Steam Deck – Hardware Review

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We can’t deny the cultural impact Nintendo have had for the last three decades as it pertains to portable gaming and entertainment. They revolutionised the tech market with the initial release of the Game Boy, aided by the critically success of its home console companion, The Nintendo Entertainment System. There was nothing like taking gaming on the go, jacking in your fancy headset that had primarily been used on your Sony Walkman, and diving into now esteemed legacy titles such as Super Mario Land 2: Six Golden Coins, or the most popular version of the puzzle game, Tetris. It goes without saying that this device alone, paved the way for devices like the one I’m here to review. The Steam Deck is unequivocally the perpetual definition of lightning in a bottle – a quintessential powerhouse that aims to impress any and all that takes its grasp.

Ergonomically speaking, it’s a behemoth to hold and while hefty is never too heavy to use in long sessions. The supportive from back of the unit keep it secure, but its girth and width are what keep the portable PC from being that, portable. While it’s still classed as a machine for gamers on the go, it’s not for someone looking to take on short trips. It’s designed for players that are always on the move, whether it be a long plane ride, an business trip, or just to use at home while laying on your bed. I wouldn’t deem it partially portable, but its design isn’t as convenient as say, a Nintendo Switch Lite. But by comparison, in no way you would receive an experience like the Steam Deck on-the-go. We’re talking, high quality AAA gaming in the palm of your hands, and while Nintendo may have carried that moniker since the Switch’s in 2017, the Steam Deck proudly inherits it from its obvious inspiration.

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Giving the end-user a selection of internal storage to start with, from a 64GB eMMC based flash memory which is usually seen in cheap phones or laptops, versus the recommended m.2 2230 SSD Hard Drive that comes in both 256GB and 512GB for a more suitable experience in both speed and reliability. While you may expand the Steam Deck utilising the high-speed enabled Micro SD slot, there have been a plethora of buyers that have cracked open the handheld and installed their own 2TB SSD. It’s actually said by developers of the unit to not go about upgrading your Steam Deck this way, but I see no qualms in doing so – as long as you know what you’re doing that is. However, those that aren’t avert swapping out titles in their library, playing the odd indie title or cloud-based game, the 64GB unit with a micro SD card will do just fine. The versatility of the Steam Deck is phenomenal in the sense that you can customise it in almost every way.

STEAM DECK SPECS

Price: $399USD (64GB Model)
Processor: AMD APU with integrated GPU
RAM: 16 GB LPDDR5 on-board RAM
Display
:
IPS LED 16:10 Touchscreen 400nits
Panel Resolution: 1280 x 800
Refresh Rate: 60Hz
Communication: USB Type-C
Battery: 40Whr battery
Expansion: UHS-I SD, SDXC and SDHC
Feedback: HD Rumble
Audio: Stereo with embedded DSP, 3.5mm Stereo Jack
Weight: Approx. 669 grams

From frontend use, to backend, it’s all accessible and easy to navigate. Third party plugins are a dime-a-dozen, but can be found in one nifty app called “Decky Loader”, which allows you to install unofficial tools to aesthetically style your Dashboard, download missing artwork or just change it, and hardware specific tools that controls everything from processes to fan speeds. It’s a nifty essential that I highly advocate for every Steam Deck owner to have on their unit. Using your unit with its stock settings is conventional, but fine tuning it to suit your needs with other applications does come in handy. While there are literally 50,000+ games now available on Valve’s digital platform, not all are compatible with the Steam Deck. Users can contribute to SteamOS’ Deck Compatibility badges by choosing whether their experience was optimised perfectly, or if they would not deem it ready for Steam Deck. This is later reflected by the badge applied on each title via the system UI.

There are qualms that arise after long term use with the Deck that can be somewhat irritating. While the ease of updating the unit’s firmware comes with extras for compatibility, these separate pieces of software can take up more internal space while keeping a log of the unit’s cache for specific games that may not be installed on your Steam Deck anymore. I had to install another third party application to keep track of shader files that were chewing into the handheld’s free space, not withstanding the added Proton compatibility software that doesn’t overwrite the old packages, rather adding to pre-existing ones that vary in size at a minimum of 1GB each. For a 64GB user, it’s crowding to say the least which is why I’ll be looking into upgrading my unit to a 512GB m.2 SSD real soon. But after six months of using the hardware at stock with a 512GB MicroSD, I can say that I’ve been happy with the experience, thus far.

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Using the unit as a Windows PC on the other hand, I would highly advise against using Windows at all for the time being. That is until Microsoft themselves optimise their platform for the portable device. It’s slow, it’s clunky and it heats up the internals to the point where the fan is deafening. Not to mention the compatibility dip with titles on the operation system. The dedicated custom APU designed for the deck is obviously tweaked for SteamOS/Linux consumption, whereas using Windows and its myriad of bloatware that comes with the platform does the unit no favours. It’s a shame due to the fact that there are PC gamers that are loyal to specific services such as Origin, Epic, GOG or the Windows Store, three of the four which are accessible via the “Heroic Games Launcher”. As for now, if you have any Windows Store games, you’re out of luck. The good thing is, if you do have a larger internal SSD, you can sacrifice a portion, partition the drive and dual boot into Windows to access said games. If it’s worth it is another question, but that’s totally up to you.

