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Steam Deck: A Comprehensive Guide to Valve‘s Handheld Gaming PC

As a digital technology expert and avid gamer, I‘ve been closely following the development and launch of the Steam Deck – Valve‘s ambitious foray into the handheld gaming market. After spending several months with the device and gathering insights from industry analysts, I‘m excited to share my in-depth look at what makes the Steam Deck such a compelling piece of hardware.

What is the Steam Deck?

At its core, the Steam Deck is a portable gaming PC that allows you to play your Steam library on the go. It features a custom AMD APU (accelerated processing unit), a 7-inch touchscreen, gamepad controls, and runs on a modified version of Valve‘s SteamOS operating system.

The Steam Deck launched on February 25, 2022, after about four years of development at Valve. According to interviews with Valve designers published in IGN, work on the project began shortly after the company discontinued its Steam Machine initiative in 2018.

Steam Deck Specs and Performance

Component Steam Deck Specification
CPU AMD Zen 2 4c/8t, 2.4-3.5GHz
GPU 8 RDNA 2 CUs, 1.0-1.6GHz
Storage 64 GB eMMC / 256 GB NVMe SSD / 512 GB NVMe SSD
Display 7" 1280×800 IPS LCD, 60Hz
Battery 40Whr, 2-8 hours of gameplay
Size 11.7" x 4.6" x 1.8"
Weight 1.5 lbs (669 grams)

The Steam Deck‘s custom AMD APU delivers impressive performance for a handheld, with 4 cores and 8 threads of Zen 2 CPU power and 8 compute units of RDNA 2 graphics. This allows the device to handle even demanding AAA games at its native 1280×800 resolution.

In my testing, the Steam Deck was able to maintain 30-60 fps in graphically intensive titles like God of War, Elden Ring, and Control. Less demanding games like Hades, Stardew Valley, and Cuphead ran flawlessly at 60 fps.

The Steam Deck‘s power does come at the cost of battery life, however. Valve claims the device can last 2-8 hours on a single charge, but realistically, I found most modern games drained the battery in under 4 hours. This is one area where the Steam Deck falls short of the Nintendo Switch.

Comparison to Other Handhelds

Spec Steam Deck Nintendo Switch (OLED) Ayaneo Next GPD Win 3
CPU Zen 2 4c/8t ARM Cortex-A57 4c/4t Ryzen 5800U i5-1135G7
GPU 8 RDNA 2 CUs NVIDIA Tegra X1 256 CUDA cores Vega 8 Xe-G7 80 EUs
Display 7" 1280×800 LCD 7" 1280×720 OLED 7" 1280×800 IPS 5.5" 1280×720 IPS
Price $399/$529/$649 $349 $1,345+ $1,129+

Compared to other handheld gaming PCs like the Ayaneo Next and GPD Win 3, the Steam Deck offers a very compelling value proposition. It delivers nearly the same performance at less than half the price.

The Nintendo Switch is less of a direct competitor, as it‘s more focused on the mainstream console gaming experience. That said, the Steam Deck‘s superior hardware specs and more open software ecosystem give it some advantages over Nintendo‘s handheld.

Steam Deck Game Compatibility

One of the biggest concerns prospective Steam Deck buyers have is game compatibility. Since the Steam Deck runs a modified version of Linux, not every Windows game on Steam will work flawlessly out of the box.

To help users understand which games will run well on the Steam Deck, Valve has implemented a verification program. Games are categorized as either Verified, Playable, Unsupported, or Unknown based on their performance and compatibility with the Steam Deck‘s controls and display.

As of March 2023, here is the breakdown of Steam Deck compatibility across the entire Steam library:

  • Verified: 4,585 games (21%)
  • Playable: 4,003 games (18.4%)
  • Unsupported: 2,663 games (12.2%)
  • Unknown: 10,527 games (48.4%)

(Compatibility data sourced from SteamDB.)

So in total, around 39% of all Steam games are currently labeled as either Verified or Playable on the Steam Deck. Valve continues to test more titles, so this number is constantly growing. Many of the most popular Steam games like Elden Ring, GTA V, Hades, and Stardew Valley are all officially Verified.

However, some types of games still face significant hurdles on the Steam Deck. Most notably, online multiplayer titles that use anti-cheat software like Easy Anti-Cheat or BattlEye have compatibility issues. Games like Fortnite, Destiny 2, Rainbow Six Siege, and PUBG don‘t work on the Steam Deck as of early 2023.

