Today Valve announced the Steam Deck, a brand-new handheld PC gaming device. Last week, IGN had the exclusive opportunity to visit Valve for the very first hands-on with the Steam Deck, as well as chat with the people who made it. After spending several hours across two days playing a wide variety of games, it’s hard not to be impressed by the balance of price, power, form, and function Valve has managed to strike.
To test out its capabilities, I tried more than half a dozen different games – some first-person like Doom Eternal and Portal 2, some third-person, including Death Stranding and Star Wars: Jedi Fallen Order, and some isometric, such as Stardew Valley and Hades. For the most part, these all ran without issue on their default graphics settings at the handheld’s native 720p resolution, and the Steam Deck stayed comfortably cool to hold that whole time.
Close-Up Photos of Valve’s Steam Deck
When I first saw the hardware, I admit I was a bit thrown off by its control layout. Primarily that’s because the thumbsticks are in-line with the D-pad and face buttons, which looks a bit odd when you’re used to the more staggered arrangement found on most controllers. However, as soon as I held it myself, the layout felt completely natural: the intuitive hand orientation when you grab the Steam Deck is more straight up and down, like holding the sides of a steering wheel, whereas with a controller your hands are at more of an angle. As a result, it’s easy and natural for your thumbs to reach the Steam Deck’s face buttons, D-pad, and thumbsticks.
The full-size thumbsticks felt precise, and while the D-pad wasn’t quite as clicky as I’d like, it was fully serviceable for rounding out some quarter-circles in Guilty Gear Strive. Similarly, the face buttons and bumpers all felt solid, and served me well through a few runs of Hades. The triggers felt a little bit squishy for my taste, but it’s worth noting that I was using a non-final hardware unit, so it’s possible that things might change as Valve tweaks the Steam Deck before launch.
On the back side are four rear buttons – a welcome standard feature for anyone who’s grown accustomed to using “Pro”-style controllers like the Xbox Elite and borderline essential for playing games designed with a keyboard in mind. These, like the rest of the buttons and other inputs, can be fully customized to whatever you like thanks to Steam Input, Valve’s system for making useful custom keybindings available for almost any controller layout.
Underneath the thumbsticks are one of the Steam Deck’s standout features: two precision trackpads, which give you access to mouse-like controls for games that don’t play well with a traditional controller. Valve’s Pierre-Loup Griffais told IGN that these trackpads are an evolution of the tech they’ve used in both the Steam Controller and the Index Controller, and they can be customized for many different uses here. Valve plans to work with developers to help implement many of them, while others, like with the Steam Controller, will be pioneered and shared by the Steam community itself.
“In game, you can map them to areas of the screen for the mouse cursor to jump there and be kind of a one-to-one region-type input,” Griffais told us, which would be useful for something like quickly moving around a minimap in a real-time strategy game. “You can create on-screen menus that pop up on top of the game and have many customizable macro buttons or keyboard keys. And you can just use it for mouse input, where it’s really powerful and reliable for the people that are comfortable with that sort of input.”
A nice touch – no pun intended – is that like with the Index Controllers, both the thumbsticks and trackpads are capacitive, which means they can tell when your finger is touching them. This can be combined with the Steam Deck’s internal gyro sensor for a more fine-tuned form of aim control than with a thumbstick or trackpad alone. It takes a little bit of getting used to, but after a brief adjustment period I found that the combination gives you a weirdly precise level of control that is honestly not far off from using a regular mouse. Yes, even in first-person shooters like Doom Eternal.
Finally, the 7-inch screen is touch-enabled as well, which is nice both for games that naturally support touch controls and ones that can be played primarily through pointing and clicking. It’s also great for just browsing through the OS, which is similar to an improved version of the Steam Big Picture Mode interface we already know.
Steam Deck – Software and OS
The Steam Deck will draw immediate comparisons to the Nintendo Switch, but while it might look like a handheld console, Valve’s device really does have more in common with a desktop gaming PC when it comes to its capabilities. The Steam Deck runs a custom version of Steam OS that gives you a console-like experience on the surface without having to worry about things like drivers or setup, but under the hood is a full-blown PC for those that want the freedom to go deeper. The OS is built on Proton, a version of Linux that supports both Windows and Linux games and applications.
This flexibility means you can do pretty much anything on the Steam Deck that you can do with a regular PC. Connect a mouse and keyboard? Yep. Alt-Tab out of your games to a browser or video? Sure. Load third-party programs or even other game stores like Origin, uPlay, or Epic Games Store? No problem. You could even wipe Steam OS entirely and install a fresh version of Windows if you want – but the default Steam OS is smooth and efficient at getting you into your games, so I imagine most people won’t want or need to go that far. The point is, you can if you’d like to.
“We don’t think people should be locked into a certain direction or a certain set of software that they can install,” Valve designer Lawrence Yang told IGN. “If you buy a Steam Deck, it’s a PC. You can install whatever you want on it, you can attach any peripherals you want to it. Maybe a better way to think about it is that it’s a small PC with a controller attached as opposed to a gaming console.”
