Valve steam deck "review", part one: prior to arrival


It's been a long time since I was hyped by something new in tech. I never preordered a game, always went with at best an average computer and lost my excitement of ever-increasing clock speed somewhere early 00'ties (windows millenium is partially to blame). I looked forward to the arrival of my gpd win (one) but didn't get one until after the win 2 was already out.

But I am excited about the steam deck. And for a reason that hits home more than (I presume) the average gamer.

For one: prior to the announcement I was considering a new desktop (gaming) computer. My trusty PC is over six or seven years old. It still works fabulous, but that's in no small feat because I'm using linux mint for pretty much anything (I'll get to that). I was contemplating the aya neo, but the price point made it a hard bargain. technically isn't, but with home renovations and a toddler in the house, you can't just throw a large chunk of your savings in a hobby that's more limited in time now. So when the steam deck was first announced, the sharp price point immediately peaked my interest.

On hindsight, I should've placed my order right then and there. I would've had it weeks if not months ago. But like I said: I don't buy into hypes easily. So for me to jump in after the first third-party videos on it is actually extremely rare for me. But that's also me: I'm cautious. I don't want to be sold on a dream but on a device. So those early reviewers highlighting some frustrations with the OS had the opposite effect on me.

The technical part:

See, here's the thing: I've transitioned to linux roughly since valve released proton upon the world. And proton is...I don't understand why, but it's controversial. See, I've tried wine and crossover on linux computers prior to that. While it had potential to grow, it's finnicky, often unreliable and pretty much a gamble (I made exactly one note of entry ten years ago...a small paragraph that took me two hours of testing, setting up and finding out where to post it correctly). Proton made the setup a lot user friendly, and much more streamlined to to post comments. You don't need to create a game's own virtual drive or pick the correct combination of all sorts of variables. From the outset: if a game works on wine, it works on proton.

But in all fairness: the listing was "okay" at first. The website was more amateuristic back then; usable, but clearly set up from scratch.
But as far as things go in linux, it was a hit. The list grew. A lot. Within a couple weeks, the amount of linux-playable games doubled (from one handfull to TWO handfulls ;) ). But because that's hardly an impressive number and the far majority of AAA-titles weren't among these, it was sort of a silent force.

And sure: when a game worked, it worked. But it attracted tinkerers, people with more skill to get things to work than to explain how they did it...which increased the finnicky-ness on some titles.
What's important, though, is that this wasn't a sprint but a marathon. Over the course of years, proton versions continuously iterated. And even though I was initially fresh to linux (mint) and was glad to get my favorite games running, that creep got lost on me as well. Over time, I would just assume that whatever game in my library I had would just work. With my backlog and cheap bundle prices, it was never a disaster if it didn't (note: I can't recall when a game I tried last flat out was unplayable. But bear in mind: I hardly ever do AAA-titles).

Of course: part of the issue with proton reports is in the PC nature: everyone's hardware, proton version and linux flavor was different, it became rare NOT to see conflicting rapports on games. That unification alone is a good reason to get the steam deck: a verification on a steam deck means it'll have the same hardware and operating system, so at most the proton versions could differ (which are more easily maintained on the deck, I presume). That's certainly a boon for creating reports on games.

Make no mistake: I foremost want to game on that thing. But on my list of what I want to play are almost as much untested or even unsupported games. Like before, I want to help chart out which games work on proton. I heard it said that valve promised their entire library would be playable on the deck, but I never could trace that back to an actual valve spokesmen. But even if someone did say that: it's a ridiculous claim: there are simply far too many games on the store. It's a brave endeavor that they're verifying (and do note: since february, I've checked SITE?? on a near-daily basis, and my personal list of verified and playable games grows after every working day). And since a month or so, I see reports on from other deck users saying their unverified or even unsupported game just works fine.

More reasons:

So...that's already two reasons to get a deck (replacement of my gaming PC and the ability to explore). On top of that is the portability. I'm commuting by train 2 hours per day (in fact, I'm even writing this piece on the train). My girlfriend loves watching television and wants me "around", even if I'm zoned out in my own tablet. And of course our little one: she's a happy little critter that can already play by herself quite a bit and has a fondness of daddy's "tabnoot" (my gaming tablet), but even so: I'm her main gaming partner for when she has the urge for "sjotten" (Flemish Dutch for soccer), hide and seek or just be with her on the trampoline. In gaming terms, it means I need a system that I can turn off and on on a whim's notice.

