In June of ’22 I gave my impressions of the original Deck. It’s time to check out the new Steam Deck OLED!
I’ve had the new Steam Deck OLED Limited Edition for about a week and it’s exactly what we believed it to be. If you were just looking for confirmation that it isn’t a dud, here it is: I love playing on the Steam Deck OLED. It’s great. You can skip to my conclusions and get an OLED model as long as you’re aware of the same caveats from the original Steam Deck, which Valve is now calling the Steam Deck LCD.
The big Steam Deck OLED improvements
Valve has put in a lot of work to make the Steam Deck OLED the best Steam Deck.
There’s the slightly larger (0.4 inches!), brighter, screen with improved contrast and color reproduction due to the OLED. Even my red/green color blind eyes appreciated how much better almost every game looks on the OLED display. The quick snapshots I took of the Steam Deck OLED’s screen for this article don’t do it justice.
I saw a few reviews that mentioned differences between contrast levels on the anti-glare etched glass on the 1TB models of the Steam Deck versus the glossier 512GB Steam Deck OLED, but I still prefer the anti-glare coating for playing outdoors.
The Steam Deck OLED also has improved battery life and very slightly faster gaming performance due to the smaller APU process and faster RAM are two key features I don’t have the ability to adequately test, but fortunately plenty of other reviewers have confirmed Valve’s claims and found that the hardware often surpasses the claimed improvements. Richard Leadbetter (writing for Digital Foundry) found that the new Deck also has significantly less input lag which is great for modern games and especially great for running emulated games that were made for low latency CRT televisions.
The new screen supports HDR but I didn’t find many games in my library that support it or offer an easy way to turn HDR on or off. Some seem to expect the OS to handle HDR. Valve’s Steam library interface on the deck also doesn’t provide a way to filter your game library to only show games that support HDR. One of my favorite games to play on the Steam Deck, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1+2, doesn’t offer HDR support even though the option is present in the menu. Instead, the toggle to enable HDR is greyed out and underneath it says that THPS 1+2’s HDR functionality only supports certain graphics cards. Hopefully this will get patched in as other THPS patches have focused on the Deck. The game still looks and plays incredibly well.
There are a few subtle changes that I’ve noticed such as a snapper d-pad but that may just be down to the fact that it hasn’t been used for months like I have with the original Steam Deck. Unfortunately the analog sticks are still traditional sticks that may eventually fail instead of the supposedly invulnerable hall-effect sticks but I haven’t heard of many people complaining about the analog sticks on the Steam Deck failing. If they do, Valve has partnered with ifixit to offer replacement parts and guides for working on the Deck, as well as supporting it themselves.
If you’re like me you hear “ifixit” and start thinking about just buying an OLED screen to install into the LCD Deck, but that doesn’t seem to be a viable option from ifixit yet. I’ve seen third-party options for supposedly improved LCD screens with higher resolutions, but I haven’t been able to test them and wonder why you’d want a higher resolution LCD screen on the Deck when that will just put additional load on the internal APU for modern games that the Steam Deck can barely handle as it is.
The best news for anyone who wants to repair a Steam Deck OLED is that the screws are now held in with metal instead of just screwing directly into plastic. You’ll still need to remove the SD-card before separating the halves of the Deck, though, unless you want the SD-card to snap in half.
Another improvement is that the touch screen is much better. Many of the issues I reported with the original deck’s keyboard seem to be resolved though I have no doubt the improved input latency is helping here as well as with games.
WiFi and Bluetooth support have both been upgraded, WiFi to the latest 6E standard and Bluetooth to a new 5.3 module with its own separate antenna from the WiFI system.
The thumbsticks are much better now, they’re more comfortable and your hands are less likely to slip out of them.
While you could DIY an upgrade to the storage on the original Deck with either a micro-SD card or an internal storage upgrade, the option to have 1TB from the start is fantastic for those of us who were bumping into the 512GB limit constantly as I was. It was easy enough to move my emulators and ROM files over on the SD card with the tools the Emudeck project has made available.
I love gaming on the new Steam Deck OLED thanks to all of these improvements, but there are some little issues and the same big ones from the original Steam Deck.
Cons to the new Steam Deck OLED
A few parts of the Steam Deck just don’t function well.
You still can’t download games or updates while the Steam Deck’s screen is asleep and the Deck is plugged in.
Voice chat with the build in microphone and speakers works poorly. You’ll hear echos and bad garbled audio or at least that’s what I heard in a test call to another user who was also on a Steam Deck OLED. Both Steam Decks were in the same house, so there’s really no latency excuse. When I tried to plug in headphones that don’t have a built-in microphone to resolve the echoing at least, the other person on the call couldn’t hear me talking because the Deck didn’t offer an option or automatically switch to the built-in microphone.
