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Review: Valve Steam Deck OLED

The well-balanced PC gaming handheld gets a little bit better.
Steam Deck OLED
Photograph: Valve

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Beginner-friendly software. Brilliant HDR OLED screen. Comfortable design. Improved battery life. Capably plays tons of PC games. Bigger SSD capacities. Slick transparent limited edition.
Tinkerers will still reap the broadest game compatibility. Legacy games can be a struggle to control. Less graphics power than some competing handhelds. Hardware upgrades are limited to mid- and top-tier models.

Almost two years ago, game maker Valve shipped a noteworthy piece of hardware. After spending years tinkering with controllers, widgets that let you play PC games on your TV, and even virtual reality headsets, the Steam Deck was its first bona fide hit.

To build the Deck, the company’s engineers shoehorned laptop-grade PC components inside a handheld device with a 7-inch screen and, impressively, ran Windows-compatible games with a Microsoft-free, user-friendly operating system. Valve smartly took a pragmatic approach to designing most aspects of the Deck. It didn't have the sharpest screen. It didn't have the best graphics or brawniest processing, and it certainly wasn't the smallest gaming handheld. But the balance between the elements and the value it gave gamers was impressive. And, with continuing software support and 300-some-odd patches, the Steam Deck has only gotten better with age.

That's why when I got the call to visit Valve's headquarters to see a new Deck, I was a little concerned. Would the company improve the product in ways that really mattered, or appeal to gamers' unquenchable thirst for hi-res graphics by offering a ridiculously overpowered version of the handheld? As it turns out, cooler heads prevailed. The new Steam Deck OLED model is a stone Valve chucked back into the rock tumbler, coming out just a bit more polished and appealing. Those who held off until the Deck was a bit more baked should know that now is the time to get in on this impressive gaming PC.

Blinded by the Light

Valve's first Deck was a bit of a shock to behold at first, with its, shall we say, utilitarian design. It was big, it was wide, and it was chonky. But in use, it was also a winner, giving you a lot of control over a wide variety of games. The new Steam Deck OLED model doesn’t mess with a good thing and keeps the layout, size, and shape the same. With its touchscreen, twin thumb sticks, D-pad, buttons, triggers, and dual touchpads, you can easily zip through controller- and even some mouse-driven games. For the new OLED model, Valve has changed some design details. The legends on the keys have a darker tone, the sticks have a grippier design, and the bumpers up top have been tuned for better responsiveness. The company's engineers told me even the rumble of the twin touchpads is more precise in the revised Deck.

Otherwise, the shape and size of the Deck OLED is identical to existing Steam Decks. For my medium-size mitts, it's a great fit. But if you find the Nintendo Switch is too big to hold for longer play sessions, the Deck might not be ideal for your anatomy. At least the new OLED model is about 30 grams lighter; that’s roughly a 5 percent weight reduction, which was just enough for me to notice but not enough to make a difference.

Photograph: Brendan Nystedt

Between all those pads, buttons, and sticks on the front of the Steam Deck OLED is its new screen. If there was any weak point to the older Steam Deck, it was the screen, which was a little dim, not super colorful, and at only 7 inches diagonal, a bit small. All of that changes with the new display. It uses OLED technology to show a much more vivid picture that can get way brighter (600 nits in standard dynamic range, and 1,000 nits peak when used with HDR games, up from a peak of 400 nits on the old LCD) as well as way darker, since pixels on OLED screens can fully turn off, making for inky-black blacks. The OLED display is slightly bigger too, with an additional 0.4 inches on the diagonal, and with a faster 90-Hz refresh rate for a smoother look in less graphically intensive games and the Deck's menus.

Specs aside, this screen is eye-poppingly gorgeous and a huge upgrade. Even in the sunny corner of my apartment, where the original Deck's screen struggles to be seen, the OLED version cuts through the glare. In HDR-capable titles like Cyberpunk 2077, the glitzy neon signs and streetlights of Night City were intense as I drove a long-dead rock star's Porsche through the rainy streets. Later in the game, I snooped around a downloaded crime scene for clues and had to squint my eyes during a flashlight-bright transition sequence. You have to see this screen to believe it; even if your favorite titles don’t have HDR support, everything you play on the new Deck looks more punchy.

Power Struggle

Gamers are a notorious lot, always craving more and more horsepower from their devices. Well, the newest Steam Deck OLED doesn't address those desires at all. In fact, Valve has gone harder in the direction of efficiency, using a new custom chip—manufactured with an improved 6-nm process, for you processor nerds—to decrease power usage at the same speeds overall.

