• Tue. Feb 27th, 2024

The Steam Deck OLED isn’t just a minor upgrade – it’s one of my favorite pieces of gaming hardware ever


Dec 2, 2023

Valve is a liar. A filthy, filthy liar. The company positioned the Steam Deck OLED as a minor incremental upgrade to their successful handheld gaming PC. A minor refresh. But, honestly: there’s nothing minor about this. It’s amazing.

Back before it was released, after a few weeks testing the Steam Deck pre-release, I declared that it was pretty bloody good. I called it a “chunky marvel”, noting that it had enormous potential. At the time, the number of ‘Deck Verified’ games was rather small, and much seemed to ride on how common compatibility would become. The better part of two years later, we have our answer: The Deck is a big deal, and it’s here to stay. In terms of an overview of the actual device, I continue to recommend it and point you to my original verdict.

The number of great on Deck verified games in my personal Steam library has quadrupled since that review in February 2022, and the number of games that can be played with a bit of tweaking has grown fatter still. The device has an incredible library. My main concern for launch has been addressed, then: but Valve has nevertheless decided to address other ones.

Enter the Steam Deck OLED. You probably know all about it by now, but if you’re not up to speed it is indeed a simple hardware refresh relatively analogous to the Switch OLED; a better screen and presentation, which on a handheld device goes a rather long way. But the Steam Deck OLED is also more than that.

Valve hasn’t just slapped in a new display; the entire machine has been subtly retooled right to its core. This means there’s a longer battery life, louder speakers, faster WiFi for quicker game downloads, and even some soft tweaking to the ergonomics of the machine, making the beast easier to handle. The overbearingly loud fan that I complained about in my original model review has been swapped for a quieter option without sacrificing temperature management, too. It’s even a little bit lighter!

And while Valve is keen to note that this isn’t intended as a performance-driven refresh, it also does have more modern silicon and faster RAM, which means that there’s a marginal positive bump in performance in a range of games – though it’s nothing that you’d want to pay for alone.

Out of an abundance of caution and to manage expectations, Valve has undersold how good an upgrade this is, I think. The display is rightly the headline, and it’s astonishing how much of a difference the smaller tweaks add up to. This is not the Steam Deck 2, and Valve is right to emphasize that – but this sure as hell makes the original model feel obsolete.

Steam Deck OLED
You can’t argue with that form factor. | Image credit: Valve

A lot of this is thanks to smaller changes. If you tear down the Deck and the OLED, you’ll notice that chip partner AMD has managed to shrink its original chip, which was named after Final Fantasy 7’s Aerith, replacing it with a smaller chip named after FF7 baddie Sephiroth. That chip has a smaller physical footprint but also draws less power and is more efficient. The new screen is also thinner, which frees up more room in the case for better cooling and a larger battery – without the outer look of the machine changing at all.

Earlier this year, I played a hell of a lot of my Steam Deck while on holiday – grinding out Street Fighter 6’s World Tour to unlock costumes from a poolside sun lounger while my partner demolished mystery novels on her Kindle. There, I got a real feel for the strengths and weaknesses of the device out of the home for an extended period. The OLED addresses much of this – with a better screen, with a battery life that Valve claims is anywhere from an hour to four hours longer than the original model, depending on what you’re playing.

I’ve done some side-by-side tests between the OLED and my original Deck, and the results suggest that Valve’s estimates are about right. At the upper end the company claims as much as 12 hours on weaker games, and I can absolutely see it. I’ve been dabbling in things like Into the Breach, and Phoenix Wright and seeing lengthy battery life estimates that far outstrip my original. Hop onto Sonic Superstars and the story is the same, but with more intensive 3D rendering, the total life is lower. Yes, if you play something like Cyberpunk 2077, you’ll still only get two to three hours – but that’s still pretty damn good.

Steam Deck OLED
Sleek, pretty, iterative. | Image credit: Valve

The screen is pretty lovely. There’s been some consternation about Valve using two different suppliers, so it’s a lottery as to which screen you’ll get – but the two appear, broadly, pretty equivalent, just with minor differences. What I can say for sure is the screen on the model I have is bloody gorgeous. HDR support on PC is a bit all over the place, and that’s complicated by the Steam Deck’s unique runtime setup – but just as a like-for-like replacement for the previous display, there’s a clarity, color depth, and beauty to the new display that is transformative.

Valve has always been a PC-focused company, and it’s treating the Steam Deck like a PC or a PC game. It’s been updated and tweaked over time; it’s a work in progress. Eventually, there’ll also be a fully-fledged, full-fat Steam Deck 2. But as an incremental upgrade, it’s incredible enough to be tempting if you already own an LCD Deck, and definitely strong enough that it should make new converts out of those who don’t yet have one of these machines.

Sometimes, a handful of little things can add up to be more important and more of a game-changer than one big upgrade. There is no better product to demonstrate this than the Steam Deck OLED. It’s taken what was a great idea and proof-of-concept – and already a quality product – and turned that dial just a little higher. Up to 11. The result is one of the most attractive and useful pieces of gaming hardware ever, and at an equally attractive price.

Steam Deck OLED
You’ll never put it down. | Image credit: Valve

The only issue, I admit, is that the Steam Deck’s hardware is increasingly stretched by cutting-edge games. I’ll use my Deck OLED a lot, but I know I’ll mostly use it for older games, or games where I’m not as concerned about visual fidelity or performance. But that also makes me even more intrigued to see what the next generation of this machine will look like. Valve has absolutely proved its hardware prowess, vision, and expertise with this refresh. It’s a great device. Almost a must-have, in fact. And the future seems even brighter still.

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