I've had the Steam Deck OLED for about 3 days at this point. I've spent most of my free and half of my on-the-clock time playing around with it. I've gotta say that it's an impressive little package.
But there've been some loud voices decrying this new hardware refresh, saying that it's "not worth your money." Or worse, that it's a betrayal on Valve's part since they promised "no new Steam Deck for years." Which isn't even what they said.
So I want to tackle a few of the major lingering questions in this video. First up:
Who is the Steam Deck OLED actually for?
That's a great question. In my mind the answer is three fold.
- The non-early adopter crowd who've been waiting for the inevitable first-gen hardware issues to be ironed out. Of which there were several.
- More "discerning" gamers (to put it politely) who opted to not purchase the LCD model because some aspect (like WiFi 5 or the screen) just weren't up to their standards
- And, finally, those existing Steam Deck owners who are dissatisfied with their current hardware in some way. Again, the screen, WiFi speeds, battery life, etc.
It's my opinion that, if you own a Steam Deck and you're happy with it, I really don't believe Valve's targeting you with this new hardware iteration. It's more the three categories of gamers I just mentioned. Why do I believe this?
Well, let's look at the major upgrades here:
- The first upgrade is the screen
- OLED with true, per-pixel HDR
- 1000 nits peak brightness in HDR, 600 nits for SDR
- 90 Hz refresh rate
- 180 Hz touchscreen polling rate
- WiFi 6e (802.11ax 6GHz) which includes faster download speeds
- 50Whr battery
- 25% increase in capacity
- 30-50% improvement in battery life depending on use case
- Improved (dedicated) Bluetooth hardware
- More reasonable storage capacity SKUs
- New custom 6nm APU from AMD
- Equivalent-to-marginally-improved performance (we're talking 3-to-5 FPS gains in most scenarios, if any)
- Exceptionally improved thermal performance (up to 15° cooler in my testing in like-for-like comparisons)
- A massively reduced noise profile from onboard fan
- Improved internal layout, repairability
- Myriad of other minor improvements to hardware
So why did Valve make the Steam Deck OLED?
The question needs to be asked: why did Valve release the OLED model? In my book, the answer is simple: it's because the LCD screen was a serious pain point for many gamers. When you compared the Steam Deck LCD's screen to the likes of the ROG Ally, it looked passe at best.
So then Valve took it upon themselves to address the Steam Deck's biggest perceived weakness. And address it, they did.
But there's also the consideration of the legacy Steam Deck being a product of its era. "What era?" You might ask? The chip shortage. The Steam Deck was a product delayed multiple times because of the scarcity of chips, diminished manufacturing capacity, and delays being a real issue. While there are still bumps in the road, I'd say given then complete engineering overhaul of the Steam Deck OLED's internals, it's reasonable to assume that the new release is an attempt to streamline manufacturing of the Deck in the current market. Whether that's in response to available SKUs, cut costs or improve the profitability(And given the reduction in number of bespoke screw types alone, that is sure to improve the manufacturability and profit margins of the OLED model), and finally deliver a better overall product in a more timely manner.
And that last point is key, here. They did this because Valve actually cares about the gaming experience. Valve listens to the critics. At least when it comes to their pride-and-joy. That's evident in the upgrades they've made in response to voices in the community criticizing SteamOS. They removed Firefox from the base OS so that it would be easier to upgrade as a flatpak. They added KDE Connect to the build to facilitate easier file transfer. The fact that they built an operating system specifically for their hardware rather than include a suboptimal off-the-shelf OS that would deprive them of their ability to deliver an outstanding user experience. That proves their dedication to the end user experience.
Yet while it's trivial to roll out new software, hardware is a different story altogether.
The Elephant in the Room
Is the Steam Deck OLED a betrayal of their "No New Steam Deck for Years" promise? First, the promise was that there would be no "Steam Deck 2" for years. Back in September, Pierre-Loup Griffais told The Verge, quote:
It’s important to us that the Deck offers a fixed performance target for developers, and that the message to customers is simple, where every Deck can play the same games. As such, changing the performance level is not something we are taking lightly, and we only want to do so when there is a significant enough increase to be had. We also don’t want more performance to come at a significant cost to power efficiency and battery life. I don’t anticipate such a leap to be possible in the next couple of years, but we’re still closely monitoring innovations in architectures and fabrication processes to see where things are going there.
And to CNBC, he said, quote:
We’re looking at this performance target that we have as a stable target for a couple years.
That was said in September of 2023. Keeping in mind that this was less than a quarter away from the release of Steam Deck OLED and that they would have had to have started the manufacturing process by that point, it casts his words in a whole new light.
They're "monitoring innovations in architectures and fabrication processes to see where things are going." Hello 6nm APU.
