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Game On: Hands on with the Steam Deck

Steam Deck’s portable gaming device might give Nintendo’s Switch a run for its money in the handheld gaming market.  (Valve)
Steam Deck’s portable gaming device might give Nintendo’s Switch a run for its money in the handheld gaming market. (Valve)
By Riordan Zentler For The Spokesman-Review

Although they’ve been available in limited quantities since February, the Steam Deck – Valve’s hybrid PC-portable game system – has become more and more readily available in recent months. In December, expected delivery time finally dropped down to 1-2 weeks. I happened to have some extra cash burning a hole in my pocket, and you know the rest.

The Steam Deck is a lovely “little” device. I say “little” in quotations because for a portable game console, it’s massive, and I’m reminded of Sega’s notorious Game Gear, which once went toe-to-toe with Nintendo’s beloved Game Boy. But the similarities don’t end there – the Game Gear was renowned for being a battery hog, and the Steam Deck excels at that, too!

I’ll admit I haven’t had much trouble with that for two reasons – one, with the click of a button you can see how much longer the battery is estimated to hold out, and two, I’m not using my Steam Deck to play hardware-intensive AAA games. It certainly can – there’s loads of footage online of people playing the likes of photorealistic games such as Red Dead Redemption 2. It doesn’t perform as well as the latest Xbox or PlayStation, but it’s miles ahead of the Nintendo Switch.

And that, to me, is an important factor to the Steam Deck’s surprising success. It’s no secret that Nintendo has absolutely dominated the handheld market since 1989, which is an incredible feat. Atari, Sega, Sony and numerous others have attempted to take on Nintendo and failed. Any upperhand they can muster over Nintendo is a very necessary measure.

Weird as it might sound, purchasing a Steam Deck was a calculated mental exercise for me. On one hand, it’s historically risky to buy any handheld that isn’t Nintendo’s – even the PlayStation Portable, which was a fantastic bit of tech from a reliable company, was unceremoniously abandoned during its second hardware iteration, the PSP Vita. On the other hand, the Steam Deck is risk-free – it’s just another avenue to play your existing Steam library on.

The importance of that seamless integration can’t be overstated. I don’t think the Steam Deck would be experiencing any success whatsoever without it. Exact sales figures aren’t available, but 1.5 million devices were sold by May, and the hardware has consistently remained at or near the top of Steam’s global top sellers list since its release.

Most of the controls are pretty standard, but Valve also saw fit to slap four buttons in the back – appropriately stiff to avoid accidental presses – and two trackpads. The trackpads offer haptic feedback, and it’s shocking how precise they feel under my thumbs. It doesn’t offer quite the same precision as a mouse, but it’s amazingly close.

Valve released an official dock peripheral in October, but the Steam Deck will work with any USB-C dock. You can plug it into a TV or computer monitor, use an ethernet cable for faster internet speeds, plug in a mouse and keyboard – the list goes on. It can effectively be used as a portable gaming PC – I have yet to tinker with it quite to that extent, but the device’s versatility is commendable.

With the popularity of PC gaming on the rise, I’ve had friends dropping hints that I should acquire a proper gaming rig. I’ve been extremely hesitant to do so however, because I find personal computers finicky – there’s always something to troubleshoot, and video game incompatibility can be a common issue. With my small army of consoles new and old, there’s never any doubt – you put a game in and it just runs.

The Steam Deck can be tinkered with to your heart’s content – people have been installing Windows on it, using emulators to play classic games and even installing programs like Microsoft Word and Adobe Photoshop. But you don’t need to do any of that – it’s perfectly compatible with an ever-growing quantity of Steam games right out of the box.

In summary, I’m quite pleased with my purchase. The Steam Deck is an exciting little device that allows me to play some of my favorite games on the go, in bed, or wherever else I please. It’s exactly the kind of halfway point between PC gaming and console gaming that I’ve wanted for years, and I’m excited to see what the future holds for it.

Riordan Zentler can be reached at riordanzentler@gmail.com.

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