But PC gaming is about more than just getting away from the walled gardens of console game stores. For one thing: customization. Most games should play well out of the box on the Steam Deck – we’ll get more into its hardware capabilities in a bit – but for players who want to dive into the settings and customize things further, that’s an option too.
“We think that there will be a pretty approachable entry point where you can see the games that work really well by default and get a pretty seamless gaming experience,” Griffais said. “If you want to go one step further and use all of these options, you can. Customize your controls, your level of performance, battery life, use Steam Workshop, or even mods that are outside of Steam Workshop. All these options that are dear to PC gamers are fully supported by the Deck.”
Importantly, this also means that all of Steam’s features like Cloud Saves are fully functional here. You can start playing a game on your desktop PC, save and quit, then load up and continue playing portably on your Steam Deck – with all of your progress, key bindings, DLC, and Workshop mods fully intact. You can also suspend games indefinitely on the Deck itself, similar to how the Switch works, though you can’t have multiple games suspended at once like with Quick Resume on the Xbox Series X. Valve’s team also told me they’re looking into ways to cloud-sync suspended games between desktop and Steam Deck, meaning you could hop between platforms without even needing to save and quit, but that functionality wasn’t in place yet during my time with it.
While the Steam Deck is obviously designed for portable gaming, it’s also fully functional as a desktop PC. Using a dock or hub to expand its single USB-C port, you can connect it to a monitor, mouse and keyboard, Ethernet, and whatever other peripherals you can fit. Valve is developing an official docking station, to be sold separately, but any standard USB-C hub will work just as well. The Steam Deck also has Bluetooth, so peripherals that use that connection are an option too. We had no problems connecting a pair of Apple AirPods, for example.
As a result, in desktop mode the Steam Deck honestly just feels like a PC. The OS is Linux-based, but it feels largely familiar to Windows and is capable of running everything I threw at it from either platform. I played a bit of Factorio and Death Stranding with mouse and keyboard on a 32” monitor, and if it weren’t for the Steam Deck sitting docked next to me on the desk I would have forgotten it wasn’t running off a traditional desktop PC.
Steam Deck – Internals and Power
Yes, the Steam Deck can run a 2020 release like Death Stranding with good performance – and without having to turn all the graphical options down to zero to get it. This thing is no slouch. The Steam Deck is powered by a next-generation AMD APU featuring a 4-core/8-thread Zen 2 CPU and an RDNA 2 GPU with 8 compute units.
“For the total APU combined power, it’s about two teraflops,” Griffais said, “which should let people play the games that they have in their library without issues at 720p and provides lots of horsepower to that effect.”
On paper, two teraflops puts the Steam Deck in the ballpark of the Xbox One and PS4. In practice, however, it’s actually more impressive than that. Since it targets a 720p resolution – more than enough for its 7-inch screen – it’s able to play current PC games at medium to high settings with smooth framerates. While I wasn’t able to run benchmark tests during my hands-on time, I played Death Stranding, Doom Eternal, Control, and several others, all of which looked great and played smoothly.
Speaking of the screen, I should note that it’s actually a 1280×800 resolution display – which is the 16:10 aspect ratio equivalent of the standard 16:9 (1280×720 pixels). This gives you a little bit more vertical screen real estate for browsing through the Steam OS interface and in games that support custom resolutions, which is most of them. And for games that don’t, the combined 80 pixels of black bars on the top and bottom are barely noticeable.
The Deck comes in three different models, but power-wise they all have the same internals. The only internal difference is in storage space. The base model has 64 GB of storage for $399. Moving up to the 256 GB model costs $529, while the top-end will cost $649 for 512 GB. The latter also has premium anti-glare etched glass treatment on its touchscreen. All three storage devices are SSDs, however the 256 and 512 GB models use an NVMe drive for even faster load times. And while the internal storage can’t be upgraded, there’s an SD card slot to expand your storage, which games can be installed onto and played directly off of if you don’t mind them loading a bit slower than off the internal SSD. (Though Valve’s team told me they’ve done a lot of work to optimize load times as best as possible when playing through the SD slot.) All three SKUs include a notably luxe carrying case and a standard AC power adapter.
All-in-all, I’m extremely impressed with what I’ve seen of the Steam Deck. $399 for the entry-level model is a very attractive price point for folks who are either new to the PC space, or are looking for a more powerful alternative to the Nintendo Switch. And for PC veterans, the higher-end models offer the storage space needed to tote around a handful of triple-A games in their backpack – at a price point that’s actually quite compelling compared to a cheap gaming laptop, let alone a full desktop PC build.
Personally, I love the prospect of being able to seamlessly transition playing PC games between desktop and handheld, and the openness of the platform means I’ll now be able to go mobile with not only my overflowing Steam library (thanks Humble Bundles and Steam Sales) but also all my Epic Games Store, uPlay, and itch.io collections.
The Steam Deck will be available this holiday season, with reservations starting soon. In the meantime, be sure to check out our rapid-fire FAQ with the Steam Deck development team.