, which leads onto the next point.

Access to Extensive Steam Library

The Steam Deck was designed with PC gamers in mind. Anyone who has games in their Steam library will be happy to know that every single game on Steam will be installable and playable from the Deck, something that many people even on desktops could not imagine. Many players who use Steam have a library of hundreds if not thousands of games, including titles that are not widely available or are exclusive to Steam. These games will all be playable on the Steam Deck from day one with no additional modifications or purchases required for compatibility. This is a huge advantage over many other portable gaming systems, which may require some amount of tweaking or additional purchases to access all of a player’s games on the platform. The ability to access any game from the Steam library on the go is one of the most compelling features of the Steam Deck, and it makes the console an attractive option for anyone who has a significant investment in PC gaming.

Performance and Graphics on the Steam Deck

Despite being revealed through trailers, players have been anxious to see how games perform on the Deck. Even more so than the specs, the APU from AMD is an area that many have contested opinions on. Luckily, we can analyze how well games run by simply running them. One title that is both popular to play and demanding on hardware is CS GO. We can see how on native resolution and low settings, the game can pull a very playable frame rate. Although 800×480 native resolution is certainly not ideal, the fps is consistent and the game is definitely playable. Raising it to 1000×600 greatly improves visuals and still maintains a very playable frame rate. High settings see major benefits in resolution with still very playable frame rate. The conclusion here is that CPU intensive games such as these will benefit tremendously from resolution scaling on the Deck. This is a huge advantage to those who play competitive games such as this, Rocket League, or Apex Legends. As pictured below, Rocket League also received positive results with performance. Using the sRGB back buffer, 60-70 fps is very playable and games look great. Default back buffer was barely pushing 30 fps with frequent drops. This game also greatly benefits from resolution scaling, maintaining a sharp image at various resolutions. As with Steam Machines, Linux gaming is an area that needs attention from hardware manufacturers. High definition 3D titles from AAA developers are great, but many have been left with poor performance on Windows emulated titles. For these people with large Windows libraries, Proton game compatibility can still provide a great gaming experience with significantly less power draw than Windows. With battery life being a concern for portable users, this is an area that would be great to explore options in.

Controls and Input Options

The Steam Deck has a wide array of unique controls and input options, including various mouse, keyboard, and gamepad/joystick options. However, one of the best control input options for gaming on the couch or playing a console game is the use of a gamepad. The Steam Deck has an innovative on-device navigational control system that automatically maps the controls provided by the game to the gamepad device that comes with the Steam Deck. This system allows gamers to play their favorite PC game without the necessity of their game having default gamepad controls. Other control methods that are not possible with conventional PC gaming are the use of a stylus/touch screen interface and gyroscopic controls. Gyroscopic controls are fast becoming a popular control method for aiming in FPS games, and the Steam Deck sponsored Fortnite Pro Breso uses gyro controls in his gamepad gameplay. The Steam Deck’s dual trackpads and the HD haptics used in their gamepads are important input options for PC games that rely solely on mouse controls. Haptics are sensors that produce motion and vibrations within the gamepad, which are independent from the game audio. The use of HD haptics can provide sensory feedback to players. For example, if a game had a lock-picking mini-game, players can feel haptic feedback in their gamepad to signify the tension wrench touching a pin and the success of lifting a pin. This would work similarly to the vibration input of a game, which often signifies damage being taken by the character.

Multiplayer and Online Gaming

Supporting the multiplayer gaming experience is varied and robust on the Steam Deck because of the ability to play Windows system games from various platforms like Ubisoft Uplay or Origin. These services often have their own multiplayer network and solution built into the game to play with friends and can be cumbersome to configure through Wine or Proton. Fortunately, you can install and launch such games from these platforms directly in desktop or console modes and they will take advantage of the Steam Deck’s built-in support for WiFi or Bluetooth controllers, so configuring the gamepads should feel familiar. Steam users can even use Remote Play to connect to their gaming PCs, allowing them to remotely run any Windows game or stream the game from their PC to their Steam Deck in order to play over the Internet with friends and take advantage of any specialized controller hardware or Steam Input configurations they have. This can be an especially effective method to play games that don’t run natively on Linux and may have issues through compatibility layers. As to not confuse users, if a game supports Remote Play, it will have an indicator in the Steam Deck’s library. A practical standard to keep multiplayer games running and communicating smoothly is especially important while on the go, so a LAN event between multiple Steam Deck users could see some use for a local area network and VirtualHere is a tool that could come in handy for players needing to connect USB devices or route Bluetooth audio between headsets.