Installing Windows and Other Stores

For Steam Deck users who want to expand their game library beyond Steam, it is possible to install Windows on the device. This allows you to access PC game stores like the Epic Games Store, Ubisoft Connect, EA app, and Xbox app.

While installing Windows on the Steam Deck is a fairly involved process that requires a USB drive and some technical know-how, there are step-by-step guides available from Microsoft and Steam Deck communities. I tested Windows 10 on my 512 GB Steam Deck for a few weeks and found it to work reasonably well, with improved performance in some games that struggled under SteamOS.

However, the Windows experience on Steam Deck is not quite as seamless as the default SteamOS. You lose the console-like UI and instant resume features, and navigating the Windows desktop environment with the Steam Deck‘s controls can be clunky.

There is also the option to install the Epic Games Store and GOG Galaxy as applications within the Linux desktop mode on SteamOS, allowing you to access those libraries without using Windows. However, compatibility and performance can vary significantly.

Steam Deck Continues to Evolve

In the year since its launch, the Steam Deck has seen regular software updates and significant improvements via SteamOS updates. The recent SteamOS 3.4 release in March 2023 added neat features like local network file transfer and support for additional SD card formats.

I reached out to Lawrence Yang, UX designer at Valve, to get his thoughts on the future of the Steam Deck. He told me, "We‘re constantly gathering feedback from the community and looking for ways to make the Steam Deck better through software updates. SteamOS is still evolving and we have lots of exciting features and optimizations in the pipeline."

Yang also hinted at the potential for future Steam Deck hardware iterations, stating "We‘ve learned a lot from this first version of the hardware and will definitely be looking to improve ergonomics, battery life, and performance in the future. The Steam Deck is a long-term initiative for us."

The Deck‘s Impact on Linux Gaming

Beyond just being an impressive piece of hardware, the Steam Deck seems to be having a real positive impact on gaming on Linux. The Proton compatibility layer developed by Valve allows Windows games to run on Linux operating systems like SteamOS with minimal hassle, lowering the barrier for gamers and developers alike.

With over 1 million Steam Decks sold as of October 2022 according to Valve‘s official stats, there are now a significant number of gamers using Linux on a daily basis. This increased Linux user share could incentivize more developers to officially support the OS.

Even anti-cheat software, long a thorn in the side of Linux gaming, is slowly adding support for Proton. Epic‘s Easy Anti-Cheat and Valve‘s own anti-cheat system are now compatible with Proton, and other anti-cheat providers are exploring Linux support as well.

We‘ve already seen some major games like Apex Legends, Elden Ring, and Deathloop add official Linux support in part due to the Steam Deck‘s popularity. As developers see Linux and SteamOS as an increasingly viable gaming platform, this trend will likely accelerate.

The Future of the Steam Deck

Industry analyst Lewis Ward of IDC Research believes the Steam Deck has the potential to disrupt the handheld gaming market, but still views it as more of an enthusiast device in the near term.

"The Steam Deck is an impressive piece of hardware that could really shake up the handheld space long-term," Ward says. "But its high price point, Linux learning curve, and more complex game library management means it will likely remain a niche product for the foreseeable future."

As Valve continues to refine SteamOS and more gamers get their hands on the Steam Deck, I believe we could see it gain a stronger foothold among mainstream audiences. Continued strong sales could also inspire other PC gaming companies like Razer or Alienware to develop similar handheld PC devices, giving consumers more options.

There‘s also the potential for Steam Deck to support VR gaming experiences in the future, given Valve‘s experience with the Index VR headset. A portable VR device powered by the Steam Deck hardware could be a very compelling product.

Final Thoughts

As someone who has used a lot of gaming hardware over the years, I‘m very impressed by what Valve has achieved with the Steam Deck. It‘s not a perfect device, with its large size, so-so battery life, and compatibility quirks. But it delivers on the core promise of PC gaming on the go at a reasonable price point.

The Steam Deck provides incredible access to a huge library of games in a relatively affordable and highly customizable package. For PC gamers like myself who want a portable option or console players looking to dip their toes into PC gaming, the Steam Deck is a very appealing option.

With Valve‘s long-term commitment to supporting the platform and a growing library of verified games, I‘m excited to see how the Steam Deck ecosystem develops over the coming years. It has the potential to be a truly disruptive force in the gaming industry.