Full Steam Ahead
PC Gamer|November 2021
Hands-on with the STEAM DECK, Valve’s attempt to make your Steam library portable.
Wes Fenlon

Pictures of the Steam Deck couldn’t prepare me for seeing it in person. After working on the Steam Deck in secret for years, Valve invited us to its offices to be among the first to test out the handheld gaming PC, before game developers have even gotten their hands on it. And wow, is it big. This is the full tower PC case of videogame handhelds.

Once I actually picked up the Steam Deck, though, the size didn’t seem to matter much. At 1.47 pounds it isn’t too heavy to hold comfortably. It’s wide, but the inputs are close enough to reach naturally. The button arrangement may look a little odd, but it fits how you grip the device. The Stream Deck is as big as it needed to be to pack in all the features Valve thought it should contain (which is basically everything, minus the CD drive).

Somehow it all fits in an 11.7-inch wide tablet. Spending a couple of hours with the Stream Deck was convincing: it’s not the first Frankensteined mash-up of PC and Game Boy, but it’s easily the most polished and premium I’ve seen.

With Steam Machines, Valve tried and failed to sell PC gaming in the living room. But PC gaming anywhere? That’s a harder pitch to ignore. And once I started using it, I could almost forget that the games I was playing were never designed for a portable machine.

BUTTONED UP

The ambitious goal with the Steam Deck is to be able to play the entire Steam library – that’s more than 50,000 games – at launch via Proton, Valve’s tool for running Windows games on the Deck’s Linux-based SteamOS. “We tried to put enough types of input and ways to play on there, and make it all easy to use so that anybody can find a comfortable way to play the game they want to play,” says Valve designer Tucker Spofford.

It took me maybe ten seconds with the analog sticks to be certain I vastly prefer them to the Nintendo Switch’s undersized joys. They’re much bigger, with a fluid rotation comparable to an Xbox stick. The face buttons are also a good size and comfortable to press as I pulled my thumb off the right joystick. Don’t worry about that B button – it may look like it’s hanging off the edge of the Deck, but in use, it’s no problem. The analog triggers have a nice ‘throw’ to them, again reminiscent of the Xbox, and the shoulder bumpers are generously wide, letting you press them over a good inch and a half of real estate.

“We learned a ton when we were iterating with features on [the Steam Controller],” says designer Greg Coomer. “We even built ones with physical trackballs and all kinds of methods of doing capacitive input and touch. That went all over the place. Once we got to the Steam Deck, we felt like we had our desired inventory of controls. The iteration was on the physical form and where those things went.”

GETTING TO GRIPS

I was impressed by how reachable everything felt from my natural grip. Valve says a lot of 3D printing and prototyping went into finding that sweet spot for comfort, including testing with their kids. “The device itself is large,” says Spofford. “Part of that is just due to the fact that it’s very comfortable to play with. In order to get that comfort, we needed a bit more space than you’d see on a Switch.” After the funky ergonomics of the Steam controller, the Steam Deck feels like a big, confident step forward for Valve. But that only gets the device halfway. The big question still looming over the Steam Deck is whether Proton can really run tens of thousands of games without major bugs or performance issues. Can SteamOS finally offer up a gaming experience comparable to Windows?

TEST DRIVE

What we played on the Steam Deck

DEATH STRANDING

Kojima’s game pushed the Steam Deck to its limits, and it was pumping out some heat to maintain 30 fps. But it was surprisingly playable, making me believe Valve’s claim that the Deck can handle all they’ve thrown at it.

GUILTY GEAR STRIVE

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