This year is moving much in the same direction as 2021, the year PC gaming left the desktop PC, with the continuing exodus to game streaming platforms, and gaming laptops more powerful than we've seen before. With the Steam Deck broadening our understanding of what handheld gaming devices are capable of, the once so definitive lines that were keeping PC gaming so firmly strapped to a desk, are now being blurred. The main question on my mind: "Should I buy a Steam Deck or a gaming laptop?"
The answer is pretty cut-and-dry for the hardcore, FPS-hungry gamers among us. There are portable gaming machines that blow the Steam Deck out of the water when it comes to performance, so why waste money on something with such limitations? Well, it's important to remember it's not all about smashing out the highest frame rates. There are so many more facets to consider when it comes to portable gaming.
While your budget is going to be a major deciding factor, what about choosing the portable gaming device that suits your lifestyle? You're going to want to consider the kind of games you enjoy playing and for how long. How quickly will you need to pack it away, and where do you plan to play said games? It's going to matter whether you prefer gaming with a controller, or with the best gaming mouse and best gaming keyboard?
I've been considering whether the Steam Deck is better than a gaming laptop on a more experiential level, looking beyond the obvious stuff like framerates, to help you figure out which platform you really need in your life.
Price to performance
The Steam Deck comes packing a custom, 4-core AMD Zen 2 CPU, an RDNA 2 GPU with 8 compute units, along with 16GB of DDR5 RAM as standard. You're looking at 2.4–3.5GHz CPU clocks, and GPU performance roughly equivalent to that of a GTX 1050.
It's a tight little machine, and Valve has done a great job packing a lot of power into such a small package. The price mainly varies depending on the level of storage you choose, starting at $399 for the 64GB, and moving up to $529 for the 256GB, and $649 for 512GB. So while spending more on a laptop could give you more powerful components, there's no difference in performance between each of the Steam Deck models.
Of course, that gives us a pretty great incentive to bag a $399 model, and upgrade the Deck's storage from 64GB to 500GB as soon as you get it, like some absolute legend on Reddit did. Valve has warned against jamming anything else into the Deck's M.2 slot, however, and not everyone's as handy with a screwdriver. For the purpose of comparison I'll assume your only option is to get the $649, especially considering game install sizes today.
For this price, you can get a gaming laptop, but managing to find one with a current-gen GPU and CPU is a bit of a stretch. It can be done, though, if you know where to find the best deals on gaming laptops. Black Friday sales are the best time to get the most out of your money, although you may be able to find the Steam Deck on sale by the time the deals season rolls around again.
The main point here is that, for the price of the top Steam Deck, you can certainly get a laptop that pumps out more frames per second, although you might have to make sacrifices when it comes to storage or RAM.
What, when, where?
It's never as simple as going for the thing with the most power under the hood. If it were, we'd all be driving sports cars. Sadly, the reality is that sports cars have tiny trunks and aren't so great for installing kiddy car seats. Thinking about the way you're going to use your tech is going to be one of the most important things you can do at this stage; there will be both situations and games better suited for each platform.
First consider the kind of games you like to play. The Deck's controls are a little awkward to get used to, and tend to work best with RPGs, platformers, farming sims, and driving games, but you can get colony sims and the like working pretty well, after a little faffing. Once the Deck Dock rears its head you'll be able to plug a mouse and keyboard in, and of course there's always Bluetooth for wirelessly connecting peripherals, but the device is primarily designed for controller-based games.
The small screen is going to be a barrier for some people, too. Games with large text lend themselves to the Deck, but if you play games with a lot of menus, a laptop's 15-inch screen is going to put the Deck's 8-incher to shame.
Laptops can do all this and more, but if you prefer playing games with a controller and aren't so preoccupied with FPS scores, the Deck is a no-brainer. Why carry all that extra weight and separate peripherals when you can essentially have everything rolled into one device?
Which brings me neatly onto my next point. Think about where you're going to be playing your device, and how far you'll need to carry it. Hospital waiting rooms and bars are no place for a laptop, but take a Steam Deck to a pub and you'll soon see the benefit of going handheld. Mountain climbers who fancy getting some remote gaming sessions will be at their peak with the Deck. A laptop isn't going to cut it when you're scrambling over rocks, but the Deck (which comes with its own sturdy case) won't break your back, or take up as much space in your backpack.
Lastly, how long are you going to be without power? The Steam Deck is the obvious choice if you've not got access to power for some time. A laptop will give you a good hour of untethered gaming today, but not much more than that. With the Deck on the other hand, you're looking at a good few hours of gaming in remote places.
The Steam Deck is a supremely versatile device. It's Linux based by default, but you can install Windows if you feel like it. It can be used in desktop mode to work on, or as a media streaming device, and you can plug a monitor in using USB Type-C to HDMI adapter without the need to purchase a dock.
The thing is, a laptop could already do all those things before the Deck appeared. Not only can you work and game on a laptop, you can do it simultaneously, switching seamlessly between your game, emails, and spreadsheets. That's a little trickier with the Deck.
Working on a laptop will sound a lot less stressful to most, too, as it'll more likely be running an OS you're used to using on a daily basis.
And while laptops can be much more upgradable, with the ability to replace RAM and jam extra NVMe SSDs in them a lot of the time, there aren't as many possibilities when it comes to laptop modding as there are springing up for the Steam Deck.
It's not as speedy a decision as I first anticipated, deciding between a Steam Deck or Laptop. There are limitations for both, with the Deck's main drawbacks being how well it plays with certain types of games. As long as most of your favourites are verified, and you don't mind messing around with control schemes a bit, there's hardly a reason not to jump on the Steam Deck bandwagon.
Although if you're into all that ray-tracing business, the Deck won't be your champion because it's running on AMD hardware.
If you're going to be doing more than just gaming, a laptop is an obvious choice; it may not fit in your pocket but it's going to be less stressful taking zoom calls on a Deck. Of course, both laptop and Steam Deck have a lot going for them, but if FPS is secondary, your decision is going to hinge entirely on your lifestyle.
Who knew I'd be having an existential crisis over a handheld gaming device?