The Steam Deck isn’t the first attempt at squeezing a PC gaming experience into a small form factor. There have been gaming oriented laptops since the beginning. Other companies have prototyped and released handheld gaming computers in small batches over the years.Valve’s Steam Deck is considered to be the first attempt at a triple-A handheld gaming PC.
The custom designed AMD APU (Accelerated Processing Unit – CPU/GPU combo chip) is the proverbial bat that knocks the performance ball out of the park. It’s capable of 1.6 TFLOPS of processing throughput. To put that in perspective, an Xbox One S hits about 1.4 TFLOPS and a Switch struggles to make 1.0 TFLOPS.
TFLOPS is an acronym for a Billion Floating Point Operation Per Second and is a measurement that can provide a general idea of a system’s potential performance. Given that an Xbox One S is capable of playing modern titles like the new Modern Warfare 2, albeit on very low settings and slower frame rates, you can get a general idea of how powerful the Deck is.
Getting games and services running on the diminutive computer can be tricky. The Steam Deck’s operating system is a customized distribution of Linux. Games that are certified by Steam to run on the Deck are simple installations from the store, not unlike your phone. Everything else requires knowing your way around a computer. This is not vastly different than the knowledge usually needed for PC gaming anyway, but may be unexpected for those coming to the device from a console only experience.
My partner wanted to run The SIMS 4 on her Steam Deck. She had purchased the expansive game and most of the add-ons from the EA store well before the Steam Deck ever existed. The SIMS 4 and its DLC packages are more expensive than the Steam Deck itself. Purchasing all of it again from the Steam store was not an option for us. Getting the game to run from the EA Desktop launcher involved following several complicated videos and written tutorials and multiple attempts.
The project was extensive and required knowledge beyond the average computer user’s. I personally enjoyed the process but many people may find it frustrating. There are plenty of online guides available and I like to feel that I have a good idea of what I’m doing. However, anytime you enter SUDO level BASH commands that you don’t fully understand, you are accepting risk to your system and to the identities registered on it.
The handheld is marketed as a gaming PC, not a Steam console. Yet, stepping outside of the curated experience provided by Steam is often met with a steep learning curve. The built-in Proton solution for playing Windows games on Linux works well, once you get to know the ins and outs. For example; learning to create shortcuts to launchers rather than directly to games was a trial and error adventure, all by itself.
The operating system is dual sided, not unlike Windows 8’s ill-received desktop and tablet modes. The “Game Mode” boots into the Steam store’s Big Picture mode. It looks and works like a console for the most part. The desktop mode of the Steam Deck gives you full access to the Linux operating system and this is where you’ll do most of the work to get the non-steam store software working. Adding Office software, a Remote Desktop solution, or other non-gaming software is also an option on the desktop side of the system.
Installation difficulties aside, The SIMS 4 plays really well. The controls are better than those on the Xbox edition of them game. The dual thumbtack and dual touchpad design is simply genius. I’ve had great experiences with other “un-supported” games including emulators for the Xbox, Playstation, Nintendo, and Sega consoles. It seems that low settings, and 30 FPS is the average for intensely graphical games. Older titles and those with casual hardware requirements can hit 60 FPS.
There is still plenty of room for Valve to improve the design. The unit can get very warm during extended play sessions. The fans are loud, yes even the new one, and the battery life is short. As I alluded to before, the software’s learning curve can be challenging at times. The device seems to fragile and complicated for young children to enjoy unsupervised.
Those who like to tinker with technology and gaming, will almost certainly enjoy owning one. It runs standard PC hardware which means that it can be customized to no end. Everything from parts replacement to swapping out the operating system is possible. The usual fair of custom skins, cases, docks, and other accessories is available online. If you’re in the market for a portable gaming experience, the Steam Deck offers access to more games than other handheld systems and costs less than most gaming laptops. If you can tolerate the learning curve it makes a great alternative.