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"Steam Deck"

Posted: 09 October, 2022

I didn't intend to buy a Steam Deck. I figured my Switch would be enough for personal use, and hey, after the other Steam Machines, maybe it'd be better to sit this one out. But I was wrong.

A few things tipped me over. First, the initial reviews—especially from people I knew—were positive, and second, it started selling like hotcakes.

I knew it was worth supporting when people began sending me pictures of my games running on it, so about a month ago, when my pre-order window opened, I dropped the cash, and one week later, I was the proud owner of a Steam Deck.

First Impressions

This thing is enormous. Bigger than a Nintendo Switch. Bigger than you think it's going to be, and probably bigger than it should be. But I've grown to like it. Its chonky size allows for large, rounded grips and multiple well-size trigger buttons. The sticks are well placed, even for my small hands, and its face buttons & d-pad feel fantastic. I think it's the most comfortable device I've used for extended play sessions.

The screen is large and bright, and most things look great. The only stumble is text; the 800p screen struggles to cope with AAA game's penchant for tiny fonts, which sometimes results in nasty aliasing. (I've had to change a couple of prompts in my game to suit the lower resolution.)

The Deck runs hot at full beans. Not uncomfortably, but you'll notice the rear fans blowing, depending on how you're sitting and which angle you're holding it. The fans aren't obnoxiously loud, which is a result, given how hard they're working, but you can hear them, and all that heat comes at a price: battery life.

Performance

Whoah, this thing is way more pokey than I was expecting! I stuck my current [Unreal Engine 5] build on the Deck with no tweaks, and it ran at 20-30fps across the board. That's better than my two-year-old XPS 15 laptop at 1080p! I was expecting a step up from the Switch, but this is a pocket (well) monster. Elden Ring, on the bog? What a time to be alive!

It's possible to tap the status bar at the top of the screen and enable the performance overlay, containing utilisation graphs for each CPU core, the GPU and the current FPS, which, from a development point of view, is mana from heaven.

It's also possible to tackle the battery life problem directly. For example, framerate can be limited to 15, 30 or 60fps, or v-sync can be disabled. In addition, there's a Half Rate shading mode, which in theory, should reduce the resolution of pixel shaders, a big win for pixel art games. Or, you can limit the GPU's clock speed and adjust TDP limits on the CPU side. Just don't expect miracles. I've been able to get 2 to 3 hours of battery life out of some games, but it's entirely possible to drain a full battery in an hour and a half.

We're talking Atari Lynx levels of battery life, most of the time.

Compatibility

The Deck runs a Linux-based OS under the hood, meaning most games—unless they have a Linux native SKU—are running under Proton, a Wine variant optimised by Valve.

Proton is stunning. I am in absolute awe at how good a job it does. Using my games as a test, I saw a 30-40% increase in FPS using Proton vs the Linux Native builds. Even basics, like loading times, were better under Proton.

Now, there're loads of moving parts here and multiple reasons why this could be the case, and yes, my sample size was five different executables, but Proton was better on every single one. So much so that I'm genuinely questioning whether to put out Linux Native versions of future projects. If I had to make the call today, I wouldn't.

This feels, in some ways, like a backward step for Linux gaming... But then, is it? If Proton unlocks so many Windows games and people have a Linux device in their bags? I'm conflicted, for sure.

I don't have the most extensive Steam library, just a few hundred games, but everything I've wanted to play on the Deck I've been able to get going, and if required, create an input mapping for—even Space Giraffe. Honestly, it's so much better than I was expecting. Valve is underselling.

Development

It's possible to drop the Deck into Developer mode and, using the SteamOS Devkit Client (freely available on Steam), side-load games (or ROMS) onto it. These reside in a particular folder on the OS and appear in your library's "non-steam games" section. Just be careful; removing a side-loaded game via the steam client doesn't delete it. You need to drop into Linux for that.

Yup, KDE is there, but it's maybe not as valuable as you'd like. The OS is read-only, so although you can install libraries and tools, you're not getting a full Linux OS in the truest sense. But it's a godsend if you want to read log files, grab stuff off your NAS or do some cheeky remote debugging.

I've not been able to get Unreal to see the Deck—it's supposedly possible to launch builds on it from PIE—but I'm happy enough side-loading.

I've connected a wireless keyboard and mouse to mine, which allows me to bring up the console, tweak CVars, do perf checks, dump ticks and record stat files. In short, I can treat it as a second development PC, albeit one I send builds to wirelessly. Then, when I need to, I drop back into Linux, tidy up, SSH files to my Dev Rig and check Mastodon...

It's an ideal dev kit. One you don't need a fixed IP for.

Price

Is it worth it?

Here's the thing. I'd baulk at it if I didn't get one through work. 350UKP (minimum) is a hell of a lot of money for something that's, essentially, tethered to a power source.

That said, it is, without a doubt, superbly crafted and well-designed. It feels premium in every way. The software stack is polished, and I enjoy using it. But it's big, it's hot, and fucking hell, did I say it's expensive?

If you want something to play with while your other-half watches Strictly, then yeah, maybe it's perfect. And let's be honest, having your entire Steam Library with you on the go is a hell of a selling point.

Personally, I think it's too rich for what it offers, but I sincerely hope Valve keeps pushing in this direction. I honestly believe this has the potential to shake up PC gaming, and I fully intend to support it. I see a smaller, lighter, longer-lasting Deck 2 as an absolute must-have.

Well, if they can get the price under 300 quid. Fingers crossed!