I received my Steam Deck two weeks ago after a wait of roughly half a year. Thus, I wanted to write a blog entry to jot down my first impressions of the device.
If you don’t know anything about it yet: the Steam Deck is a PC running a fork of Arch Linux with a read-only file system in the form factor of a handheld console. It’s tightly integrated with the Steam platform and offers a gaming mode in which you can seamlessly buy, install, manage and play games from your library. Furthermore, the Deck offers to possibility to enter desktop mode which boots up a regular KDE Plasma desktop which you can then use as you would a regular PC. Since the file system is read-only, package management works via Flatpaks. You can circumvent this but have to do so at your own peril.
First some background. I’ve been a gamer since my early childhood and have almost exclusively been using a Windows PC for playing games. I’ve only ever owned one console, namely the original XBox, which I bought used many years after its release to get to play some console-exclusive titles.
I started using Linux some four years ago and immediately took a liking to it. I won’t elaborate here but I made to switch to Linux only a while ago which includes my gaming. This was relatively painless because of a few things that work in my favor:
- I only play single-player games
- I tend not to play the latest AAA titles
- I like older games and indie titles
- I tend to replay games I already own
As a result my gaming habits lend themselves fairly well to Linux gaming, at least in my experience.
My reasoning for buying a Steam Deck was the following: my current gaming device is an aging desktop PC (see here) which is struggling more and more. Since it’s over 7 years old now, an upgrade of sorts seemed necessary. Furthermore, my gaming habits have changed. My favorite genre is RPGs which usually require a lot of time. Time that I simply do not have anymore, at least not in one sitting. Also, my desktop PC sits in my bedroom which is increasingly occupied by someone taking a nap, making it impossible for me to use it for gaming. For a time I circumvented this by streaming games via Steam to a laptop in my living room but this solution is not quite ideal. In total, the Steam Deck seemed like a good fit for my needs so I ordered one a week after its release.
I didn’t record an unboxing video because they’re pointless. Seriously. The device comes with a case, a microfiber cloth for cleaning the display and a charging cable. The Steam Deck comes in three variations which differ (mostly) in their storage size. I bought the 512 GB variant which is the most expensive one at ca. 675 €. This also comes with an antiglare screen, although I don’t know what difference that makes. I mostly chose this one because I didn’t want to go and buy an SD card right away but install my stuff on the internal hard drive.
When I first fired the Deck up I was prompted to log in to Steam. Since my password is some 20 characters of random stuff, this is tedious to enter manually. So I tried to enter desktop mode right away, install the Bitwarden desktop client via Flatpak, log in to my instance and get the password from there. Long story short: this did not work as I intended. The desktop mode definitely feels rough around the edges and presents users such as myself with certain roadblocks but more on that later.
Thus I decided to bite the bullet and enter my password in gaming mode via the on-screen keyboard built in to the Deck and whereas this is definitely annoying, it works.
Side note: the Deck supports Bluetooth so you can, of course, just connect it to a Bluetooth mouse and keyboard to circumvent such annoyances. I don’t own a Bluetooth mouse so there’s that. Also, sometimes you just want to quickly do something without having to sit down at your desk and connect a bunch of peripherals.
Gaming mode is basically something like Steam Big Picture Mode which is meant to be navigated with a controller. After the first release of the Deck the reviewers agreed that it was an amazing device but still unfinished (e.g. here). There were certain complaints about navigating the UI, performance with large libraries and so on and so forth.
From my point of view, the experience has been smooth so far. I like the design, it looks very modern and works intuitively, I think. I installed a bunch of my games, let them download, fired them up, all worked fine. Some of my games run natively, some via Proton but the difference wasn’t even noticeable in the interface. I wouldn’t have realized, if I hadn’t known what to look for.
There are a couple of UI bugs that I came across though. For example there’s an issue when looking at game reviews in the store where the cursor is taken back all the way to the top after looking at a review in detail instead of just continuing on. This and one or two other, fairly minor issues were things I encountered myself.
So how about the actual games?
At this point the work Valve have done with the rating of games becomes apparent. All games you view have a badge which tells you whether this particular game has been tested on the Steam Deck and if yes, how well it works. If it isn’t straight up verified (which means no issues at all), you get an explanation of the reasoning behind it. For example, if a third-party launcher is necessary, entering of text via on-screen keyboard, if the UI is a bit small or something of the sort, the game is rated “playable” and the reason why is listed. This is quite useful for deciding which games to buy and install. I’d also recommend having a look at ProtonDB where people give reports on game performance on Linux in general and Steam Deck in particular with more detailed information.
With that said, there have been reports of games that are listed as “unplayable” but work fine (“Batman: Arkham Knight” comes to mind. Tested it myself, didn’t have issues) or games rated as “verified” but actually have issues. I read that “Horizon: Zero Dawn” works but has issues later in the game when the areas become larger and more demanding on the hardware. Other times people report small in-game text although the game is also listed as “verified” or that there’s a substantial amount of tinkering necessary to get the game to perform well enough. That sort of thing. It doesn’t hurt to do your own research and ProtonDB is your friend here.