I didn’t mention the weight of the new Steam Deck OLED because the 30 gram reduction (669g vs 639g) doesn’t feel a lot lighter to me. My hands and arms still tire while holding the Steam Deck OLED if it isn’t balanced on a pillow or my legs. Although it feels much more comfortable to play on either version of the Steam Deck than on any model of the Nintendo Switch, after any particularly long gaming session my hands still hurt. I’m in my 40’s now though, so younger folks will probably be fine.
Desktop mode still feels like a caged animal. You can’t really customize the operating system in the ways you could with a regular desktop Linux install and things you might expect aren’t there, like printer support is just missing. Support for printers is something you don’t really need until you absolutely have to have it and then you’re left wondering why it’s missing on a portable computer with 1TB of internal storage. The big caveat to this note is that the Deck really is just a portable computer and you’re free to install whatever you want onto it. You want Windows or maybe a traditional installation of Ubuntu? Both are theoretically doable.
I go over this a lot more with my original Steam Deck impressions. My last smaller note is that as far as I know, Valve is still not really pushing developers towards porting their games to Linux. You’d hope that native ports would be the result of these Steam Decks selling like hotcakes, but it isn’t and that stinks. Every time a Windows game works in WINE and Valve’s Proton it still feels like an accidental success instead of something that will be reliable in the long run. A few times when I’ve gone to play games on the Steam Deck OLED they launched, and I could see them running briefly, but the games didn’t show anything on-screen until I rebooted the Deck and launched them again. These kinds of problems are typical when when running games through non-native compatibility layers like Valve’s Proton and they only get worse if you try to do stuff that computers are normally good at, like modding games with third-party utilities outside of Valve’s Steam Workshop functionality.
The biggest reasons to not choose the Steam Deck OLED
The new performance improvements aren’t enough to make some of the latest games like Starfield run comfortably. Valve even has a warning right on the store page for Starfield that says “This game’s graphics settings cannot be configured to run well on Steam Deck.” I should say that this isn’t the case with every new game, Diablo 4 ran on the original Steam Deck and runs just as well on the Steam Deck OLED.
The Deck’s Linux-based SteamOS also means that multiplayer games with certain kinds of anti-cheat software still won’t run on the Steam Deck. Destiny 2, Call of Duty, and so on are all limited to running via Steam’s remote play feature which requires another computer running Steam on Windows. Steam store pages for the latest Call of Duty games conveniently display no Steam Deck compatibility badge and it makes you wonder if there were some mild business shenanigans involved.
Of course it is still a pain in the butt to get games from third-party stores launching on the Steam Deck OLED. This is partially solved by open-source clients like the Heroic Games Launcher, and that project is terrific, but it still feels pretty awful that the situation is like this. Third-party digital game stores like itch.io in particular shouldn’t feel worse on the Steam Deck. This is a big reason why I end up regretting purchases made on the Epic Games Store which barely functions on Windows, let alone on the Steam Deck. The copy of Hitman 3 I bought while the game was still exclusive to the Epic Store will forever haunt me with its non-transferrable save data.
I love gaming on the Steam Deck OLED, and would recommend either model to anyone based on their budget and especially to someone who already has a library of Steam games as long as those games run well on the Steam Deck and they’re aware of the Deck’s biggest flaws: multiplayer games may not run at all due to incompatible anti-cheat software, some games like Starfield may never run unless the developer puts in the time to optimize it for the Steam Deck, and games from third-party stores can be a pain to run.
If you were hoping for a bigger performance improvement you should wait for a Steam Deck 2, or you can get a competing device like the Lenovo Legion Go or ASUS ROG Ally though both supposedly have rotten software issues of their own due to running Microsoft’s Windows operating system combined with utilities from Lenovo and ASUS to make games run better on their respective handhelds. While that situation is improving over time, it would be great if Microsoft made their own gaming overlay to improve Windows for these handheld computers, and if Valve made SteamOS more accessible to these third-party hardware makers.
Maybe the best news for the majority of people who are interested in portable gaming is that the Steam Deck OLED has made the original Steam Deck LCD incredibly cheap. Valve has lowered the price of the original Steam Deck LCD models on their store and I’ve seen them for sale used for as low as $150 here in Hawaii. There have also been more than a year of software updates from Valve that improve both the LCD and OLED models, and third-party game developers have been working to improve game compatibility. This is terrific news for anyone who wants a gaming platform that is a lot more open than traditional consoles and handhelds.