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Valve Steam Deck hands-on preview: A PC playground whatever your gaming tastes

The highest compliment I can pay to Valve's Steam Deck is as my hands-on time with a prototype of the new PC gaming handheld, is that my main question was... would Valve really press charges if I slipped one into my bag as I left?

Seeing it in the plastic flesh, it is noticeably larger than the Nintendo Switch, and with added touchpads and triggers. It looks meaty and comes in at 1.47 lbs (669 grams) compared to the OG Switch, which is 0.88 lbs (399g) but is nicely balanced and doesn't feel heavy or unwieldy to hold. Putting the two handheld devices side by side, the larger size of the Steam Deck's screen really stands out. My petite lady hands didn't struggle to reach any of the controls, and there's a nice, comfortable curve to the grip. Once it was in my hands, I didn't want to put it down again, just to get on with playing.

Steam Deck and Nintendo Switch

(Image credit: Future)

"We've been looking at and working towards the Steam Deck idea for a long time now," says Valve designer Scott Dalton. "We only within the last six months passed over a threshold where we felt like we could actually deliver AAA current titles at good frame rates. All the things you would want out of playing your library."

"Being able to hold it in your hands, the battery, there are a bunch of things that have to reach this performance per watt measurement and we've only very recently gotten there."

Dalton isn't being hyperbolic about the "recently" part either, the prototypes we're seeing haven't even made it to developers yet, and the units on display were stuck in customs right up until the week of our Valve HQ visit. 

Witchcraft

But the important part is how easy it is to play the games, and the answer is very. If you've ever used Steam before you'll feel right at home. Your library is all there, you just pick your game and start playing. I started with The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, a game I've played on every platform possible. It took a minute to start up as it loaded some shaders, but when I waved the screen at him a Valve developer on standby was quick to point out that won't be something the average player experiences. We were handling early prototypes of the machine, so by the time your pre-order arrives that process will all happen behind the scenes when you first download your game from your library. Once Geralt and Roach were on the screen, it was the game I knew and loved from playing hundreds of hours on PC - smooth, richly textured, and just as responsive as I slaughtered Drowners on the beach. Despite the small speakers, the sound was clear even in a room full of people all talking tech.

Steam Deck library

(Image credit: Future)

Next up I hit a small button on the left-hand side that takes you back to your Steam library and tried the GamesRadar Game of the Year for 2020, Hades. Supergiant's breakaway success is the kind of game that was made to make machines look good, and it absolutely succeeds in that on the Steam Deck. Again, playing the game it was so easy to forget I was there to test out a new machine, and playing on a work in progress prototype, because there was no friction. The game just felt so right my brain slipped straight into gaming mode. I can absolutely see myself playing anything from AAA adventures to smaller indie games equally on a Steam Deck. Compared to my Nintendo Switch, it definitely feels like a more serious gaming machine with the extra controls and bigger screen, and it'll be interesting to compare the new OLED screen Switch and the Steam Deck later this year. 

Steam Deck

(Image credit: Future)

We were limited in what we got to play - Valve had sought permission from a few specific developers to use their games for the demonstration - but I checked out Doom Eternal, Dying Light: The Following, and Prey.

I couldn't see what it was like to play a big MMO or a casual hidden object game, but between the touchpads that can be used to control a mouse pointer and the processing power, it's hard to imagine a favorite of mine it couldn't handle. 

Battery life is definitely going to mean that if you want more than a few hours you'll want your charger around. Valve had previously said it can last anything from 2-8 hours depending on what you're playing, and our short hands-on time didn't leave room to test that theory. 

On Deck with friends

To give the Steam Deck more of a challenge I tried some local co-op with a single console, and two PS5 DualSense controllers connected via the handheld's Bluetooth capabilities. Yes, two people sat in front of a handheld's screen to play a game still feels as ridiculous as it did in all those 'Nintendo Switch at a rooftop bar' commercials, but as a proof of concept for using any controller you have lying around, it was a success. 

Steam Deck

(Image credit: Valve)

Playing an online game in co-op - The Ascent - was seamless too. Well, the technology was. With me and another Valve developer on a Steam Deck, another joining via desktop PC, and absolutely zero The Ascent experience between the three of us, it took us a shameful amount of time to navigate our way to some combat, and all died far too quickly when we managed it. This was the only demo where I experienced a crash, but between that and our terrible performance, it was at least proof that the demo wasn't some super rehearsed setup, just a realistic idea of progress on the prototypes so far. 

Will it blend?

One of the more unusual features that we got to see was the Steam Deck being used to run the 3D creation software Blender, with the Steam Deck connected to a monitor and Bluetooth PC peripherals. "In theory, you could be playing your games on this, and then you could plug in like this and make your own game," says Dalton. "There's plenty of situations where this might be your only PC. You can play your games on it, dock it, and do all your desktop stuff." 

Steam Deck

(Image credit: Valve)

The machine comes with Linux, but you're free to put whatever OS on it, like Windows, that you want. Valve isn't here for the walled garden approach that companies like Apple and Nintendo inflict on their devices, talking to the developers you can see that they're excited to see what weird and wonderful uses the audience comes up with. That was clear when I tried out streaming Netflix and Twitch too, using the touchpad like a mouse to browse and select content. It wasn't about going to the Steam store to find a Netflix app, it was just about using those services through the browser like I would on any other PC. Turns out you don't need an app when you've got unfettered access to the whole internet. 

Breaking down walls

So I didn't steal one, but the wait for my pre-ordered Steam Deck just got a lot more tortuous. I'm excited to have access to my Steam library wherever I want, to have the choice to step away from my RGB lighted monster PC and desk when I want to check out a new game, or just do some grinding in an old favorite. Valve will only say it's really pleased about the pre-order numbers, and that it's happy with how developers have reacted. What will be really interesting to see when the machine launches later this year is what people much smarter than me manage to do with the machine; a machine that Valve has very deliberately left open to experimentation. Prepare to go on a boring work trip and meet a lunatic who is running his entire office setup off his Steam Deck, games made for Steam Deck on Steam Deck, or someone who - how dare they - never plays a single game on the thing but uses it to access obscure anime movies on streaming sites. 

Valve's Steam Deck is available for pre-order now, and the first units will be delivered at the end of this year. 

Rachel Weber

Between Official PlayStation Magazine, GamesIndustry.biz and Rolling Stone I've picked up a wide range of experience, from how to handle the madness of E3 to making easy conversation with CEOs and executives of game companies over seafood buffets. At GamesRadar+ I'm proud of the impact I've had on the way we write news, and now - as managing editor in the US - the huge traffic successes we're seeing. Most of all I'm proud of my team, who have continued to kick ass through the uncertainty of 2020 and into 2021, and are what makes GamesRadar+ so special.