We’re about two weeks away from Valve’s Linux-powered Steam Deck officially launching and making its way into the hands of eager gamers. A review embargo is still firmly in place until February 25 at 10am PST, which prevents us from seeing the big picture (sorry, had to). But a trio of revealing Steam Deck hardware previews gives us a ton of insight into the console’s battery life claims, gaming performance, loading speeds, and even GPU tweaking options.
It’s important to emphasize that what’s been published are not final reviews. Not remotely. Valve apparently approved early previews for three YouTube channels: Linus Tech Tips, Gamers Nexus and The Phawx. And according to those channels, Valve restricted the discussion to the hardware itself, and performance evaluations of only 7 games: Control, Devil May Cry 5, Forza Horizon 5, Portal 2, Dead Cells, Ghost Runner and Street Fighter V.
That means no evaluation of Steam OS 3.0 and its Linux base. No glimpses of the UI and various tweaks and toggles we have access to.
Based solely on the Steam Deck hardware, comfort, and gaming performance, Linus Tech Tips has already issued a bold proclamation. In the channel’s preview video, Linus Sebastian gleefully says that Steam Deck is “the most innovative gaming PC in 20 years — more, maybe.”
“The community for this thing — do not kid yourselves — is going to be enormous,” Sebastian continued.
To be fair, Linus Sebastian is a known handheld gaming fan so it’s entirely possible he’s caught up in the euphoria; the honeymoon period of a new console. But I doubt it. In the video’s conclusion, he stresses that the software is still “make or break” for the Steam Deck, and that Valve has a lot of questions to answer.
For those, we’ll have to wait until February 25th and beyond.
After digesting all three preview videos, I walked away with some observations which may just back up his claim. I’m going to call out the things that really jumped out at me — the points that got me personally excited. And where possible I’ve timestamped the video links so you can have a visual reference.
#1: It’s The Swiss Army Knife of Controls
We’re spoiled for choice when it comes to the Steam Deck’s controller. Or, more accurately, a buffet table of control options. For every game, we can use a D-pad, analog sticks, a haptic-enhanced dual touchpad setup, gyro controls and even a touchscreen.
Some members of the Linus Tech Tips staff had a few minor complaints in this regard, but not about comfort. It was more about the placement of certain buttons that felt slightly unnatural, but not uncomfortable, to reach. Ultimately, the conclusion was that “it’s a small price to pay for the unprecedented input flexibility.”
Honestly, I half-expected this to be “The Duke” all over again. (Microsoft’s original Xbox controller was comically large, and quickly led to a redesign that more resembles Microsoft’s recent Xbox controller.) Especially after seeing these size comparisons. I’m thrilled to be proven wrong, and I’ll let you know I feel about the control layout and comfort on February 25th.
#2: The MicroSD Card Load Times Are… Really Fast?
The Steam Deck ships in 3 variants: a 64GB model which uses slower eMMC storage, a 256GB NVMe SSD model, and a 512GB NVMe SSD model. All 3 include an XDHC-compatible MicroSD card slot for additional storage.
Raise your hand if you assumed you’d only want that MicroSD card option for storage emergencies. I mean, I expected it to be significantly slower than loading from the Deck’s SSD.
Yep, I was wrong.
The Phawx, who published an exhaustive, 52-minute hardware and performance preview, compared loading times of multiple games including Portal 2, Street Fighter V, Devil May Cry 5, and others. He demonstrated that the majority of the time, loading times between SSD and MicroSD card were neck-and-neck.
In a couple of instances, the Deck’s SSD loaded titles a few seconds faster, but his takeaway was that “if you bought the $400 [64GB] model, you’ll be fine.”
More testing is certainly required. I’d love to see detailed speed benchmarks of the SSD itself, rather than just comparative loading times. And when my review unit gets here, you can count on that test happening.
We can already conclude one thing with confidence. Given the relative affordability of microSD storage, this makes the baseline Steam Deck much more attractive than I first imagined.
#3: You Have A LOT Of Control Over Steam Deck Hardware
In the same video, we’re treated to a lengthy game demo of Control, but the emphasis isn’t on overall performance. It’s on how much, well, control you have over the Steam Deck’s CPU and GPU usage.
Under normal operating conditions, Steam Deck’s CPU uses 4 cores and 8 threads. But you can throttle frequencies and even deactivate cores altogether. In his Control demo, he showed a 20-percent FPS improvement by limiting the game to 2 cores and 4 threads.
You can also reduce the CPU clock frequencies, which theoretically could be leveraged for longer battery life. We’ll even be able to tune our GPU performance (Auto, Manual, Low and High), interface performance, TDP, and AMD FSR settings!
As you can see, this opens up a massive amount of testing possibilities, and I’m certain the community is going to come up with clever profiles to maximize both performance and battery life of the handheld.
#4: The Steam Deck Is Really Quiet
It’s not fanless, it has a lot of horsepower, and it’s a freaking PC contained within a handheld gaming chassis. As such, I expected it to make some noise. And it does, although it’s significantly quieter than you might be expecting.
Over at Gamers Nexus, the team conducted thorough noise level tests in a sound booth, and put the Deck under heavy stress by charging it while playing Devil May Cry 5. Under this kind of load, Gamers Nexus measured a peak noise output of 38 dBA.
To put that into perspective, 30 decibels is a whisper, while 40 decibels is a quiet library.
Therefore it’s safe to say the Deck’s cooling system won’t be disturbing you, even if you’re in a quiet environment and listening via the built-in speakers.
#5 The Gaming Performance Blows Away Any Competition
The gaming benchmarks out in the wild now are just enough to whet our appetites and make us crave the coming deluge of results once the review embargo lifts. Suffice to say, the custom AMD Aerith APU is very, very capable of delivering playable framerates. And when stacked against the competition, it’s largely an overpowering victory.
For these results, we’ll head back to The Phawx, since he compared the Steam Deck to the GPD Win 3 and AYANEO Next (both of which are considerably more expensive).
The Deck’s prowess is obvious when looking at synthetic benchmarks like Unigine Heaven. Running the Valley benchmark on Ultra (at 800p resolution), the Deck just towers above the competition, ranging from a 35-percent FPS advantage to more than 200-percent improvement when scaling down TDP.
Devil May Cry 5 maintains a stable 60 FPS on the Deck with default settings. Forza Horizon 5 mostly maintains a locked 30FPS at High Quality settings. And Street Fighter V locks in 60FPS at its highest quality settings!
This is where it’s necessary to mention that none of those games are even native to Linux; they’re being powered by Steam Proton, a compatibility layer that allows Windows games to be played smoothly on Linux.
Some Closing Thoughts
There is still so much to unpack, and a multitude of impressions will be coming in hot on February 25th, and well beyond that. What I’ve seen from all three hardware previews paints a very positive first impression. And Valve is apparently issuing daily software updates, likely improving performance in the process.
As for whether the Steam Deck is the most innovative gaming PC in 20+ years? We’ll have to wait a little longer for more reviewers and users to weigh in.
* This article was originally published in my Forbes column.
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