Before (or during) playing anything you get to choose the control scheme. The Steam Deck offers plenty of input options. The base layout is similar to an XBox controller but in addition it features two trackpads and four grip buttons (not sure of that’s what they’re officially called). For every game there’s an officially recommended layout (if available) that you can choose and/or modify as you see fit. There’s also a bunch of presets to build on. For example, I like to map two of the grip buttons to pressing the joysticks because in hectic situations in game pressing the joystick is awkward for me. Additionally, there are community layouts you can look up from within the Gaming Mode and download with the click of a button. This is highly useful, especially for games that are unrated, or don’t or only partially support controller input.
The first game I wanted to play was “Jedi: Fallen Order”. I’ve owned this for a while and already played it but my desktop PC isn’t really up to the task. I had to manually edit config files to lower the graphics settings in order to get to playable frame rates. The Steam Deck is capable of running it all full details and highest settings which I love because the game is gorgeous. With that said, it should be noted that it also sucks a lot of battery and I limited it to 30 frames for that reason and for consistency.
And with that we come to another feature that is important for the Deck. It comes with a context menu you can pull up any time, even within games, to quickly change some settings. You can activate/deactivate WiFi or Bluetooth, that sort of thing, but most importantly, there is a performance submenu where you can do a couple of things.
First of all it lets you add an overlay that measures battery consumption, CPU and GPU temperatures, CPU and GPU clock speeds, frame rate and that kind of thing. There are then a few settings that you can change to balance out performance and battery usage to match what fits your needs best:
- Limit frame rates to a whole number fraction of the screen refresh rate
- Change the screen refresh rate
- Limit processor power
- Manually fix GPU clock
- Apply a shading filter (including FSR)
The first point off that list is probably the most-used setting. Like I mentioned above, I capped the frame rate of the game at 30 (the default is 60) so the frame rate is more consistent throughout the game. It also conserves power so I can get about two hours of battery out of it with this game while not negatively affecting my gaming experience. I’m not a sucker for astronomical frame rates but your mileage may vary.
FSR is also useful but I found that it only makes a noticeable difference if the game offers a resolution that’s lower than 720p and conserves the aspect ratio. Most of the games where I bothered to look don’t do this. Maybe it would have been possible to somehow manually change the resolution to 540p so FSR makes more of a difference but that’s a level of tinkering I couldn’t be bothered with.
Conveniently, you can change these settings on a per-game basis so you can set it once for every game and forget about it afterwards. However, it’s not yet possible to download community settings for a specific game in order to save yourself the time and effort to figure out the optimal settings yourself. I think that’s understandable, though, because the optimal settings are not necessarily the same for everyone. Often, you’ll want a balance between performance and battery life. Some AAA titles can be played at max settings and 60 FPS but will give you a battery life of below one hour. If you tweak the settings, you can extend that to two or maybe three hours, depending on your needs and willingness to compromise. Indie games or generally less demanding games will give you more play time still, some 4-6 hours maybe, depending.
So far, so great. As I mentioned before, the experience of Gaming Mode is pretty seamless and polished (at least I think so). However, the desktop mode experience is less so. One might wonder why this is important but this naturally comes into play once you want to install and play a game that isn’t on Steam. In my case, I have a bunch of games I bought on GOG that I might want to install. Also, I read about emulation on the Deck and wanted to try a few games I haven’t been able to play so far because I don’t have the console for them.
The workflow is then as follows: you need to enter desktop mode, somehow install your game, optionally add it to the Steam client as a non-Steam game so it’s accessible in Gaming Mode and then play it. Whereas this sounds simple, it’s not necessarily so.
Although the most obvious choice for installing GOG games (Lutris) is now available as a Flatpak, it’s mostly the little things that make the experience a bit cumbersome.
- Navigating the cursor with he trackpad takes a bit getting used to
- The on-screen Steam keyboard doesn’t work well in desktop mode (This was an issue initally but was fixed in the meantime)
- Installed games may not launch (possibly because it was from a Flatpak? Who knows?)
- No Artwork for installed non-Steam game (How do I even add one?)
- Performance of GameCube emulation with Dolphin is terrible
These are some things I noticed myself, I’m sure there are many more. What I’m really trying to say is: using the desktop mode to achieve anything related to gaming usually requires a bit of tinkering. I know, this is still a Linux machine so tinkering is basically baked-in, no? Well, yes and no.
I mean, I’m just as happy to tinker with my stuff as the next person but this is a handheld gaming console and I actually just want to get stuff installed and play it. I also want it to look nice and work well. I know how to get some stuff done in Linux but I don’t have the time and energy to fix all the little (and not so little) issues that crop up when trying to get the software to do what I want.
An example: I own “The Witcher 3” on GOG and I didn’t want to buy the Steam
version just because of the convenience. I downloaded Lutris as a Flatpak and
installed it. No issues so far. I tried to launch the game in desktop mode or
Gaming Mode (after adding it to the client) but it just wouldn’t start. Weird.