But even as far back as 2022, Valve was talking about when they plan on creating a Steam Deck 2. Again, here's Pierre-Loup's own words according to The Verge:
I think we’ll opt to keep the one performance level for a little bit longer, and only look at changing the performance level when there is a significant gain to be had
So, their promise was never "we won't release a mostly cosmetic, mid-generation refresh." In other words, an OLED model was never off the table. In that same interview, Lawrence Yang and Pierre-Loup both said that the biggest pain point for the Steam Deck was "screen and battery life." And the major improvements in the OLED are, surprises surprise... Screen and battery life.
Now, there is a vocal minority of folks--mostly existing Steam Deck owners--who are angry about Valve releasing the OLED model so soon after the launch of the Steam Deck. Personally, I'd argue that if this new model had upgraded everything else in exactly the same way except for the specific OLED screen... I don't think anyone would have batted an eye at this. These people who are angry now, it's really because the OLED screen is such an obvious and staring-you-right-in-the-face kind of improvement that it induces the very real, very lame gamer-sized FOMO that the modern gaming industry is built upon. Not saying that's deliberate on Valve's part. That's just my hypothesis of why there are folks who are angry.
And look, I get it. I was surprised that Valve released an OLED upgrade, though I don't think it's unreasonable. Many gamers have an expectation of "only the best" and, like I said earlier, in a head-to-head comparison with the ROG Ally or the Legion Go's screen, the LCD on the first Steam Deck was plainly and evidently worse. It made the original Steam Deck appear a generation behind. It was the clear upgrade path for Valve to keep the Deck competitive (along with the battery size) and in hindsight, I think it was the right move, honestly.
Should you buy one?
I think the fair question is: should you buy one? And the answer isn't one-size-fits-all.
If you don't yet own a Steam Deck, the answer is unequivocally "yes. Buy an OLED model now." This is the definitive Steam Deck experience. The improved battery life, haptics, storage, input, wireless connectivity, and screen result in the best handheld PC on the market, bar none.
If you currently own a Steam Deck, the answer is less clear cut. If you have the money and any of the improvements will result in a better qualify of life for your gaming, go for it. If you have an LCD model and you would consider selling it to subsidize the upgrade? It's probably worth it to do so, in my book.
The question that's really difficult for me to answer, though, is would I personally upgrade? Especially if Valve hadn't sent me one? I would have bought one so I could review it on the channel, no question.
However, if I wasn't doing this channel, would I upgrade? I don't know. If I hadn't personally witnesses the vast improvement the screen makes, how snappy the upgraded polling rate for the touchscreen and trackpads were, how much lighter the OLED model feels in your hand, the better thumbsticks, and improved wireless connectivity, I don't think I would have even considered it.
As a rule, while I admit OLED looks better, I personally prefer LCD screens because OLEDs disrupt my circadian rhythm more. But now that I've seen the difference first hand? I'm not going to be able to go back. So if I'm being fair, I wouldn't want to upgrade unless I saw the OLED model in person. And then I would have had to.
I already have a Steam Deck LCD but I want to upgrade. What do I do?
Well, that's a great question, too. In my mind, there are a few possible answers:
Sell it & subsidize your OLED Purchase
Put it on ebay, Facebook marketplace, or sell it to a friend. Depending on the upgrades it has, you might be able to get a higher-than-average asking price. Given that Valve's got existing new-in-box LCD SKUs available, though? That might limit what you're able to ask for your device. I, personally, would wait a little bit for existing new LCD stock to disappear, and then try selling your LCD model on the second hand market.
However, if you've got some spending cash to buy an OLED and want to keep your LCD Deck, you've got options.
Make-shift Steam Console
If you have a Docking Station or another USB C hub, you can set up your LCD Deck as a more-or-less permanent Steam Console. It can sit in your living room or your man cave, it can be a fixture of your retro gaming setup or it can beat as the heart of a custom arcade cabinet like Bob Wulff set up.
Next, it can be a hand-me-down. You can give your LCD Deck to one of your kids, your spouse or significant other, or someone else in your family. This is what I did when I bought the Steam Deck I had reserved. I gave my review unit to Emily.
There are many other things you can do with it. If you're a tinkerer, you can install another Linux distro on it. There are several awesome options including ChimeraOS, Bazzite, and Nobara. These are more or less gaming-focused distributions and provide excellent Steam Deck support. It's fun to tinker and mess around with new Linux distros. It helps you learn more about the Linux and open source community and if you apply yourself, you can turn it into a career. On the flip side, there's the option to install Windows on your Deck. Which like one or two people might want to do.
If you're a game dev, you can use your spare Deck as a development tool. A dedicated test box that you can test your indie game.
There's also the option of hardware hacking. If you have the know-how, you can hack your hardware. There are lots of Steam Deck hardware hacks. Some more invasive than others. But it's definitely possible!
I don't know. I'd love to hear your thougths on all this. Will you be upgrading to the Steam Deck OLED? Why or why not? And if you already own an LCD version, what will you do with yours? Leave me a comment and let me know! I'm excited to hear from you!