In my testing, at least when using the beta version of the operating system loaded onto my loaner, the Steam Deck OLED put up performance numbers very similar to the older model. In the built-in Cyberpunk 2077 benchmark, both a 2022 Deck and this new one scored 30 frames per second on average. Stray similarly hovered around 60 fps depending on what was happening on screen, with no perceptible difference between the old and new Decks. The Deck still isn't as much of a graphical beast as a home console—and loses out to competing handhelds like the ASUS Rog Ally and Lenovo Legion Go for graphics power—but Valve's got everyone else beat on battery life.

The updated Valve-designed processor paired with a bigger battery means overall longer run time. Whereas I'd get only a couple of hours out of a big AAA game before I'd need to charge the previous Deck, the OLED model can last longer, though playing time may vary greatly between games depending on how graphics-intensive they are. On the original Deck, I could sit down with Cyberpunk 2077 for maybe two hours before the thing hit 10 percent, while the new model lasts closer to two and a half hours. In stylish-yet-simple games like Night in the Woods and Donut County, I got estimates of around four hours from the Deck's OS. It's so highly variable due to the wide variety of compatible titles, so it's difficult to get a sense of the true lifespan. My overall feeling is that you won't be running to plug in the Steam Deck OLED as frequently.

Push My Buttons
Photograph: Valve

Thankfully, unlike on competing handhelds, Valve has gone out of its way to validate games for the Deck and marks them in the Steam store as such. Some games are untested, but many of them are at least labeled "playable" if not “Great on Deck.” Popular blockbuster titles like Baldur's Gate III, Elden Ring, and Mortal Kombat 1 are rated Great, while Starfield, with its demanding graphics, is a no-go, "unsupported" on the Steam Deck's low-power chip. If the latest and greatest aren't of interest, a lot of cool, fun indie games like Hades and Vampire Survivors hustle on the Deck and get far longer battery life.

Valve continues to rate games and work with developers to fix issues and make games the best they can be on the Deck, even checking to see if onscreen fonts are legible and whether a keyboard is absolutely required to play. But the thing is that the Steam Deck will let you try to play whatever you want, so you have a lot of freedom to tinker and try what works for you. You can use the device to play games from other game stores or to run old games from different systems. All it takes is patience, time, and the occasional helpful internet tutorial.

Unlike competing devices such as the Asus ROG Ally running Windows with more powerful chips inside, you can have a very plug-and-play console-like experience with the Steam Deck. Just stick to the titles with the green badges on them, and the Deck's touchscreen-friendly interface makes gaming a breeze. On the other hand, if you like futzing with graphics sliders and digging into the desktop mode, the Deck can act like a gaming PC and do a whole lot more.

Photograph: Valve

The Steam Deck's OS is far from perfect, but given how far it has come in the past year, I'm confident bugs will continue to be squashed and more games will get support. That doesn't mean you won't occasionally have a buggy experience launching some games, and old games might be tricky to configure. (I can run old faves like Knights of the Old Republic and Psychonauts but not without configuring how these keyboard-based games map controls on the Deck.) For now, it's great to know Valve is treating the Deck as a going concern, and the similar specs between models means that current owners won't be abandoned anytime soon.

More Room, More Games

Perhaps the biggest thing to take into account if you're new to the Deck and considering the OLED model is how much you're willing to spend. For now, the Deck lineup has three models. The low-end $399 model is the same older non-OLED version but now with quadruple the storage (up from 64 GB to 256 GB). That's a tempting proposition, and I think it solidifies the upgraded Deck as the value pick for PC handhelds.

If you want the OLED screen, longer battery life, and the other little tweaks in this new variant, you're in for at least $549 for the 512 GB model, or $649 for the 1-terabyte version. And then, for those who want something even more special, there's a stunning see-through limited edition 1 TB model for $679, with pops of orange color on the vents, screws, and thumbsticks that look sharp against the smoky, translucent skin. Both 1 TB models have anti-glare screen coatings and an exclusive two-piece case that lets you leave the hard exterior of the case at home and tote the Steam Deck in a svelter sleeve instead.

As a current Deck owner, I'm on the fence about whether it's a recommendation-worthy upgrade to other owners. After all, if you have your Deck set up the way you like it, and the screen doesn't irk you, and you're fine with the battery life, why upturn the apple cart? The core experience, for better or worse, is incredibly similar between the Steam Deck OLED and the original flavor. But if you're new to gaming handhelds and want to try one, the Steam Deck is my number one pick for its unbeatable mix of software support and efficiency. It just so happens that the little changes make the Steam Deck OLED a better machine for those new to this exciting hardware category.