It’s the $400 Steam Deck, a console that’s as utilitarian as it sounds. The portable device, a piece of bulky black plastic with a built-in game controller, has the guts of a supercomputer and a touch screen. It’s like a game console and a Nintendo Switch having a child.
Valve, the Bellevue, Wash.-based company known for its Steam online games store, began taking orders for the Steam Deck last year, and the consoles have recently arrived. The company has not released any sales figures, but estimates suggest hundreds of thousands have been shipped. People who try to order one today will only receive the device in the fall.
The Steam Deck is the result of Valve’s ambitious effort to combine the advantages of modern gaming devices. That includes gaming-specific 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 computer chips for playing more intense games.
The Steam Deck tries to be a jack of all trades. It runs Linux, the open-source operating system, which allows it to load a huge amount of new games, including titles made for personal computers and some PlayStation and Xbox games. And just like a computer, the Steam Deck can be modified 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: This is the console I recommend for serious gamers who don’t mind a little tinkering to play new and old games. But it has major flaws, and it’s certainly not for those looking for a plug-and-play experience offered by a traditional game console.
Unlike normal consoles, such as PlayStations and Nintendos that can play games stored on discs and cartridges, the Steam Deck is completely digital, meaning it only plays games downloaded over the internet. Gamers get titles mainly through the Steam app store. So for starters, users have set up a Steam account to download games.
From there, there are plenty of options. Gamers can choose from the Steam library of tens of thousands of games, including popular ones like Counter-Strike and Among Us. Some major titles that were previously exclusive to PlayStation, such as Final Fantasy VII: Remake, are now also on Steam.
Those who are adventurous can go outside of Steam to get more games. This includes switching to desktop mode, which converts the Steam Deck into a miniature Linux computer that can be controlled with a virtual keyboard and small 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 or install Xbox games emulators to run games made for older consoles such as the classic Atari from the 1970s and the PlayStation Portable from 2005.
Tinker, if you dare
In my testing, the Steam Deck was fun to use for playing Steam games. It ran modern games smoothly 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 play games outside of the Steam store was an uphill task and sometimes maddening. I watched several video tutorials to run EmuDeck, a script that installs emulators on the device. The process took over an hour. I ended up having to plug in my own keyboard and mouse because the Steam Deck’s trackpad and keyboard often failed to register clicks and keystrokes.
Valve said it was still improving desktop navigation and there were situations where people had to plug in a keyboard and mouse.
After I finally got emulators running, I had a nice setup with new, new, and old games, such as Vampire Survivors, Persona 4, and Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII.
The Steam Deck lacks the polish and usability of mainstream gaming devices, making it hard to recommend for casual gamers.
While it’s fine to have at home, I wouldn’t take one on a trip or to a cafe, which negates its purpose as a mobile device. Chief among its shortcomings is battery life. In my sessions, the Steam Deck took about 90 minutes to plug in, even when I was playing games with minimal graphics, like Vampire Survivors.
For another, it’s 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 more than four hours on a charge, a superior portable device.
While tinkering is purely optional, it’s one of the main selling points of the Steam Deck – and compared to using a gaming console, customizing the Steam Deck isn’t fun or easy with its keyboard, mouse, and desktop software.
Finally, while some may not mind the digital approach to buying games through the Steam Deck, many who prefer to own physical cartridges and discs — which can be easily shared with friends and resold to others — will see it as a deal breaker.