What is Steam Deck? A Comprehensive Look at Valve‘s Handheld Gaming PC

The world of handheld gaming was shaken up in February 2022 with the launch of the Steam Deck – a powerful new portable gaming device from legendary game developer Valve.

The Steam Deck has been dubbed a "handheld PC" and it essentially allows you to play your entire Steam game library on the go. With computing power far beyond any other handheld on the market, many are calling the Steam Deck a real challenger to Nintendo‘s dominance in portable gaming.

In this comprehensive guide, we‘ll dive deep on everything you need to know about the Steam Deck:

Overview – What Exactly is the Steam Deck?

At its core, the Steam Deck is Valve‘s second attempt at releasing gaming hardware, after the failed Steam Machine experiment in 2015. However, unlike the Steam Machine which tried to compete with traditional game consoles like the PS4 and Xbox One, the Steam Deck is a handheld device purpose-built for portable PC gaming.

The Steam Deck allows you to play games from your Steam library on a 7-inch touchscreen, with full controller inputs built right into the device. It runs a customized version of SteamOS and gives you access to features like cloud saves, remote play, mods, and more.

Valve designed the Steam Deck as an open platform, giving users flexibility. While SteamOS provides the best optimized experience, you can install Windows or other operating systems and turn the Steam Deck into a mini Windows gaming PC.

Some key specs and features of the Steam Deck include:

  • 7-inch 1280×800 touchscreen display
  • Custom AMD processor with Zen 2 CPU & RDNA 2 integrated graphics
  • Up to 512GB high-speed NVMe SSD storage
  • Built-in controls: Joysticks, D-Pad, ABXY buttons, Triggers, Bumpers, Grip buttons + Touchpads
  • Gyro for motion controls, HD haptics
  • Stereo speakers, 3.5mm audio jack, Dual microphones
  • 40Wh battery lasting 4-8 hours depending on game
  • USB-C charging and connectivity

In terms of design, the Steam Deck takes clear inspiration from the Nintendo Switch with its large handheld controller form factor. But make no mistake, the power packed inside the Steam Deck completely blows the Switch out of the water from a technical standpoint.

A Brief History – How Steam Deck Came to Be

To understand the significance of the Steam Deck, we have to go back to Valve‘s first attempt at a gaming console – the Steam Machine – and what they learned from its failure.

Released in 2015, the Steam Machine line of mini PCs was Valve‘s attempt to bring Steam and PC gaming to the living room. The Steam Machines ran Valve‘s SteamOS, based on Linux, and let gamers access their Steam libraries in console-style form factors meant to rival the Xbox One and PS4.

However, there were several key issues that prevented the Steam Machines from gaining mainstream adoption:

  • Too fragmented: Many different manufacturers made Steam Machines with wildly differing specs and prices, which was confusing for customers. There was no baseline.
  • Software issues: The Linux-based SteamOS was buggy and lacked game support compared to Windows.
  • Price: Many models cost as much as or more than traditional gaming PCs but with weaker hardware.

By 2018, Valve discontinued active development on Steam Machines after lackluster sales, as the public mostly ignored the new devices.

Learning from Failure

While the Steam Machine was unsuccessful in challenging consoles or even gaining a foothold for PC gaming in the living room, it provided valuable lessons that influenced Valve‘s next piece of gaming hardware – the Steam Deck.

Most importantly, Valve realized the issues that arose from having SteamOS and allowing multiple hardware configurations. The Steam Deck is made solely by Valve and uses standardized, fixed hardware chosen specifically to provide a strong baseline gaming experience.

Additionally, Valve improved SteamOS compatibility by introducing Proton (allowing Windows games to run more smoothly on Linux) and implemented a verification rating system to inform players what games work best on Steam Deck versus those with potential issues.

By applying what they learned and starting with a purpose-built handheld device rather than a full console competitor, Valve is taking a smarter approach with the Steam Deck that provides focused utility.

Steam Deck Models and Specifications

To offer some choice while still keeping configurations standardized, the Steam Deck is sold in three models differentiated by storage capacity and speed. Otherwise, all models share identical specs.

Here is an overview of each Steam Deck model and their specifications:

64GB eMMC64GB eMMC$399
256GB NVMe SSD256GB NVMe SSD$529
512GB NVMe SSD512GB high-speed NVMe SSD$649

Common Specs Across All Models:

  • AMD Custom APU
    • CPU: Zen 2 4c/8t, 2.4-3.5GHz
    • GPU: 8 RDNA 2 CUs, 1.0-1.6GHz
  • 7-inch 1280x800px touchscreen
  • SteamOS 3.0 Operating System
  • 40Wh battery
  • Weight: 1.47 lbs
  • Dimensions: 11.73 x 4.6 x 1.93 inches

Some key notes about the specs:

  • The custom AMD chip gives the Steam Deck power comparable to Xbox Series S and PS5 thanks to the leading Zen 2 and RDNA 2 architecture used in modern gaming PCs and consoles.
  • 16GB of speedy LPDDR5 RAM ensures plenty of memory for even the most demanding games.
  • All models technically allow storage expansion via the microSD card slot, however the 64GB eMMC model may experience longer load times and is not recommended for serious gaming. The NVMe SSD models are much faster.