Queue: the gpd win (one). It's small and clunky and though I was initially a bit impressed, I can't deny it's really underpowered. But the main reason it's a solid miss is because it runs windows 10. As it turns out, I was years ahead of steam deck reviewers who point out that navigating windows 10 straight up sucks on a portable device. The best I could do after tweaking was one minute between starting and actually being in game. That...sort of works on a train, but it was a drag even then (and even so: access to steam is the only trump it has. A hacked DS blows it straight out of the water).

Compare that to the gpd xd+. As an android device, the choice of games (even the lower-powered ones) is a fraction of on windows, but I really enjoyed those games a heck of a lot more. Thus far, dead cells on that thing is the best mobile gaming experience I ever had (though admitted: I'm not counting screen only wiiu as mobile here). And part of that is you can go from opening to gaming in less than 10 seconds. Yes, the ergonomics are better (the onscreen keyboard is easily ten times better than the clunky gpd win physical keyboard), but it still aimed at being a pocketed device.

And that's the thing: I'm not looking for a device I can fit in my pocket. I've got a backpack. Heck...I'd be gaming on this laptop if it had actual ergonomics (ahem...and if it was my personal property instead of a company-owned one). Again: three strikes in favor of the steam deck.

What I'm also curious about is how the trackpads and touchpads work for their purpose. I have a steam controller, and until I got a PS4 one (better still), I used it for a lot of games. And I liked the technology behind it. It failed, yes...but how could it not? there's not much benefit of a worse mouse alternative if mice are still available. It's a bonus, but I'm very interested in trying mouse-driven games on the deck (no RTS or FPS'es for the moment, though). Those who read my yearly top played games know I game on pretty much anything, so those "mobile ports" on steam could be pretty good. To give some examples: I got scythe and blood rage in a bundle, virtual adaptations of popular board games. But learning a tactical game upfront (often with text tutorials) isn't the same as in your lap, which is the equivalent of reading.

Another reason: emulation. I was going to buy a switch one day...until I actually held one. I can't really blame nintendo for having small buttons (it IS aimed for kids, after all), but I've got large hands. Being able to play it on a near-tablet sized screen with large buttons is a good thing. It's not high on my priority list, though (I've got plenty of emulation devices already!).

And last and, admittedly, least: it's a portable PC in a steam ecosystem. During the pandemic I at one point tried to play overcooked with a friend. But it lacking a proper internet connection (it's a couch co-op game) means I had to rely on steam's remote play. It...sort of worked. But "sort of" is the crux here. The full network traffic combined with audio (I think we switched to telephone on speakers to hope to improve things) caused lag. But now the pandemic's over, that couch co-op thing might work. I've already seen ways to hook it to a television and pair up all sorts of controllers, so it's feasible. It's not something I can't do otherwise (when my nephew comes over, playing SMBU and mario kart on wiiu is still a blast), but thus far I can't do it at OTHER people's homes (no, I'm not unhooking my console to bring it over). It's a long shot, but hosting a LAN at a friend's house might just work...

First conclusion (expectations): of writing, my deck is in the mail (and probably arrives later today, when I'm at work EDIT: heard from girlfriend that it's arrived and waiting at home). I'm very eager to try it out...after karate class (it's been weeks if not months due to all sorts of factors. I really ought to stop neglecting that). But there aren't much plans this weekend, and because we've all worked ourselves to death yesterday(1), it'll be a chill weekend. I've already compiled a rough top 40 games to try. Aperture science labs is, of course, top of the list. Portal, gris, hob and ageless round out the top 5, but I could easily go to a top 100 without even leaving steam.

I'll most likely post a follow-up blog post in a week for now. Can't make promisses, though...

(1): there's a roughly 15 m² tiled spot in our garden we want to get rid off to expand the lawn...and my hands are still soar from loosening them, putting them on the chart, hauling them over and hauling back sand.
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