I have struggled a little to collect my thoughts around the Steam Deck. The Linux geek in me is astonished that I sat on an aeroplane and played Halo on an Arch powered gaming system. Given that people in my life are not necessarily that same type of geek, I am going to break this review into three sections:
- Is this a fun gaming device?
- Is it an excellent portable Linux system?
- I am not a tinkering gamer; should I buy one?
Is this a fun gaming device?
I should probably start with that I am not a big gamer. Still, I love playing games, the history, and the unique culture around them traditionally though my gaming was constrained to the system in the gaming room or my computer. That is probably the biggest game-changer as I actually have time to do some gaming. Given that I am no longer anchored to those two locations, I can pull from my satchel a gaming device and work through Red Dead Redemption 2 or play some FIFA22.
If you are familiar with Steam in general, this is no different. There are some really great custom options for the Deck specifically that allow you to customise the experience, framerate, etc.
I am the type of buyer who only picks up games when they are on massive discounts. FIFA22 being a rare oddity, my game selection follows my cheapness for the most part. My games likely skew older and therefore have had great support on Steam thus far. Ironically, the most significant problem child is the Sega Genesis classics, which have some touch/sound problems. I cannot vouch for new games, but the Steam application will inform you and let you know ahead of purchase or installation how they will function.
I have not had a ton of time to dive into emulation, but I fired up a Dreamcast and Gamecube game with outstanding success. Some neat projects springing up around the community make embedding the emulation experience into the provided interface super simple. /r/steamdeck on Reddit is an excellent resource for learning more about it.
Is it an excellent portable Linux system?
It has a full Archlinux install, and you can access a KDE desktop, but it isn’t great. I installed my red team tools for fun, and, yes, they work great, but the form factor isn’t superb.
I love UMPC devices (see the Oqo and others in my basement lab), but this is a gaming device that happens to be open and hackable, running Linux. Treat as such.
I am not a tinkering gamer; should I buy one?
Here is where I hesitate. This is not the seamless Nintendo Switch experience. There are hiccups, bugs, game issues, battery life isn’t great, etc., but there is no issue if your game is well supported. My family members have had no problem picking it up and playing.
There is nothing else that “just works” in the same way. I have other retro handhelds, and none of them is as simple and powerful as this device.
The downsides to this device come down to battery life. It isn’t great. Like at all. Think Sega Nomad, but just a little bit better. My primary use case is playing around the house, near plugs, and on aeroplanes where I have a battery or plug at the seat. Minimal impact to me, but this isn’t your device if you want to play for 4-5 hours. Depending on the game, I can get more, but I just plan on 2:30-3:00hrs.