You can’t even buy a decent graphics card for the price of the Steam Deck. That’s the state of PC gaming in 2022; a hobby with such a high-priced entry requirement right now that those without seriously disposable income need not apply. Even if you could find a PC at the same price point as the new Valve handheld I can guarantee it wouldn’t come with a discrete GPU today, and I can also guarantee that you would be hugely disappointed trying to play any game from this side of 2006.
But the Steam Deck will even play Elden Ring at a decent lick—as well as anything can play that stuttering PC port right now—and I’ve had impressive gaming performance out of it in pretty much every game I’ve thrown at it. Sure, you have to be a bit parsimonious about the graphics settings, maybe give it a frame rate limit if you want anything like a playable battery life out of it, and it is only running at 1280 x 800, but it’s a gaming PC that can game and be yours for just $529.
If you’re willing to wait, that is.
Yeah, the thorny issue with any praise of the Steam Deck is the fact that availability is pretty limited, and is likely to remain that way for the foreseeable. Nobody on the PC Gamer team who reserved on day one has had any hint that they’re any closer to getting their hands on the micro machine.
Gabe himself has told us that he has no visibility on when gamers will be able to want a Deck, click buy, and receive one within a few days or a week. Though there is some good news in that Valve designer, Lawrence Yang, has gone on record to state that it believes Steam Deck production will quickly ramp up and be into the hundreds of thousands by its second month on sale. Fingers crossed that means Valve will blaze through those pre-orders pretty quickly.
But looking past those, hopefully temporary issues, the hardware itself does so much that is good. Its potential as a budget gaming PC is immense, more so than just some cheap laptop with low-spec integrated graphics, which will still likely cost more than a mid-tier Steam Deck.
And forget about trying to build a desktop PC with vaguely capable gaming chops for anything like the price of the Deck. Especially since the highest tier integrated graphics from either AMD or Intel are perennially pegged to more expensive CPUs.
With the Steam Deck you can get your PC gaming done on the go, in the garden, in a bar, on your sofa, or at your desk, plugged into a monitor, mouse, and keyboard. It’s incredibly versatile, portable, and surprisingly powerful; a PC that can almost be anything to anyone. And you can get all that for a little over $500. Less if you opt for the 64GB version and fill it with micro SD cards.
There are, of course, limitations. The Linux OS is incredibly accessible, whether in the simple, handheld-focused Deck UI or the desktop, but it is still Linux and has a bit of a learning curve. And, though Proton is doing a fantastic job of getting Windows-only games running on the Deck’s operating system, some don’t work, and some aren’t being supported deliberately.
We already know two of the biggest games, Fortnite and Destiny 2, aren’t supported for SteamOS, so you’ll need to be running Windows (or streaming via GeForce Now) to play either on the Deck. And right now AMD is still messing around with Windows drivers for the Van Gogh-based Aerith APU at the heart of the device, so you can’t really install Microsoft’s OS on there yet.
Though these aren’t deal-breakers, certainly in terms of PC gaming at such an aggressive price point.
At a time when the barrier to entry for PC gaming is sky-high—with the price of graphics cards still at a frankly offensive level, and almost everything else seeing a demand-related price premium attached to them—for the Steam Deck to come in as such a value proposition actually seems almost anachronistic.
But that was always part of the plan for the Deck.
“We always thought that the price point was one of the critical things,” Gabe tells us. “So I mean, pretty early on, we were driven by a set of ergonomic considerations, by performance considerations, and by price point.”
That in itself was tough going, though.
“One of the core challenges that we thought we had to take on with this generation was the price point,” says Gabe. “The $399 price point was sort of written in stone. And we had to do a bunch of stuff, like make massive min commits [minimum order commitments], and other kinds of things in order to get to the volumes that would allow us to hit those sorts of price points.”
The fact that most early adopters have reserved the top, 512GB version, however, has taken Valve by surprise.
“I think we were a little bit surprised that instead of the entry-level SKU being the most popular one,” says Gabe, “it was the high-end SKU that ended up being the most popular SKU.”
“A lot of us, including myself,” echoes designer, Greg Coomer, “did not predict that when we were finishing up the process and getting ready to announce the Steam Deck. We predicted the opposite.”
That’s those pre-order reservists, however. When the system is more widely available, and parents are shopping for big birthday and Christmas presents, you can bet the lower-tier Deck will start to come into its own. It’s the sort of situation we’ve seen with the Xbox Series X being the big seller upfront and the Series S coming to the fore later on down the line.
And, despite only having 64GB of eMMC storage inside it, the cheapest Steam Deck still retains all the other functionality and specs of its bigger siblings. Okay, you might miss the top-tier’s etched glass screen, but you’re getting 16GB of LPDDR5 and an APU that’s able to smash out God of War at an eminently playable frame rate.
During my testing, whenever I came across a slight bug, or performance that made me pause, I always came back to the price. The Steam Deck is a third of the cost of many other gaming handheld PCs, and way cheaper than most gaming laptops. And that’s why price has been such a consideration for Valve, and why you shouldn’t even consider spending over the odds on some ebay listing for one second, no matter how much you want one.
This is, at its heart, a budget gaming PC, and a brilliant one at that.