Steam Deck Accessibility Review

Jeremy Peeples9 minute read

Steam Deck Accessibility Review

The Steam Deck is a fantastic pickup for anyone who has a Switch and wants games with higher-end graphics to be playable on the go. There are various features such as haptics and allowance of third-party controllers. However, the small screen and OS issues can be barriers.

  • Allows third-party peripherals
  • Quality buttons and triggers
  • High-quality 800p screen
  • Steam Input allows control over inputs
  • Haptics available
  • No hardware-level text sizes
  • Performance issues with OS
  • Small screen
  • Can be heavy to handle

Valve’s portable gaming Linux-based PC has been trickling out to pre-order customers since March of 2022 and it’s finally in our hands. The device takes a lot of what the company learned with its prior hardware like the Steam controller. Valve brings this into a portable form factor more akin to a Nintendo Switch —- but with a greater emphasis on comfort and a large eight-inch screen. I booted up the Steam Deck and looked at what it has to offer in regard to accessibility.

It’s a marvelous device to behold and one of the most remarkable portables since the Switch — of which changed the way portable gaming was thought of five years ago. The idea behind the Steam Deck is a simple one —- let people take their likely-extensive Steam gaming library on the go. However, the road to get to that point has been a bumpy one.

Steam Deck Workings

Watch Steam Deck Launch Trailer on YouTube

The device doesn’t run Windows and instead uses Linux with Proton acting as something akin to a Windows emulator to enable games to run. Valve has worked hard to ensure that as many games run as possible. This includes older games no longer available to purchase on Steam like the beloved racer Blur, while anti-cheat software prevents some modern games from running, such as Destiny 2.

It’s very much a hit-or-miss prospect and Valve has thankfully set up a site to show which games work perfectly after an install. It also lists which ones will usually work fine just with some workarounds for on-screen text. 

The Steam Deck is designed as both a gaming device and a full-fledged PC. It runs Linux and will be many users, including myself, first experience with that OS. Thankfully, the version included here is very similar to Windows in terms of the overall layout so it doesn’t take a long time to learn.

However, the device’s somewhat smaller screen does show some flaws when it comes to using it as a portable PC. The touchscreen is fantastic for navigation and the touch panels help in that regard too, but it’s definitely not a great option for those looking for a portable computing device. 

The on-screen keyboard is functional enough for searching for games. For desktop PC usage, though, it’s best to hook the Steam Deck up to a monitor with a Bluetooth mouse and keyboard. The single USB-C port means that a USB-C hub or docking station would also be a great pickup or at least a USB-C to USB-A adapter for basic tasks.

Gaming Over PC Use

The device is very user-friendly on the gaming-centric side but does get trickier when one uses it as both a gaming device and a desktop. Some gaming-related features such as installing other launchers and game EXE files will result in having to use the desktop mode where both the touchscreen and touch panels work nicely. The haptic feedback on the right trackpad for mouse simulation is fantastic and it’s easy to move files around using it with copy/paste functionality to ensure everything goes into the right directory. 

The Linux Discover app launcher is available and enables more games to be played on it for free. There are some good ones available including a Sonic the Hedgehog-style game and some marble rollers alongside variants of Bomberman. 

Re-imaging

It’s neat to explore the storefront and see just what’s available for gaming and non-gaming purposes, but users do have to be careful. Going out of desktop mode while a Linux app is updating can result in having to flash the OS.

That process is something I came across on night one of owning it and it’s a bit of a hassle overall. It took three days of work between getting parts to flash the image and then actually having the recovery process work to make up for the number of hours spent downloading games and trying to check out the Linux apps.

However, was a good lesson to learn the hard way —- but there really shouldn’t be a hard way for a device like this. Logically, app updates shouldn’t brick devices in the way that I experienced. It’s cumbersome to have to buy other stuff out of nowhere to make up for a somewhat-sloppy OS experience.

As a result, it’s hard to truly recommend the Steam Deck for those who are after a device that just works well without issue and wants to use it for a PC and a gaming device. 

Gaming Wonder

The gaming device side operates well especially if you plan to never leave the Steam interface, then you’re in for a smooth experience. The UI is fantastic and the game icons are quite large. The touchscreen experience is remarkable and everything scrolls smoothly with either the screen being used for navigation or the right trackpad.

