When it comes to my tech, I am reluctant to add anything that has the potential to become a technical liability that I cannot accommodate. I am also not interested in any tech that locks me into a cloud based ecosystem where my future with the technology is at the whims of some faceless corporation. As a consequence, I require a certain level of freedom with my tech. If some distant server shuts down, the software and hardware I have purchased should be largely unaffected, obviously with some caveats.
Bottom Line Up Front: The SteamDeck is everything I ever wanted in a hand held console and more. I think it would have been a better experience built on openSUSE, mostly for my own gratification but despite the choice of using Arch Linux tools, Valve has done a wonderful job of making SteamOS top notch. This is, without a shred of hesitation, the finest gaming console I have ever purchased.
Why I Bought It
There are two huge selling points for the SteamDeck that hold up even though the “newness” has long wore off on the thing. The first win is that this is built on Linux. Why should anyone care? It means it has near unlimited flexibility. Although this runs SteamOS and not openSUSE, the interoperability between SteamOS and my openSUSE Linux machines is not encumbered at all. I can do all the Linuxy things I want to do on this machine. There is not any bit of vendor lock down on this device. Valve is okay with me doing whatever I want with this machine. I could wipe the drive and put openSUSE on it if I really wanted to and Valve could care less. That is absolutely beautiful.
The second win is the ease of repair of the SteamDeck. You can buy any part that could possibly break and fix the thing. Quite literally, every part from ifixit.com. The machine was designed to allow its owner to repair it. Valve has also released many of the CAD files to allow hobbyists or 3rd parties to make accessories for it without having to do a lot of extra work. This is such a fantastic practice by the business that only supports the building up a community of enthusiasts which will carry this machine on for years beyond just the time it is manufactured. It will almost be as though this machine has the potential to develop a kind of personality of its own. Time will tell.
How I am using it and what has changed from my initial intent
When I first decided to get the SteamDeck, I was set on blowing away SteamOS and installing openSUSE Tumbleweed on it. I had low expectations for SteamOS but I will say that I have been pleasantly surprised. SteamOS is absolutely fantastic and tuned absolutely perfectly for the SteamDeck. The folks at Valve have put a lot of thought and care into the software that I want to see how they continue to improve it. I have decided to leave it the way Valve has intended, for the foreseeable future.
I am using this machine, primarily as it was intended, to play games in a hand held mode as well as docked and outputting to a screen. I have dabbled with the Linux Desktop side, just to see how I can make it work as a desktop and I am quite pleased with that as well. Valve selecting the Plasma Desktop is a fantastic choice for the “Desktop Side” and having Flatpak enabled by default through Discover is also great as I can install many games or other applications as I see fit.
I am using the SteamDeck far less as a computer than I thought I would and using it largely as it was intended. I have paired a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse but basically use it for gaming, not productivity.
Changes I have made
I couldn’t just leave the KDE Plasma desktop as it was. It didn’t give me the warm fuzzies that I get from using openSUSE on my other machines so I did change the desktop to look like the rest of my systems. Since I can search for my openSUSE Breeze Dark Plasma style and color scheme right in the Plasma Settings, I easily made the changes to add just a touch of the comfortable decor to my Plasma Desktop.
I enabled SSH on the SteamDeck so that I can remotely manage my SteamDeck. I used this guide and it worked quite well. On my local DNS server, I reserved a specific IP for the SteamDeck so that when I am out and about with the thing, SSH is not possible… but now I am second guessing that decision. Perhaps I’ll revisit this at another time.
I added the Edge Browser through Flatpak so that I can take advantage of the Xbox Cloud Gaming service for games like Fortnite. More on this for another time too but in short, with the right tweaks, it is almost a perfect gaming experience.
Purchases I Made
I did make some purchases to enhance my use of the device. Those being a decent case, a USB-C hub, but later an actual dock station for it. I am only slightly disappointed in this dock station from JSAUX as I can’t put my SteamDeck in the slot with the JSAUX protective case. I have a tentative solution for this but that is for another time.
