Interested in learning what's next for the gaming industry? Join gaming executives to discuss emerging parts of the industry this October at GamesBeat Summit Next. Learn more.
Stop comparing the Steam Deck’s size to Nintendo Switch or any other dedicated gaming handheld. Valve Software has delivered a cutting-edge handheld PC with mind-blowing specs at an even more mind-blowing price. And in that context, this is a tiny gaming powerhouse that is going to change the way I play games forever.
The Steam Deck launches today — for whatever that means. You needed to preorder months ago for a chance to get one by the end of this year let alone by the end of March. But the device starts at $400 and goes up to $529 and then $649 as you add more and faster storage and extra features. But even that base model comes with a powerful and efficient AMD Zen 2-based PCU and RDNA 2-based video chip. You also get a massive 16GB of speedy LPDDR5 memory and a menagerie of input options. With all of that, you get to experience games on a 7-inch 1200×800 screen.
I want to state clearly at the top that 800p at 7 inches is crystal sharp for video games, and a higher resolution would only drain your battery faster.
CPU: Zen 2 4c/8t, 2.4-3.5GHz (up to 448 GFlops FP32)
GPU: 8 RDNA 2 CUs, 1.0-1.6GHz (up to 1.6 TFlops FP32)
APU power: 4-15W
|RAM||16 GB LPDDR5 on-board RAM (5500 MT/s quad 32-bit channels)|
|Storage||64 GB eMMC (PCIe Gen 2 x1)|
256 GB NVMe SSD (PCIe Gen 3 x4)
512 GB high-speed NVMe SSD (PCIe Gen 3 x4)
All models use socketed 2230 m.2 modules (not intended for end-user replacement)
All models include high-speed microSD card slot
|Resolution||1280 x 800px (16:10 aspect ratio)|
|type||Optically bonded IPS LCD for enhanced readability|
|Dispay size||7″ diagonal|
|Brightness||400 nits typical|
|Sensors||Ambient light sensor|
|Battery||40Whr battery. 2 – 8 hours of gameplay|
|OS||SteamOS 3.0 (Arch-based)|
What you should take away from the on-paper specs is that this is a very powerful machine for its price and formfactor. Other, less-powerful handheld PCs sell for more than twice the price of the Steam Deck. Of course, the question is whether or not those specs translate into reality. And they do. This machine is capable of handling even the most modern and graphically intensive games.
But the Steam Deck poses a larger question: can it change the relationship between people and PC gaming? And the answer to that is a resounding yes. This is the most important advancement in PC gaming in years, and it’s my favorite gaming PC ever made.
Steam Deck fits into my life
The Steam Deck seems like an obvious winner even when you consider its size. People love Steam and people love handheld gaming. So make a handheld Steam machine, and everyone wins, right? It’s actually not that easy.
The PC is an ancient beast in the gaming world, and it brings baggage along with it. You cannot just put people into a desktop environment and let them loose. Valve understands this, so it built a new Deck-specific version of its Linux-based SteamOS. And it used this platform to solve all of the many problems this kind of PC would face.
SteamOS enables you to navigate however you want. You can use the physical controls, the touch pads, the touchscreen, or a USB mouse and keyboard. SteamOS also bypasses any Linux weirdness by putting all of your Steam options, the store, and your library all front and center.
Oh, but what if you need to stop playing in the middle of a game, can you easily suspend the system? Yes — Valve has thought of that. But what if you then start playing on your PC, won’t the cloud saves conflict? Steam knows that is a problem and tries to do everything to mitigate those concerns.
But no PC game is really optimized to run off a battery. That’s going to be annoying, right? Not really. Valve has done work to get devs to optimize their games, and it has also built system-level features to cap your framerate and your power levels.
I will get to how impressive the Steam Deck hardware is, but it’s obvious that Valve is a software company first. It’s difficult to overstate the achievement here. Making a gaming PC that feels like a console is something that seemed impossible — after all, Valve itself failed with the Steam Machines. But Steam Deck has an answer, quality-of-life feature, or automated solution for everything. And that makes the device feel as much like a complete, well-considered experience as any Xbox, PlayStation, or Switch.
Is it too big?