The game has a platinum rating on ProtonDB and I never had any issues with it in
the slightest. I couldn’t figure out what was wrong. Then I tried the Heroic
launcher. It installed and started then but never proceeded past the first
loading screen, no matter what I did. Even more weird. Eventually, I ended up
adding the executable (that came from the Lutris installation) to Steam manually
by browsing the wine prefix and choosing the proper .exe file. After this the
game started and loaded fine. No idea why. However, the Artwork was missing of
course. I went to SteamgridDB to find some,
found a guide online that instructed me on how to accomplish it: you need to
isntall SGDBoop as a Flatpak, activate it in your browser, choose an Artwork and
press a button. Sounded simple, didn’t work.
I went to the troubeshooting section and I tried another browser, restarted
everything a bunch of times. Finally, I had to restart
systemctl command in the command line to finally make it work. And even
after all that there’s one artwork (of the several that Steam uses) missing in
Gaming Mode. Transferring my mods and savegames was also a hassle because you
have to identify the correct wine prefix in the Steam folder and insert the
files in the correct spot but since I know how and where to do that it was
All of this was necessary to get to (almost) the same spot I could have gotten to by just buying the game on Steam and installing it through there. And of course I don’t have access to the Steam features for this title, namely achievements (for which I care nothing but others do) and, more importantly, custom control layouts and the like. Not a big issue for this one title since it has controller support out of the box but for other games this would be inconvenient. Maybe there’s a way to deal with this but it would be yet another step of tinkering.
The bottom line with this is basically the following: Steam games work with very little friction if any, non-Steam games not so much. It depends on the game of course but in some cases you have to put in quite a bit of work. Another takeaway, however, is this: there’s loads of community tools and tips to help you out. Considering that the Steam Deck is still pretty new, there’s already a vibrant community around it with dedicated tools for adding non-Steam games to Steam in an automated fashion, adding or changing artworks, community plugins (haven’t tried those) and more. This is something I really like and which, I think, is reminiscent of the best part of the Linux community.
Next up, I tried to get some emulation going. Mostly, I wanted to play some games that I never could because I don’t own the console for it. I didn’t try a whole lot in this regard but first went looking for a one-click solution that works without too much work on my part. I decided on EmuDeck which is basically a shell script that installs all the different emulators in existence and configures everything automatically. You then add the ROMs to the appropriate newly created folders, run Steam ROM manager (which is also installed) which parses your ROMs, looks up artworks for them and adds everything to your Steam library so you can conveniently run all the games from within Gaming Mode. And yes, I know running random scripts from the web is a bad idea. Sue me.
In principle, it all worked fine. I installed a few N64 and GameCube titles and fired them up just to see if everything was okay. The N64 titles displayed some weird border artwork instead of just filling the remaining space that doesn’t fit with the aspect ratio with black. This annoys me. The GameCube titles basically don’t work at all or the performance is terrible. Apparently, this is more pronounced for some of the games than for others but in all cases I noticed severe dips in frame rates or even crashes which render the games unplayable. I have no idea why that is. I don’t know much about emulation, maybe it’s an issue than can be dealt with using the right settings or it’s an issue with the ROM files. I was hoping I wouldn’t have to troubleshoot myself, I wanted everything to just work out of the box, how hard can that be?
It’s probably too much to ask. Unfortunately, I have no idea how to improve on this and I plan to just ask people online since it seems likely that someone else already had and solved these issues. Still, it annoys me that I have to jump through additional hoops when my hope was to just click-and-play this stuff. Perhaps that was unrealistic.
So what’s the bottom line here? Of course this is only my personal opinion so make of it what you will. I think the Deck is an impressive device. It’s powerful, yet portable device with an extensive catalog of available games. Technically, you can play anything that will run on a Linux PC, which is quite a lot nowadays. As explained above, a few compromises may have to be made and your willingness to tinker or lack thereof may also limit the selection of games you can play but that doesn’t detract much from the fact that the thing is still pretty awesome. As far as I know, a few thousand games are playable on the Deck which is more than for any other console (I think).
Add to that the fact that you can do emulation and play actual console games and you have a great gaming device, indeed. What’s more, since it’s actually a fully functioning desktop PC, you could use it for productivity tasks, install whatever you want on it (even Windows) and basically do whatever with it, regardless of its intended purpose. This open nature appeals to me greatly, but I’m a Linux person after all so this seems hardly surprising.
Last but not least, the price is quite decent. I paid 675 € for the premium model but I could also have gotten the 400 € one with the caveat that I would have had to get an SD card immediately because the 64 GB of disk space is basically nothing for games. I don’t think that any other device can compete with Valve here in terms of value for this money.
As stated in the beginning, I had specific reasons for getting the Deck, some of which come from my current situation. In the 2-3 weeks since it arrived I have been gaming much more than I otherwise would have (probably close to zero actually) and it fulfilled my expectations in this regard beautifully. I can walk around my apartment or sit on the couch with the Deck in hand and play. I didn’t think I’d enjoy this so much but, in fact, I do.
So if you’re like me, I highly recommend this device, it’s pretty sweet. If not, do your own research and come to your own conclusions. I still recommend it, though.