Steam Deck

Steam Deck

The Steam Deck's announcement excited me, but not to the same extent it seemed to excite many other people. Immediately people were saying things like "This is the real Nintendo Switch Pro!", a comment partly motivated by people's disappointment in the rumours of a more powerful Switch console being inaccurate.

But just like Steam Machines before it, I thought people were getting ahead of themselves.

Back when Valve announced the Steam Machines (or Steam Box), they made it very clear that they were just prebuilt PCs running SteamOS. But that didn't stop people framing them as 'consoles', see my posts here and here on my frustrations with this. They ultimately went nowhere, instead feeding into Steam Link, Steam Controller and VR - but my point remained.

I feared people were going to do the same with the Steam Deck. Put unrealistic and unfounded expectations on what is essentially a PC running SteamOS (Linux).

It didn't quite go that far, I think people understood Valve a bit more and the communication and marketing from Valve was a lot clearer this time. Nontheless, I think still people weren't fully grasping what this device is:

  • It's an all-in-one handheld PC running SteamOS with a 'custom' AMD APU
  • It runs the majority of its games on that Linux OS via a Windows compatibility layer
  • It's going to be large, hot and probably not going to have a great battery life because of it.

But what do you get in return for this?

  • A handheld PC that can run many of your PC games and emulated games from other systems
  • A handheld PC which has all the flexibility and ability to tinker and optimise
  • A handheld PC which is reasonably priced AND powerful enough to run many modern AAA console games at good settings and good enough performance.
  • A handheld PC which attempts to bring some of the conveniences of a bespoke console handheld such as suspend/resume.

For some people, one of these positives sounds like a negative, for others, it is a positive.

It's very much a handheld for the PC gaming enthusiast, at least for the moment. But I do think there could come a point, a couple of years from now, after software and hardware iterations that it comes closer to offering that optimised, hassle free console experience.

Contents

Initial impressions

I've had my Deck for around 3 days and have had a fair amount of play on it, and here are the headlines:

Ergonomics and controls are good. The biggest drawback on pretty much all mainstream handheld consoles is poor ergonomics and controls, making it difficult to have the same level of control as a full controller and being comfortable for long periods of time.

I've been very impressed with how good the controls feel. They're not as good as a regular home console controller, but they're not far off and they're miles ahead of anything else I've tried on a handheld. But then, this is also by far the biggest handheld I've owned and is huge in comparison to traditional handheld consoles, so there is a cost to it.

The importance of this can't be understated. I'd buy certain types of games on my Switch or Vita, and I just wouldn't play them for very long because I feel like I'm fighting the controls. Here I don't. About the only complaint I have is that the triggers don't have as much travel in them as I'd like (I'm constantly locking up my brakes in F1 2021 because of it). It's also just comfortable to hold for long periods of time.

It's powerful enough to play many AAA games at good fidelity and good performance. I've been booting up games like God of War (2018), Cyberpunk 2077, Horizon Zero Dawn, F1 2021, The Ascent, Middle Earth: Shadow of War and more - I really can't complain about the performance - it's better than I thought it'd be and I had reasonably high expectations. The built in framerate cap works brilliantly for when you 30fps is more appropriate.

Playing F1 2021 on it has been a big thing for me, racing games are perfect for handhelds for me, easy to dip in and out of, and it's easy to have this game running at 60fps at medium/high settings and it looking and playing great.

It's loud! It's probably to be expected given the power and heat this thing packs, but handheld consoles are typically more discreet than this and it could limit how comfortable you are playing it in different environments. In a public place with background noise? You'll probably be fine. In a quiet place with other people around? You might start drawing attention to yourself and annoying others depending on what you're playing.

Update: Valve released an updated fan curve which massively improved the noise, it can still get quite loud but it  does it way less frequently and for a much shorter time. They ramp the fans down a lot more eagerly now and in many games it's fairly quiet. I would no longer be hesitant to play it in the presence of others in a quiet room.

It's definitely something that would stop me from playing it in certain situations. You can mitigate it, you can target a lower framerate, you can cap the power usage of the APU to reduce heat (and performance), but some games you won't really be able to avoid it.

The battery life is okay, but not great. If you go into a high end game, play it at high frame rate, you can drain this thing quickly - in 2 hours or less. But in other situations, you can get 4-6 hours. In very lightweight games, it's said it could reach up to 8 - but in the type of games I've played so far, that seems optimistic.