I have not performed any hardware improvements to it at all. I have the original 512 GB m.2 drive in it. I know that there are improved thumb sticks for it, but I have had no issues with the stock units. I haven’t even “skinned” my machine with something retro… yet. So far, I have just It has all just been little things. I would like to get some dedicated Bluetooth controllers for it but I am not quite sure what I want to buy. I have been mostly happy with the Wii U pro controllers but I do have issues with the controllers connecting after they are paired. I’m not sure if this is a controller or SteamDeck issue.
What I Wish Was Different
There are no significant lack of features for the SteamDeck and I am sure that Valve is continuing to improve the user experience. I am absolutely certain that they are going to give me things I never knew I wanted. From my perspective as an openSUSE enthusiast, I really wish that Valve would have worked with the openSUSE Project to build SteamOS; something more like the MicroOS immutable operating system using the more leading edge Tumbleweed packages seems like a fantastic combination. I’m sure Valve has its reasons, but taking advantage of the Open Build Service and OpenQA would likely relieve a lot of the technical debt in maintaining SteamOS. I know that Arch is a popular Linux platform but I just can’t rationalize the logic of the terrible syntax of the package manager. I realize that Valve is maintaining its own repositories for SteamOS but again, the technical debt seems like there could be an issue of sustainability for the long term.
What I Like
The fit and finish of the SteamDeck is the absolute nicest piece of portable gaming hardware I have have ever held between my 180lb gorilla fingers. The positioning of the buttons on the front and back in relation to the thub sticks, the touch pads and the touch screen interface is as close to perfection as I could ask for. Sure, longer battery life would be great but I don’t do a lot of AAA gaming so it is not a serious issue for me.
I am super glad Valve didn’t choose to use one of those garbage OLED screens. I realize they are popular but I think they are absolute garbage with too short of a usable lifespan. A proper LCD screen with backlight guarantees many, many long and fantastic years of near perfect use.
What I Don’t Like
I am hesitant in purchasing another SteamDeck for the family because of the issue of having more than one device linked to a Steam Account at a time. If, lets say, one of my kids is playing a game on the Steam Deck, I want to also play an unrelated Steam game on my laptop, one of the two devices will end up getting logged out. For the most part, I generally just want to play something on RetroArch anyway so I have a work around but I shouldn’t have to.
When I add non-Steam games to the SteamDeck, no matter how much I try to force the interface to use a custom image and background, those images do not show up and it really makes non-Steam games and applications feel like 2nd class citizens and detracts from the user experience. It would be nice if, by default, non-Steam Games would use the Icon image from the Linux menu to represent the application. I just want something other than the default grey blah that is presented for everything.
When playing a game, I have found on more than one occasion that the battery will be depleted without warning and the machine just shuts itself down. It is easy to check the status of the battery but if you are intensely immersed in destroying your kitchen in “Cooking Simulator” you may not see that the battery is near dead and the game will suddenly end itself.
Was it worth the purchase? Yes and I would even consider another SteamDeck to alleviate some of the demand that has been placed on it. The hang up there is my uncertainty of having more than one Deck on the same account. Perhaps there is another way to make it all work seamlessly but that eludes me at this time. There are a few irritations with using SteamOS but they are far overshadowed by the sheer brilliance of the design, fit, finish and ease of use of this machine.
I do wish that Valve would have used an openSUSE base as I do think, in every measurable sense, it is a better project to build from, considering the supporting resources within the Open Build Service and OpenQA. All the work of an enterprise-grade immutable operating system is already there and ready to be used by any derivative project.
The SteamDeck is a fantastic gaming machine that is open, customizable and can be molded into whatever form you would like. It has far exceeded my expectation for a gaming appliance than I was expecting. The Linux underpinnings are not blocked, hidden or restricted by the user so remote management of filesystem contents is easily accomplished from a proper Linux desktop. This feature alone makes the SteamDeck the greatest gaming console ever created.