As it pertains to the externals of the Steam Deck, the D-PAD can be somewhat membrane like, with a sponge-like reciprocation, while the analogue sticks are incredibly satisfying. The only downside is the risk of drift after a while, with no magnetic thumbstick technology used for quality of life assurance. The action buttons are cosmetically laid out exactly like an XBOX controller with X, Y, A and B laid out in that familiarly flipped SNES order. However, if you’re a big Nintendo fan and can’t get the button order of your mind and need it to keep some semblance to aid your dedicated muscle memory, then you can customise this via the System Settings, which has the Nintendo button layout available. PlayStation buttons are accommodated for those that have the hardware to match, whether it be a DualShock 4 or the new PS5 Dualsense. Simply turning on the unit’s Bluetooth, pairing the remote and navigating through the menu will switch the UI from it’s usual mapped layout, to PlayStation’s trademark sacred symbols.

The Steam Deck's aspirations have limitless potential for making it the best handheld device on the market.

A ‘STEAM’ labelled button will take you to the system’s main menu, while a three dotted button adjacent to it will open the Deck’s optimisation menu. Here you may tweak and personalise options to appointed titles, including refresh rate or RAM usage. This will in-turn help with the system’s battery life which can be abysmal with larger scale titles that demand more. The two trackpads located on each side allows those that prefer a more laptop-like approach to their games, take quick aim in FPS’ or even to use in the unit’s Desktop mode. Speaking of, booting into Linux is not only easy, it’s encouraged to customise your unit further. This allows you to install other applications, add them to your Steam Library, then access them from the unit’s frontend GUI. Installing a respective browser – I chose Brave Browser as it does not use any background processes – I was able to watch some YouTube, browse the internet and even access streaming services such as Netflix, Crunchyroll or Binge.

With entertainment, the need for good speakers on a portable device is imperative and lucky for us, the Steam Deck has a great set of booming Stereo outputs that deliver insanely unexpected feedback. It makes for great immersion while playing action games, relaxing platformers or even those time-sinking RPG’s, but for those that may want to get deep into the experience, a 3.5mm Headphone jack is available along with the ability to pair a set of Bluetooth headphones to the unit. The IPS LED screen has a crisp picture, with pixel density that aids some glaring graphical omission due to the unit’s robust yet limited hardware. At a brightly lit 400nits, an aspect Ratio of 16:10, a refresh rate of 60Hz undocked at 800p, the Deck’s impressive specs bolster its bountiful qualities that outweigh some blemishes that I’m sure will see some improvement over time.

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Another neat addition to the lengthy list of games ready to play on the device, is the ability to stream games from either Microsoft’s xCloud sevice, which runs phenomenally granted the internal network’s wireless capabilities, which download at an astonishing rate allowing capable cloud gamers to dive into the subscription service with a few steps. Then there is PlayStation remote play, and while the method to get this up and running is a little more tedious, as it uses third party applications to get going, the fact that gamers can play their PS5 library on the Deck makes the unit one of the most accessible pieces of kit. We have comprehensive guides available right now on our site that gives you step-by-step instructions into how you can access these tools, including the Heroic Launcher for other storefronts, the Decky Loader pluginEmuDeck to run your favourite classics, and other tutorials to personalise your Steam Deck your way.

The Steam Deck’s aspirations have limitless potential for making it the best handheld device on the market. It’s biggest setback is its availability. It’s only launched in few regions across the globe, one exclusion would be right here in Australia. However, if you’re interested in acquiring one, I also have a step-by-step process available in acquiring the device (at your own discretion). But as it stands, the Steam Deck’s reputation has created shockwaves throughout the industry, from developers and publishers heralding its accessibility, design and sheer power. It’s a testament to how grand PC gaming is right now, expanding beyond the conventional keyboard and mouse to mobile. It’s one of the greatest examples in how Valve have taken its revolutionary storefront, and planted it firmly within the market currently dominated by Nintendo. It has a long way to go before being considered competition to the Nintendo Switch, but hey, this may very well be the Killswitch needed to encourage the ‘Big N’ to upgrade their aged handheld. Bring it to Australia, Valve!

Steam Deck – Hardware Review

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The Steam Deck is a handheld gaming computer developed by Valve and released on February 25, 2022. The device uses Valve’s Linux distribution SteamOS, which incorporates the namesake Steam storefront. SteamOS incorporates Valve’s Proton compatibility layer, allowing users to run Windows applications and games.

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