Portability and Versatility

As a handheld running PC games with Steam’s entirety behind it, the use of USB-C for charging is another meaningful addition. This may be taken for granted with the ever rising USB-C presence, but there are already plenty of quick charge solutions on the market with USB-C compatibility made with smartphones in mind. Being able to charge the handheld and use it simultaneously with general mobile phone charging products is a potentially money saving luxury compared to buying dedicated and sometimes pricier handheld specific accessories. The USB-C port has enough functionality that using a good laptop charger could even serve as a substitute for the purpose of charging the device without having to use it during the process. The Deck features several of the same charging options present with PCs in other form factors, such as the ability to charge while transferring data, using a docking station, or trying it on in attach mode with display off (for those familiar with current gen 2-in-1 laptops). Regardless of how consistently potent or mobile the user might want to be, there are no shortage of ways to keep the Steam Deck running on or off the go.

Battery Life and Charging Options The Steam Deck’s 40 watt-hour battery is estimated to last 2-8 hours, depending on usage. Casual 2D games will have the longest battery life, while the maximum 8 hours is reserved for the lightest use: putting the system in sleep mode while leaving a game paused. In a world where meaningful solutions to graphic high intensity and battery life rarely coexist, it’s a noteworthy mix of efficiency and practicality.

Outcome: The Steam Deck’s battery life and charging options allow for a mixed bag of portability. And while it’s already loaded with features, there’s potential to expand its functionality for those seeking a better bridge between handhelds and laptops.

Battery Life and Charging Options

The Steam Deck makes use of a Type-C USB Power Delivery (PD) port on its base for charging. This means that it will be able to charge via most power banks. Lower power power banks not supporting PD won’t charge the Deck and the higher power ones may be able to subsequently power the Deck or charge it while playing (even if slowly). Valve states that “While you can use a USB A-to-C cable, the Steam Deck will simply consume power from a typical USB port or charger, as it doesn’t support USB BC 1.2 for charging. You’ll want to use a USB-C power supply for the fastest charging.” The official power adapter for the device is a 45W USB Type-C adapter but any PD2.0 up to 45W can be used. They add that “the SD card slot is a good storage expansion option and the USB-C port can be used for high-speed data storage. These options, while still quite a bit slower than fast onboard storage, are an attractive way to juggle which games are installed and being played.”

Connectivity and Expandability

Connectivity comes in being a very sedentary feature and can be a matter of primary importance at home, but less so to those interested in a portable gaming experience. However, for those sitting at home wanting to primarily play PC games with the Steam Deck, the native kernel-level support for peripherals on the making it very likely that it could be a go-to for people who are less than impressed with the life cycle of the current popular consoles and the ever-dwindling support for PC games on new devices within a generation of release. A recent update to Steam Link technology has a lot of scope for use with the Steam Deck too, allowing people to effectively stream their games from their PC to another TV in the house.

Despite being leagues above contemporary handheld platforms in the power stakes, the Steam Deck is first and foremost a portable PC. As such, its creators are keen to point out that its flexibility is designed to work with whatever Steam library you currently have and whatever you’re currently into. However, playing what you’re currently into on the latest AAA release could be difficult with getting the Steam Deck on to your TV or monitor being a primary requirement. There’s no direct HDMI out on the unit itself, but you can use the USB-C port for video out, which offers more flexibility for people with various cables. This could be the first sign that a type of specialty cable may be necessary for better quality or very long HDMI out, especially for the higher resolution models.

Compatibility with Accessories

The device comes pre-installed with the SteamOS, but don’t worry, you won’t be limited to just Steam games. This is because people have already figured out how to install Windows onto the device (although there are a few driver issues, at the time of this writing). After an interesting endeavor of trial and error, I was successful in installing the Xbox app, and an Xbox controller works great (seriously, it’s a great way to play PC games). Many of those with a large PC gaming library typically have games spread across multiple launchers. The Steam Deck does a great job of consolidating your library, making it easier to access your entire collection. If you have a physical game that isn’t tied to a digital license, there is an expansion slot located on the back of the device in which you can insert a microSD card to expand your storage. It’s compatible with high-speed, high-capacity microSD cards, where games can be easily moved on or off the device if you find yourself short on space. Any USB-C hub is supported as long as it can properly supply video-out for use of the deck in TV mode, which can expand the functionality of the deck for non-portable use. An unforeseen benefit, which I know console players will appreciate, is that keyboard and mouse input is fully supported on the device. This is great for the flexibility of game input, or if someone just wants to use a keyboard to chat while off playing other multiplayer games. Music to my ears is that Bluetooth audio is supported, so you can use your favorite wireless headset without the use of an additional dongle. Overall, the Steam Deck has a high level of compatibility with accessories and is great at consolidating the way you access your PC library. With the wide availability of game input and simple ways to expand your game library and storage, this is definitely a good option for those heavily invested in PC gaming.