Maybe this is me keeping my expectations low here prior to launch, but I always thought this was going to be the area where it suffered.. but it was one I was never concerned about. Getting 2 hours of F1 2021 on the go? That's good for how I'd typically use a handheld! If you need more, whilst far from ideal, battery banks exist.

The software is buggy and unfinished. First of all, I want to say that I think Valve have done a pretty good job at providing a good console-like experience in many regards, the 'happy path' of booting it up, signing in and downloading and playing verified games is pretty good. It all mostly works as expected.

But I have had a fair few times where software would lock up, downloads would be weirdly inconsistent, UI performance isn't anywhere near as good as it should be, and UI feedback is often delayed and buggy. There are lots of little niggles that mean you need to reboot the Deck (thankfully a pretty quick process).

Some things have worked surprisingly well for me though, particularly the suspend/resume which I expect to be a difficult thing to implement on a PC with games that were never expected to be able to be suspended.

Other stuff:

  • The speakers are pretty good given the size of them, decent quality.
  • Haptics are okay, not as good as I was expecting given Valve being one of the early enthusiasts of good haptics.
  • Gyro works well even in games that don't official support it via the use of Valve's Steam controller profiles.
  • SD expansion is seamless

3 day verdict

Overall, I'm pretty happy with it. It has some big and annoying drawbacks, but it delivers on mostly what I wanted and I do believe it'll only get better. For all of Valve's faults, even their most niche hardware continued to get software updates (even after it's discontinuation), and I expect this one to be a longer term initiative that gets future hardware iterations too.

I like it in part because it's great to tinker with, it's a cool little 'gadget' to have for someone like me. I want to play around and see how much I can squeeze out of it, I want the freedom to try and find new uses for it. It's great!

I've not touched on everything about the system, other input/output, desktop mode, etc - but I wanted to just limit this post to the 'headlines' rather than the detail. I may come back and write a bit more about these small details at a later date.

Two week impressions - 2022-05-07

After a couple of weeks, my impressions of the device have shifted somewhat, so I thought I'd add an updated section in here. I suspect I'll come back and add more as the device changes via software updates and library compatibility over time.

During the last two weeks, I've taken the device on a 5 day trip abroad, so have had a true the 'portable' experience. Many of what follows can be found in this tweet thread too

Highlights

  • Fan curve updates by Valve have massively improved the fan noise, it's now what I'd consider very reasonable. It's often silent or very quiet during gameplay, it's much more aggressive at ramping the fan back down if it does need to ramp up for whatever reason and I now rarely even think about the fan noise - whereas before - it was there, constant, and very loud. This alone is a serious improvement.
  • OS is a lot less buggy now, not coming across anywhere near as many issues anymore and what I do come across are mostly quite minor and infrequent.
  • The compatibility and ability of the device to run fairly intensive AAA games at good settings with good performance, great controls and what I consider really pretty reasonable battery life is really impressive.
  • It's definitely still a Linux PC running most of its games through a windows compatibility layer, a device that tinkerers love, but the 'golden path' of verified games is surprisingly close to a 'plug and play' experience.
  • The updates to add the ability to change the refresh rate of the device to any value 40-60hz is a significant improvement. Being able to run games at 40fps/40hz on a device like this adds a lot of value - it may not seem like a huge increase over 30fps, but the frame time improvement between 30 -> 60fps is not linear, and 30 -> 40fps represents a pretty sizeable improvement in frame times, meaning a really pretty smooth experience.
  • This is great for games that you may not be able to consistently hit 60fps at the desired resolution/settings on, but would still appreciate the additional smoothness over 30fps
  • Or games where you don't mind downgrading from 60fps to 40fps to preserve battery life.
  • The only real downside to this feature at the moment is that you have to manually set it per game every time you change game, it's not a huge issue, it's quickly changed in the quick settings - but being able to set and save this on a per game basis would be a huge improvement, especially if you could share those profiles (along with TDP, VRS and fps cap) with the community.

Overall, my impressions of this device has only gotten better over time because the device itself is getting better thanks to Valve's frequent software updates. It's the best 'gaming' dedicated device I've had in years. I'm certainly more into it than the last 2 generation of games consoles!

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