A lot of people are going to compare the Steam Deck to the Switch, and that’s totally fair, but after spending more than a week with Valve’s portable PC, I think there’s a better analogy at hand: The Steam Deck is what happens when the Vita and the Wii U get drunk on Linux and make a big baby together.
The Steam Deck combines Valve’s familiar PC storefront with some of the best ideas from these iconic, discontinued consoles, and packs all of it into a beefy bit of hardware. Just like Sony and Nintendo did all those years before, with the Steam Deck Valve is silently asking, does anyone need this?
Valve Steam Deck
- Starts at $400
- Steam comes pre-installed
- Sturdy body
- Haptic trackpads are a nice touch
- Expandable storage
- Ridiculously large and heavy
- Incomplete Steam library support
- Bluetooth issues
- Sweaty Palm Syndrome
The short answer is, no. But you’re still gonna want one.
When I unboxed the Steam Deck and got a good look at Valve’s handheld PC for the very first time, I laughed. I couldn’t help it, but this thing is seriously so large it’s funny. The Steam Deck is 11.7 inches long, 4.6 inches tall and 1.9 inches thick, and it weighs 1.5 pounds. For comparison, the Switch Lite and Vita each weigh about half a pound, while the Wii U gamepad weighs just over 1 pound.
The Steam Deck’s heft affects how I interact with every game in my Steam library. I find myself holding the system low in my lap, often propping it up on my thighs and craning my neck down in order to play. After about an hour in this position, the muscles along the back of my head start to ache, and I’ve been calling this phenomenon Steam Deck neck. It’s easily remedied with some stretching and repositioning, but the Steam Deck always ends up back on my lap and the cycle of discomfort continues.
And then there’s the sheer size of the thing. Anyone with smaller-than-average hands, here’s where you need to listen up.
The Steam Deck is a full-size controller with a 7-inch LCD touchscreen in the middle; it has big, rounded grips, haptic trackpads on either side of the screen, and analog sticks and face buttons above those. Two bumpers line the top, with two triggers and four clickers on the back. At more than 4.5 inches tall, I’m unable to rest the Steam Deck on my palms while also reaching the top buttons with my thumbs, and even using the analog sticks is difficult in this position. I have to support the controller by clutching the grips about an inch above the bottom, straining my pinky fingers and encroaching on the back buttons in a way that renders them useless. It truly feels like my hands are too small for the Steam Deck.
Each game uses a unique input method, and some titles cause more aching in my palms than others. Swapping rapidly among the right analog stick and face buttons, as in action games or shooters, tends to speed up my discomfort. But trackpad- and touchscreen-heavy games like Inscryption and World of Horror allow me to move my hands down or even just place the Steam Deck on a table, where I can tap away with my tiny fingers.
At the risk of narrowing my audience even more, I’d like to note that full-set manicures present a specific problem with the Steam Deck: The options tab is the perfect thumb-nail distance from the X button, and I’ve accidentally pressed it a handful of times while slaying demons in Devil May Cry 5. To all six of you who care, you’re welcome.
The ergonomics of the Steam Deck will vary with each user, and people with larger hands than mine will likely have a less crampy time. But I bet their palms will still get sweaty.
The Steam Deck runs hot, but it’s never scalding to the touch — instead, it feels like all that heat is dispersed throughout the device, including in the controller grips. After about 30 minutes of playing any game, my palms get warm enough to start sweating, in a way that’s never happened with a DualSense or Xbox controller. The first time this happened, I blamed it on the pile of blankets I was buried under, but sweaty palm syndrome is a consistent occurrence with the Steam Deck. Additionally, the system fan regularly blows hot air from the top of the machine and this makes a noticeable amount of noise, though it’s nothing extreme. Noisewise, you’ll be fine pulling this baby out on public transportation. Sizewise, that’s your call.
Because of the sweaty palms, finger cramps and Steam Deck Neck, my play sessions max out at two hours. This isn’t terrible in terms of actual playtime, and it means I’ve never run into a battery issue with the Steam Deck. Valve says the system will get two to eight hours of life on a single charge, depending on what games you’re playing and their settings. This aligns with my experience — Devil May Cry 5 definitely sucks more juice out of the battery than World of Horror, as does playing above 30 fps and 50 percent brightness. To that end, there's an option to lock games at 30 fps and it's possible to adjust screen brightness at any time.