The Steam Deck won’t fit in your pocket, and it is even bulky in a bag. Unlike my Switch, which I take with me everywhere, the Steam Deck is much better as the device I only lug around the house. Now, that doesn’t mean it isn’t portable. It seems ideal for road trips or maybe train/bus rides. I’ll admit to not using much public transportation throughout my life in the suburbs.
It’s just not going to be the pocket PC that comes with you everywhere. And that’s fine. Again, this is the world’s smallest fully featured gaming PC and not the evolution of the Game Boy.
The Deck is trying to do everything that a PC can do, and it is mostly succeeding. People were worried about the placement of the sticks, but I promise you that this is the right ergonomic design. On top of that, you get the dual touchpads, a D-pad, and two analog sticks and face buttons — oh, and gyro controls as well.
And that’s the story of the Steam Deck: It has as few compromises as possible.
I absolutely wish it was smaller. But I do not want a smaller Deck at the expense of its input options or — most importantly — its performance.
Steam Deck is just so damn good at playing video games
The biggest reason to get over the size of the Steam Deck is its performance. Yes, this formfactor is so successful that we will inevitably get a Deck 2 that is thinner, lighter, and more powerful. But I’m so glad that I preordered a system because the machine is more than powerful enough to play almost any game right now.
Steam Deck delivers nearly 60 frames per second with reasonable settings for most games that I tested. This includes even recent blockbusters like Resident Evil Village and Hitman 3. More demanding games like God of War or less-optimized titles like Elden Ring are closer to 45 frames per second.
But let’s be clear — we are talking about playing Elden Ring and God of War on a device you can hold in your hands. This is so far away from what the Switch is capable of. And even devices like the GPD Win 3 or Aya Neo are going to really struggle to hit 30 fps in God of War.
It helps that the display is only 800p. At 7-inches, you do not notice the detail loss at all, and even modern games scale down quickly at that resolution. Even more importantly, the screen is fantastic. It has some of the best contrast I’ve seen on a non-OLED display. But at the same time, colors pop like on a high-end phone screen.
The speakers may deliver an even better experience than the screen, though. Valve is unmatched in the gaming space when it comes to driving full, spacious audio. That was true with the Valve Index, and it’s even better here. Turning the volume up is a treat and leads to an even deeper sense of immersion, which is something that handhelds can do very well.
This is a PC, so you get the option to kill your battery
The 2018 PlayStation game God of War runs infinitely longer on Steam Deck’s battery than it does on any PlayStation handheld. That’s because Sony doesn’t make a handheld anymore. The point is that it’s a miracle to get 2 hours of battery in a game that was never meant to run on a gaming device like this.
And 2 hours is the low end for the most battery-intensive games on Steam. And Valve will let you use your battery however you want. That includes booting up the poorly optimized Elden Ring, which will drain your battery in a little over 100 minutes.
You get the other side of that as well, though. A game like Vampire Survivors, with its simple graphics, gets somewhere between 6-to-8 hours.
This is the best gaming PC ever made
In the gaming community, we get really hung up on boxes. We like our imposing desktop PCs and new-generation consoles so much that we often forget that they exist to serve us games. What the Nintendo Switch emphasized is that serving people games wherever they are is probably more important than things like graphics and HDR.
Valve has taken that concept and brought it to the wide-open world of PC gaming. And the Steam Deck is a success because it emphasizes that experience. When I first got the Deck, I was planning on installing Windows. Now, I don’t know if I ever will because SteamOS is so fantastic at putting my Steam games front and center. And it’s also built to give me specific, granular control over how those games and the system performs so that I can get the most out of the device.
A handheld is more relational than a console. It’s something you hold, and you build a bond with. And Valve has lived up to its end of that relationship. It has proven that it cares deeply about you having the best experience possible. And that, in turn, enables players to build this intimacy with games that handhelds are famous for.
I love my powerful desktop and my new consoles, but I would give them up to keep the Steam Deck experience in my hands.
Steam Deck is available starting today for those who preordered starting at $400. Valve provided GamesBeat with a sample unit for the purpose of this review.
GamesBeat's creed when covering the game industry is "where passion meets business." What does this mean? We want to tell you how the news matters to you -- not just as a decision-maker at a game studio, but also as a fan of games. Whether you read our articles, listen to our podcasts, or watch our videos, GamesBeat will help you learn about the industry and enjoy engaging with it. Learn more about membership.