Steam Deck's controls look ridiculous, but Valve says the trackpads are good this time

steam deck
(Image credit: Valve)

Valve dropped a bomb on PC gaming this morning by surprise announcing the Steam Deck, a dedicated PC gaming handheld that looks like a chonkier Nintendo Switch. It has a big touchscreen, thumbsticks, and a dock, but it also has some distinctly PC features that Nintendon't—including two trackpads, some impressive-sounding internal specs, and four glorious grip buttons.

As a Switch owner who wishes there were more reasons to flip that console on, the Steam Deck is pretty exciting. Snap judgment? It's cool, but also big, significantly wider, and almost twice as heavy as a standard Switch. And what the hell is up with those button placements? My brain says I want one, but my poor hands are already screaming at me.

Starting from the top, that might be the highest up I've ever seen face buttons placed on a handheld. The standard ABXY configuration is jammed way up in the top right corner, so close to the edge that the B button appears to slope slightly downward with the rounded edges of the device. The d-pad sits opposite in the upper left, adjacent to the left thumbstick and the sizable "precision" trackpad. It's an instantly awkward-looking layout compared to the handhelds we're used to. It's hard to imagine that gripping those sticks so close to the face buttons will feel perfectly ergonomic, especially with them sitting so high.

steam deck

(Image credit: Valve)

So what's up with this funky layout? Valve seems to be making room for those dual precision trackpads, both of which have a pretty huge footprint on the front of the device. They could probably go up in the corner where the buttons/sticks are, but it's notable that they sit right where your thumbs might naturally rest on the Steam Deck.

It's clear that Valve really wants people to use these things, and not only for mouse navigation on the Steam Deck (which you can do, because it's literally just a PC running SteamOS). Valve says its trackpads will "give you a competitive edge when playing fast paced FPS games."

That's a major claim, but according to IGN's hands-on with the Steam Deck, using the right trackpad for mouse-style aiming in Portal 2 and Doom Eternal felt pretty close to a mouse after getting used to it. As a regretful Steam controller owner, I'm skeptical. Singleplayer games are one thing, but the trackpad's true test will be my first match of Rainbow Six Siege. Valve does say that these trackpads provide "55% better latency compared to Steam Controller." They're also capacitive and can be mapped as custom macros in your games, which is pretty neat.

While the front of the Steam Deck gives me a mild headache, the back of it looks so comfortable that I could fall asleep on it. The rounded hand grips look large and form-fitting to the palm, unlike the Switch's clinically flat slab. Hugging those grips are my favorite feature on the Steam Deck hardware: four remappable grip buttons. You might be familiar with this configuration if you've used an Xbox Pro controller—the buttons are commonly mapped to controls usually handled by the four face buttons. If you'd like to, for instance, reload in Call of Duty without having to take your thumb off the stick (or trackpad), a grip button easily pressed by a ring finger can be a godsend.

I'm stoked that grip buttons come standard with every version of the Steam Deck. I can already think of several games that'll feel a lot better on a controller because of them (remapping Doom Eternal's dash button off B is certainly top of the list), but that'll only really matter if using the front of Steam Deck doesn't suck. Seeing those sticks placed so far north is definitely worrying, but hey, I somehow played 100 hours of Zelda: Breath of the Wild on a Wii U Gamepad, and that control layout was only slightly less weird.

Of course, handheld mode isn't the only way to use the Steam Deck. The Deck can be docked to a TV just like a Switch, and we know that Valve's official dock (which will be sold separately) will give the device a few extra USB ports that lets users easily plug in a mouse and keyboard or, for example, two fighting sticks for local multiplayer. Valve is being clear that the Steam Deck is literally a PC, meaning you can run other programs, install other storefronts, and even ditch SteamOS for Windows if you really want to.

There's a lot to talk about with the Steam Deck, which is expected to start shipping in December 2021 at an entry price of $399. Check out Valve's official Steam Deck website for more details.

Morgan Park
Staff Writer

Morgan has been writing for PC Gamer since 2018, first as a freelancer and currently as a staff writer. He has also appeared on Polygon, Kotaku, Fanbyte, and PCGamesN. Before freelancing, he spent most of high school and all of college writing at small gaming sites that didn't pay him. He's very happy to have a real job now. Morgan is a beat writer following the latest and greatest shooters and the communities that play them. He also writes general news, reviews, features, the occasional guide, and bad jokes in Slack. Twist his arm, and he'll even write about a boring strategy game. Please don't, though.