There is a new hard-to-get game console this year that is not a PlayStation or an Xbox. It is sold online only. Most casual gamers probably haven’t heard of it.
It is the $400 Steam Deck, a console as utilitarian as it sounds. The handheld device, a slab of bulky black plastic with a built-in game controller, has the guts of a supercomputer and a touch screen. It is as if a gaming computer and a Nintendo Switch had a child.
Valve, the company in Bellevue, Washington, known for its Steam online games store, began taking orders for the Steam Deck last year and the consoles arrived recently. The company has not published sales numbers, but estimates suggest that hundreds of thousands have shipped. People who try to order one today won’t receive the device until the autumn.
In other words, the Steam Deck has become a viable alternative to traditional gaming consoles, unlike Google’s cloud-based gaming platform, Stadia, which was a flop.
The Steam Deck is the result of Valve’s ambitious effort to blend the benefits of modern game devices. That includes gaming-dedicated computers; Nintendo’s handheld Switch, which focuses on family-friendly games; and Sony’s PlayStation 5 and Microsoft’s Xbox Series X, which are living room consoles with faster computing chips for playing more intense games. (Both Nintendo of America and Microsoft are based in Redmond, Washington.)
The Steam Deck tries to be a jack of all of those trades. It runs Linux, the open-source operating system, which makes it capable of loading a huge swath of new games, including titles made for personal computers and some PlayStation and Xbox games. And just as with a computer, the Steam Deck can be customized to run older games by installing emulation software, which are apps that can run digital copies of games for older consoles.
As someone who grew up with consoles all the way back to the Atari, I decided to give the Steam Deck a try. The verdict: I recommend this console for serious gamers who don’t mind doing some tinkering to enjoy games new and old. But it has major flaws, and it is definitely not for people looking for a plug-and-play experience offered by a traditional game console.
Unlike normal consoles, like PlayStations and Nintendos that can play games stored on discs and cartridges, the Steam Deck is fully digital, meaning it only plays games downloaded over the internet. Gamers will primarily get titles through the Steam app store. So to get started, users set up a Steam account to download games.
From there, there are plenty of options. Gamers can choose from Steam’s library of tens of thousands of games, including popular ones like Counter-Strike and Among Us. Some big titles that were previously exclusive to PlayStation, like Final Fantasy VII: Remake, are also now on Steam.
Those who feel adventurous can move outside of Steam to get more games. This involves switching to desktop mode, which converts the Steam Deck into a miniature Linux computer that can be controlled with a virtual keyboard and a tiny trackpad built into the controller.
Here, you can open a web browser to download some files to set up the Steam Deck to work with Xbox Game Pass to play Xbox games, or to install emulators to run games made for older consoles like the classic Atari from the 1970s and the PlayStation Portable from 2005.
Tinker, if you dare
In my tests, the Steam Deck was fun to use for playing Steam games. It smoothly ran modern games with intense graphics like Monster Hunter Rise, and the controller, which includes triggers, joysticks and buttons, felt comfortable to use.
But tinkering with it to run games outside of the Steam store was an arduous task, and, at times, maddening. I watched several video tutorials to run EmuDeck, a script that installs emulators on the device. The process took more than an hour. I ultimately had to plug in my own keyboard and mouse because the Steam Deck’s trackpad and keyboard often didn’t register clicks and keystrokes.
Valve said it was still improving desktop navigation and that there were situations where people would need to plug in a keyboard and mouse.
After I finally got emulators running, I had a sweet setup running games new, newish and old, like Vampire Survivors, Persona 4 and Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII.
The Steam Deck lacks the polish and practicality of mainstream gaming devices, which makes it tough to recommend to casual gamers.
Though it is fine to have at home, I wouldn’t take one with me on a trip or to a cafe, which defeats its purpose as a mobile device. Chief among its flaws, its battery life is subpar. In my sessions, the Steam Deck lasted roughly 90 minutes before needing to be plugged in, even when I was playing games with minimal graphics, like Vampire Survivors.
For another, it is large (about 12 inches long) and heavy (1.5 pounds) for a portable gaming device. That makes Nintendo’s smaller and lighter Switch, which lasts upward of four hours on a charge, a superior portable.
While tinkering is purely optional, it is one of the Steam Deck’s main selling points — and compared with using a gaming computer, customizing the Steam Deck is not fun or easy with its keyboard, mouse and desktop software.
Lastly, while some may not mind the Steam Deck’s digital-only approach to buying games, many who prefer owning physical cartridges and discs — which can be easily shared with friends and resold to others — will view it as a dealbreaker.
Even so, the pandemic, which drove a surge in new gamers, proved that there were many different types of players, including those who dip into the occasional AAA title, and those who become addicted to a trendy game on their phones.
That means that between virtual reality headsets, traditional consoles and experimental devices like the Steam Deck, we’re living in a golden age of gaming, where there are now devices for just about everyone.