Considering the power and flexibility packed into this handheld device, the Steam Deck delivers superb value no matter which storage capacity you choose. Let‘s dive deeper into the hardware…

Steam Deck Design and Hardware

While the internal specs power the performance, the physical design and hardware features of the Steam Deck also set it apart as an incredibly versatile handheld.

Ergonomics and Controls

Picking up and handling the Steam Deck, it becomes instantly clear how well-crafted the ergonomics are. The large, rounded grips feel very comfortable and natural to hold even in extended play sessions.

The thumbsticks, D-pad, face buttons and shoulder triggers/bumpers are all easily within reach. Valve purposefully used high-quality joystick and button components with subtle texturing on the grips. This allows for precise, responsive game controls.

There is a decent heft to the device at 1.47lbs to provide stability while gaming, without feeling overly heavy. For a device packing as much power as a whole gaming laptop, Valve did an excellent job preventing it from feeling bulky.

Displays and Audio

The 7-inch touchscreen display strikes a nice balance by being slightly larger than the Nintendo Switch‘s 6.2-inch size to provide more immersive visuals. The LCD runs at 60Hz refresh rate up to 1280×800 resolution, which is more than adequate for the performance level targeted.

Touch support via the screen or rear touchpads enables intuitive navigation of SteamOS, browsers, and more. The gyro sensor also detects motion for options like gyroscopic aiming.

Audio comes through surprisingly loud and clear stereo speakers that flank the screen. There is also a standard 3.5mm audio jack to connect headphones or external speakers.

Between the high-quality display and speakers built directly into the device, the Steam Deck achieves its goal of being a self-contained portable gaming system, while still packing the power of a laptop.

Battery, Storage, and Connectivity

Powering the Steam Deck is a 40Wh battery, which might seem small compared to most laptop batteries. Yet thanks to the lower screen resolution and optimized AMD chip, it‘s able to drive the device for a respectable 4-8 hours per charge depending on the game and settings. Quick charging via USB-C helps enable more flexible play sessions as well.

The base 64GB model comes with slower eMMC storage while the mid-tier and high-end options have much faster NVMe solid state drives. As mentioned earlier however, all models can be expanded via MicroSD card slot if extra space is needed.

For wired connectivity, there‘s a standard USB-C port used for charging. It also supports USB peripherals, external displays, and Ethernet adapters. Wireless capabilities include fast Wi-Fi 6 and Bluetooth 5.0 support.

Overall, while there are some understandable compromises to maintain the portable form factor, the hardware design and specs tick all the right boxes for a high-end handheld. Now let‘s explore the software and gaming experience.

Steam Deck Software and Gaming Compatibility

A major consideration for any gaming platform is the software experience and game library/compatibility. As essentially a handheld PC with SteamOS, the Steam Deck takes an interesting approach here.


SteamOS is Valve‘s custom Linux-based operating system optimized specifically for the Steam Deck‘s hardware and to provide the best gaming experience.

Based on Arch Linux, SteamOS enables full access to your Steam game library with Proton compatibility tools that translate Windows games to run smoothly on the Linux environment. For games that fully support Linux/SteamOS natively, the performance can be even better.

The interface features a streamlined Steam client called GameMode. This is optimized to seamlessly launch Steam games from the Deck‘s built-in storage or SD card.

SteamOS aims to provide a stable, reliable base OS focused purely on gaming. You don‘t have to deal with background Windows processes or nagging update alerts when in the GameMode interface.

However, since the Steam Deck is still fundamentally a PC, you have the choice to install Windows 10 or 11 on it as well for a more traditional desktop experience. This introduces wider potential software compatibility beyond Steam titles, at the cost of some battery life and storage space. More on this tradeoff next.

Gaming Compatibility and Performance

Officially, Steam claims the Steam Deck is capable of running "the vast majority of the Steam library without any issues". But what does that mean exactly?

To help set customer expectations on game performance upfront, Valve introduced a verification system that tags each Steam title with one of these ratings:

  • Verified – Works great on Steam Deck out of the box
  • Playable – May require small tweaks but runs fine
  • Unsupported – Cannot currently ensure playability

As you browse the Steam store on the Deck, these tags appear on each game thumbnail. Valve reports over 80% of the top 1000 Steam titles are already Verified or Playable in SteamOS as of September 2022, which is an impressive start less than a year into release.

