Steam Deck Evolves: Valve’s gaming laptop, one year later

Almost everything about the Steam Deck screams first-generation hardware. It’s a bit awkward and clumsy, sometimes even creaky. The screen has an oversized frame that makes it feel small in the hulky body. The button layout is not particularly ergonomic. And especially during the first few months, getting games to play on it sometimes required breaking the system into submission, using updates, tweaks and hacks to make the software run reasonably.

And yet, after my initial review, I kept coming back to this handheld gaming PC from Valve, time and time again.

Originally I said it was best for serious PC gamers who were used to the trial and error process of getting games to run on different types of hardware.

Now, after a year of steady feature updates to the SteamOS software, a series of accessories that fill in some of the hardware gaps, and much increased support for major game releases, the Steam Deck is a much different animal. I’d say it’s good enough now that even gamers used to the plug-and-play simplicity of one Nintendo Switch could probably swing it.

Read more: Steam Deck Review: This gaming handheld surprised me, in both good and bad ways

Valve Steam Deck handheld console showing the game selection screen

Dan Ackerman/CNET

Steady development

Since its initial release last February, Steam Deck has upgraded or added functionality, including better overall performance, smarter cooling and fan speed options, increased compatibility with a huge number of Steam games, better control and sorting of your game library, many user interfaces. improvements, mid-game suspension for quick finishes, major improvements to control customization, and better support for expanded microSD storage.

Both Valve and other companies have expanded Steam Deck’s possibilities through accessoriesincluding docking stations to connect the system to a TV or monitor and a variety of skins, cases and support leg.

The end result is that the Steam Deck feels like a reasonably polished PC gaming tool now, which is amazing considering it starts at $399 (£349), with two upgraded storage models at $529 and $649. Similar products like new Razer Edge costs about the same but does less. Much less.

Make the games the star

The hardware itself, frankly a bit on the underpowered side for one budget gaming PC, is not the big selling point. It’s the ability to play PC games, from big new releases to cult indie games, with the convenience of a handheld.

Lately I’ve been playing Hogwarts’ legacy on Steam Deck, where it’s doing well (and better than a promised eventual Nintendo Switch version ever will) and Marvel’s Midnight Suns, which took a couple of months to get the correct update for the Steam Deck. Games that have worked really well for me include Hard West 2, Uncharted: Legacy of Thieves Collection and Baldur’s Gate 3. Other games that are natural for the Steam Deck include Fire RingNo Man’s Sky (despite a bug that deleted my saved progress), Vampire Survivors and The Witcher 3.

Valve has gotten better at figuring out which games will work well on Steam Deck and making that information available to players, plus there are plenty of community suggestions that go beyond the official “great for Steam Deck” tag.

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More work to do

That doesn’t mean the Steam Deck is a flawless device. After all, there’s only so much you can do via software updates when the actual hardware is static. Battery life is still an issue – graphically intense games can run for maybe two hours before you need to plug in.

And not all Steam games run or run well. You often have to drop the graphics settings or compromise the frame rate to make a new game playable. In this area, the Steam deck’s low screen resolution of 1280×800 pixels is what makes many games playable well.

Playing through a TV or monitor through a docking station or USB-C to HDMI cable is never going to be good, because you’re often playing at higher resolutions than the device can actually handle, or playing at a lower resolution than your 4K display is capable of. In such cases, an Xbox or PS5 will give you a better overall experience.

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Accessing games outside the Steam ecosystem, including cloud streaming games, is still a problem – you have to install Microsoft Edge via the Linux-based desktop mode and do a bunch of extra setup from there. The same applies to adding games from other PC game stores such as GOG and the Epic Game Store. Yes, this is a Steam-based product, but PC gamers expect to be able to play games from multiple sources, and they have a right to do so.

The biggest hurdle Steam Deck faces is that AMD CPUs and GPUs aren’t getting any younger, and more powerful components—along with design and ergonomic improvements, a better display, and improved battery life—are on everyone’s must-have list for a Steam Deck 2. It is no real idea when that might happen, but the Steam Deck is a hit enough that a new version is almost guaranteed.

I have no specific insight, but I suspect it’s at least a year or more away. So if you’re interested in buying a Steam deck for around $500 — I recommend the mid-range model with 256GB and add your own microSD card for extra storage — it’s a safe bet to invest now without too much upgrade anxiety .

Valve’s previous hardware initiatives, including the Steam Machine and Steam controller, never made it out of the gate. With the Steam Deck, the company finally has a real hardware hit on its hands. Even better, for me (and I suspect many others) it has rekindled my appreciation for the wide world of PC gaming.

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