Searching for games in both the existing game library and on the Steam store itself feels functional and it’s easy to output things to an external screen via a USB-C to HDMI adapter. I used that to do comparisons of captures taken on the Deck itself versus the capturing software and it was cool to have a way to play the games on a larger screen while using the Deck as a controller.

Controller Impressions

The controller portion of the Deck is impressive and feels very much like the Wii U Gamepad. Both devices have large grips for the hands to fit comfortably on. There’s a somewhat odd stick and d-pad placement that may seem counterintuitive in theory but actually winds up being very comfortable in execution.

With the Wii U gamepad, the design was to have the sticks up top and the d-pad and buttons below in a symmetrical fashion and it worked great most of the time. The Steam Deck does something similar with the d-pad and buttons being on the outer area of the Deck’s top and the sticks being inward. All while keeping everything symmetrical and comfortable while also putting the trackpads under the sticks to keep a comfortable finger placement across the board.

The sticks have a fair amount of travel and an Xbox One-style grippy texture to the exterior edges and feel very comfortable for all kinds of gaming. Twin-stick shooters like Geometry Wars and Android Assault Cactus work like a charm with them, while first-person shooters can use those or enable the device’s gyroscopic controls as well.

If they aren’t supported right away in the game, a free community-created profile for a game’s control layout will likely have them built in and that can be loaded up with the game by default.

Navigating various game-related areas like the storefront to buy DLC or the workshop for user-created content is easy. Workshop content also works perfectly fine on every game I have tried so far that is Deck-compatible.

The device’s buttons feel about as good as a first-party Xbox device with the d-pad feeling very similar to the Xbox One d-pad. The bumpers are very much like the SNES’ bumpers or a modern 8bitdo SN30+ pad where they are large and have a comfortable feel on the index fingers.

The triggers are similar to an Xbox controller in size because they do cover the entirety of the middle finger. However, they don’t have a curve that fully forms around the finger. The tension is very similar to an Xbox One or Xbox Series controller with a smooth pull that doesn’t require a lot of effort to move and still offers a good feel for intricate speed changes in racing games.

Editors Note: Users have reported that the device itself can be fairly heavy, which makes using the device over time cumbersome.

Steam Deck Settings and Accessibility

The Steam Deck’s settings offer some help in terms of accessibility — but not enough at an early stage. Brightness can be adjusted, but contrast remains largely locked down unless you’re in a game that enables adjustments to it. Audio can be adjusted in greater increments and the default speakers are fantastic for a modern handheld device. 

Steam Input makes it easy to find an accessible control scheme for pretty much any game playable on the device. Other than the lack of turbo for things like brawlers and run and gun shooters, it’s hard to think of a way to really improve the control experience. Especially since Bluetooth pads are accepted as are devices like the Xbox Adaptive Controller.

Conclusion 

The desktop side of the device can lead to headaches with operating it and it’s worse if you have fine motor or vision issues. Moreso if you find yourself in a position of having to try and get everything done with just the touchscreen and on-screen keyboard. The screen itself is quite sharp despite its 800p resolution.

There is room for improvement across the board with desktop mode, but it is nice to have for occasional document work or web browsing on it. It would be nice to have the ability to adjust text size for both the gaming mode and desktop mode instead of it being on a per-app or per-game basis. Zooming in on the screen is supported at a hardware level, but as videos online show, it requires multiple inputs.

The large text and icons alongside a clean UI as a whole make it an easy device to use for those with low vision. The usage of haptic feedback on the touch pads in place of traditional beeps for the device helps those who are deaf/hard of hearing to know what’s going on without an audio cue. The touchscreen working alongside the touch pads, d-pad, analog sticks, and buttons ensures that those with minor fine-motor issues can enjoy the device.

The speakers are solid,  but one can pair any Bluetooth earbuds or Bluetooth hearing amplifier and get better sound if need be. The Steam Deck is a fantastic pickup for anyone who has a Switch and wants games with higher-end graphics to be playable on the go – although those wanting a Windows experience will want to get another device on the market.

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