However, there are certainly popular titles that remain unsupported or won‘t work properly through Proton on Linux. Games relying on invasive anti-cheat software are among the most problematic currently.

This is where installing Windows 10/11 provides a workaround, as it opens the Steam Deck up to the entirety of the PC gaming catalog beyond just SteamOS verification.

The tradeoff is that battery life takes a noticeable hit in Windows, generally lasting only 2-3 hours max per charge while gaming. Windows also cannot fully take advantage of the Deck‘s unique optimization and controls.

Still, enthusiasts may dual boot both SteamOS and Windows on the Deck to enjoy the benefits of each environment when desired. This level of flexibility and customization is a major advantage over traditional consoles.

As SteamOS matures and Proton expands support for more Windows titles "out of the box", the Deck‘s value proposition grows even stronger. And dedicated player communities help document tweak guides for thousands more games.

Where to Buy a Steam Deck and Current Availability

Ever since its launch in February 2022, the Steam Deck saw exceptionally high demand that greatly outpaced supply, causing multi-month long reservation queues.

This was exacerbated by component shortages and other pandemic-related production issues. For quite some time, new orders would estimate shipment dates 4-6 months out, meaning the wait to actually receive your Steam Deck could be half a year or more.

As of September 2022 however, these supply constraints have begun easing. Valve recently announced that all existing reservations are expected to be fulfilled before the end of the year.

Additionally, the company has opened up ability to purchase Steam Decks "off the shelf" without a waiting period for the first time. These off-the-shelf models still sell out quickly, but it‘s a positive signal that inventory pipelines are catching up to demand.

This makes right now perhaps the most promising window ever to get your hands on a Steam Deck in a reasonable timeframe.

Where to Order

The only official way to purchase a Steam Deck is directly through Valve‘s Steam store:


Valve has not authorized third party retailers to sell the Steam Deck. So if you see listings on sites like eBay or Amazon, use caution as they are likely unofficial imported models. Stick to the Steam store for guaranteed legitimate Deck units covered by warranty.

When purchasing, you choose between the three storage configurations discussed earlier. Then it‘s simply a matter of waiting for your unit to ship! Lead times should continue shortening over the next months.

Critical Reception and Outlook for the Steam Deck

Despite the early supply struggles, reviews and public reception for the Steam Deck have been overwhelmingly positive from both enthusiast and mainstream gamers.

Reviewers widely praise the comfort, controls, display quality, software, performance and overall execution of the device. It delivers legitimate PC caliber graphics and gameplay in a slick handheld form factor.

The biggest complaints mostly relate to the typical battery life tradeoffs faced by all portable gaming rigs. The internal fans can also get quite loud under heavy loads.

However, the Steam Deck does outlast competitors like the Aya Neo 2021 and GPD Win 3 by a couple hours on a charge. And the noise is perfectly reasonable given the power inside such a small chassis.

As supply levels catch up and more games add Steam Deck verification, the outlook looks very bright for this handheld PC continuing to build momentum and win over skeptics.

Valve also has a strong track record of long term hardware support, with the original Steam Controller receiving updates years after release. Expect a similar long lifecycle for the Steam Deck as software refinements roll out and future hardware revisions potentially release down the road.

The Nintendo Switch finally faces a formidable challenger that can appeal to a wider demographic beyond just Nintendo loyalists. The Steam Deck brings full-fledged PC gaming into your hands.

Conclusion – A Promising New Era of Handheld PC Gaming

Ever since revelations of the Steam Deck first landed in 2021, it‘s been shaping up to usher in an exciting new wave of portable PC gaming.

Now in late 2022 with manufacturing ramping up and software support expanding, the Steam Deck is delivering on its initial promise.

For $399 and up, it packs a suite of cutting edge AMD components providing power unmatched in the handheld space to happily play your Steam library on the go. Clever optimization and comprehensive controls allow big-screen games to capably run on this pocket powerhouse.

While no device is perfect, Valve clearly applied lessons from past missteps and designed a remarkably polished product. It feels like both a technical showpiece and a pragmatic gaming tool.

Between the maturing software ecosystem and rumors of updated Steam Deck models on the horizon, it‘s safe to say Valve‘s handheld initiative will only get better in 2023 and beyond. We‘ll have to wait and see whether game streaming services like Xbox Cloud may try competing.

For now, PC gamers have an exciting new toy to play with. So if you‘ve considered hopping on the Steam Deck train, there‘s never been a better time to reserve one and explore the rapidly expanding world of handheld PC gaming experiences. Game on!

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