Steam developer Valve has dabbled in producing gaming hardware on a few occasions in the past, but the Steam Deck is its biggest hit to date.
In 2015, Valve dipped its toe into the hardware manufacturing market with the Steam Controller, Steam Link, and Steam Machine. All three of these products flopped and Valve nixed them in short order. That made skepticism of the Steam Deck warranted, but so far the portable PC has held up well.
The hardware launched in 2021 to generally strong reviews and has remained popular and supported. Not only that, but it has proven to be capable of running many modern AAA titles. Here is what the Steam Deck is capable of, how it fits into the current gaming landscape, and whether it’s worth getting instead of a gaming console.
What is the Steam Deck?
The Steam Deck is a portable PC manufactured by Valve, the developer of Steam. It runs on SteamOS, an open-source operating system that is integrated into the Steam store and offers a gaming console-like experience for users.
The Steam Deck was revealed in 2021 with Valve offering preorders directly through Steam. This involved a first-come, first-served queue system where users needed to wait for months in order to have their order fulfilled. Valve worked its way through the queue and began selling units without reservation in October 2022.
Is the Steam Deck a gaming console?
The Steam Deck is not a gaming console. It is a portable gaming PC that runs an operating system that uses a console-like user interface.
While one might pick it up and believe it to be a gaming handheld akin to a bigger PS Vita, that’s not the case. The Steam Deck is a full-blown PC that has been optimized for playing games purchased through Steam.
Users can open the normal Linux desktop through the Steam Deck’s home button, and can use it to do anything from internet browsing to word processing. The fact it’s a PC also allows it to use basically any gaming hardware available on the market, whether that’s a Nintendo Switch Pro Controller, a PlayStation 4 arcade stick, or a mouse and keyboard.
Is the Steam Deck as powerful as a PS5 or Xbox Series X/S?
The PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X/S are both more powerful than the Steam Deck. The Steam Deck is still a strong piece of hardware that can run many modern games, but falls well short of current-generation consoles in terms of pure technical horsepower.
The Steam Deck, PlayStation 5, and Xbox Series line of consoles all have the same GPU. The trouble is that the Steam Deck has eight compute units with a clock speed between 1.0 and 1.6 GHz, and GPU power up to 1.6 TFLOPS. By comparison, the PlayStation 5 has 36 CUs clocking at 2.23 GHz and a performance of 10.28 TFLOPS while the Xbox Series X has 52 CUs at 1.825 GHz which comes in at 12.15 TFLOPS.
On top of this, the consoles have the edge in terms of how games are developed. While a game like God of War Ragnarok is developed specifically to run smoothly on PlayStation consoles, no developers outside Valve are tailor-making AAA games to run on Steam Deck at this time.
It offers a strong value proposition for PC gamers given its power and integration with Steam. In terms of pure gaming horsepower, it comes up short of modern gaming consoles.
How expensive is the Steam Deck?
The Steam Deck starts at $400 for the cheapest model, but two other models come in at different price points.
The base model of the Steam Deck has 64 GB of built-in memory. There is also a $529 version that has 256 GB of “faster storage” that comes with an exclusive Steam profile bundle. The top-of-the-line model costs $649 and comes with 512 GB of the “fastest storage” alongside the mid-line model’s Steam profile bundle and an exclusive virtual keyboard theme. Most importantly, it has an anti-glare etched glass screen that is different from the other two models.
The mid-line model arguably offers the weakest value proposition as all three models have expandable memory via microSD and 256 GB can be taken up very quickly, depending on the owner’s gaming preferences and habits. All three models of have the same specs, meaning there isn’t any actual gameplay or performance benefit to getting a more expensive model.
Can the Steam Deck run any Steam game?
The Steam Deck cannot run all Steam games and has a number of notable titles that are fully incompatible. This typically stems from anti-cheat features that are incompatible with SteamOS.
Major online multiplayer games such as PUBG: Battlegrounds cannot be played on Steam Deck due to these issues. Halo: The Master Chief Collection required players to disable anti-cheat in their launch settings, which allowed the campaign to be played but prevented online multiplayer.
While many modern AAA titles such as 2022 game of the year Elden Ring and popular fighting game Street Fighter 6 can be played on the platform, a time will likely come where the minimum specs for AAA games will exceed the hardware’s capabilities. That could be far off in the future but with no ability to upgrade parts, the Steam Deck does have a shelf life similar to a console.
Should I buy a Steam Deck or gaming PC?
The Steam Deck is a viable alternative to a larger gaming PC for those who simply want to play games, but isn’t an effective replacement for an actual gaming PC.
Valve’s sales pitch is its price point and portability. The Steam Deck allows users to have a Nintendo Switch-like handheld gaming experience with the potential to become a desktop PC by using the USB-C port. Building a gaming PC on par with the its capabilities would cost more than the $400 base model and a 1 TB microSD card.
It also has access to much of Steam’s game catalog, as well as full Steam store integration. Its specs allow it to handle many modern AAA games, as well as a long list of old favorites.
That said, there are several areas where the Steam Deck struggles compared to a standard gaming PC.
The Steam Deck doesn’t allow owners to swap parts, which prevents users from topically upgrading their hardware. This also leads to a sort of planned obsolescence, where it just won’t be able to handle most AAA at some point in the future. This is already felt, as it can’t run a game like Elden Ring at 60 FPS on high settings and likely won’t ever be able to.
There are also plenty of limitations in terms of being able to do actual work on the unit. A USB-C dock being a necessity is a major limitation at this time, as it’s almost impossible to find one that has multiple monitor output, gigabit ethernet, more than three USB ports, and an SD card reader. Not even the official dock can check all these boxes and it costs $90.
The Steam Deck is a strong product but doesn’t match the power, versatility, or usability of an actual rig. Those who want a portable gaming device that can play a wide variety of classic and modern PC games will be well-served, though.