How I use the Steam Deck

I‘ve warned you in my last overkill select. Now here is the first of many more posts to come. Let‘s talk about Steam Deck.

For those who follow me but live under a rock, a little explanation first. The Steam Deck is a handheld gaming device from Valve, makers of Steam, Half-Life, Counter-Strike, Portal and some other pieces of software. (They also make the Valve Index VR goggles, but that‘s a bit more niche.) While it is an injustice for both devices, the Steam Deck is most often compared to the Nintendo Switch.

But in reality, while both are handheld devices to play games on, that‘s about where all the similarities end. Because the Steam Deck is, in fact, a full-fledged PC, and it runs a whole Linux distro named steamOS in the background. This means you can do anything you want, unlike the Switch, which you must jailbreak first to install software not allowed by Nintendo.

Now, this opens up a whole plethora of scenarios. This makes the device theoretically much more complicated to use if you dislike tinkering. (I say theoretically because, in reality, you can stay in the gaming environment of steamOS and never touch any configuration files or even a file manager.)

I am, however, a tinkerer. I like working and breaking things, which is why my Steam Deck configuration might be a bit different from your typical go-to experience. Let me show you what I mean.

The gaming handheld


First and foremost, I think I spend 80% of my time in the gaming mode of steamOS. I have around 40ish odd games installed, most of them supported out of the box without me having to work on any configurations. The games work, Valve labels them as verified or playable, and that‘s how I spend the majority of my time.

For the few odd games that Valve has yet to test or might even label as unplayable, some more work is needed. But thanks to the fantastic protondb website, you‘ll quickly find ways to make games work you thought unplayable. Sure, this is a bit more involved, but often all you have to do is to change the compatibility layer, maybe copy-paste some few lines of code, and they run magically.

Protondb is so good, if I see a game I want to install, I don‘t bother checking Valve‘s rating system anymore. Straight I go to check protondb. I wish there were a plugin for steamOS to include the protondb-rating into Steam.

The emulation station

I had to speed up this video to fall below Ghost's 10MB file size limit.

I am a sucker for old games, especially those exclusive to Nintendo hardware. So you can bet your ass that I installed emulators.

On the Steam Deck, this process is much easier than on my gaming PC, thanks to a tool called EmuDeck. (This might have become easier on PC since I last installed emulators from scratch a few years ago.)

EmuDeck launches a script to download, install and configure most emulators. This way, you can ensure that all the controller configurations have been set up. The tool is also frequently updated, so now EmuDeck even includes a hook into the gyroscope of the Steam Deck to use in something like Cemu, the Wii U emulator. This allows you to use the gyroscope with the Wii U version of Breath of the Wild. (I had to do this by hand before.)

But the Steam Deck can’t run everything. Emulating the PS4 might be the upper limit. Also, the state of Switch emulation is not so fun. Then again, I own a Switch.

Unfortunately, so is the state of Xbox 360 emulations on Linux — it just doesn’t run at all. This saddens me because I‘d like to play Fable 2 and 3, which have either not been released on PC (Fable 2) or been delisted from purchase before I could get them (Fable 3). But this is where my next category comes into play.

AAA-games on Ultra


The Steam Deck is a portable device. While people are still amazed by how well it plays some modern games at 60 FPS without frame drops, it is not as powerful as the RTX 3070 in my gaming PC.

But thanks to Moonlight, for games that either don‘t run on Linux at all (primarily due to anti-cheat software, or in the case of Xenia explained above) or are too heavy to play well on Steam Deck (Cyberpunk2077, etc.), you can use the power of your PC to stream the game to the Deck.

While there is a streaming solution baked into Steam called Remote, I’ve had a better experience using Moonlight — if you own an Nvidia GPU. (There is Sunshine, which is Moonlight but for AMD GPUs. I have not tried that, as I have never owned an AMD GPU.)

I can play high-fidelity games like Cyberpunk at max settings at 60FPS without taxing my Deck. This also has the advantage of being battery-friendly and enabling me to play these games for 6 hours straight.

Also, I use Moonlight to play Hearthstone on the couch. I could use my iPad but miss my deck tracker in this scenario.

It‘s a PC, dumbass


And finally, and this is probably the most obvious one, the Steam Deck is a PC.

So I carry a USB-C dock with HDMI and a few USB-A ports to hook the Deck to a monitor and attach a mouse and keyboard. This way, I can use it as a laptop in desktop mode and do some light browsing. Or for whenever I need to do crazy terminal commands, to get weird whacky shit to run. (I tried, so far unsuccessfully, getting Cheat Engine to run on the Steam Deck.)

I haven‘t set up this thing as a complete replacement for any of my computers. I am primarily a Mac guy and carry my MacBook to most places I think I need a computer. But at least now, I theoretically have a backup solution everywhere I go.

And technically, since most of my work at my company is based on the browser (we use Amazon‘s SageMaker, among other web-based solutions), I could use the Steam Deck as a work device.

I, of course, would never play a game at work and tab to the browser whenever someone looks at my screen. Obviously. Naturally……

Ok, yes, I totally would.