Late last year, Valve, the company behind the popular PC game distribution platform Steam and occasional developer of video games, announced they would be attempting to release a powerful handheld gaming machine called the Steam Deck. Powered by Linux and a tech layer which would allow Windows software to run with a high level of performance, the device promised high performance handheld gaming for its price range.
I managed to get my hands on a Steam Deck in the first wave send out, and as such have been able to play around with the device for the past week, and get a sense for the release date state of the hardware and software on offer.
So today, on Access-Ability, we’re going to be reviewing the Steam Deck, with a focus on the device’s level of accessibility. We’re going to talk about the physical hardware, the software offered as standard, and the complexity of customising the device’s accessibility offerings.
So, let’s start off by talking a little bit about what the Steam Deck actually is, and is not. The Steam Deck is fundamentally a PC, with a console style controller friendly interface layered over it. The experience of using the Steam Deck is fundamentally like setting your PC to boot directly into Steam Big Picture Mode, with switching to your regular desktop an option if you want to mess about with anything that isn’t purchasing and booting up games through Steam.
Steam OS Gaming Mode, the console style interface you are seeing on screen at the moment, on the surface is a very familiar experience for those used to gaming on consoles, with a few odd caveats. Not all games on Steam, or in your Steam library, are guaranteed to run correctly, due to the nature of this Linux machine, and its layer attempting to translate Windows games to run. As such, you will have to deal with games sometimes refusing to boot, or having performance issues you will need to dig around in settings to fix.
Where most consoles today feature system level accessibility support settings, the Steam Deck features basically none as default. You can turn off rumble and haptic feedback, and there exists a poorly signposted screen magnifier that offers a single very minimal level of magnification in gaming mode that isn’t terribly useful, but beyond that you are very much at the mercy of accessibility settings offered by individual games.
There are no system level toggles for UI, Text, or Subtitle sizes, no options for colourblindness filters, and no options for system level input remapping. You can remap controls on a game by game basis, but you cannot remap system level functions to new buttons while in SteamOS Gaming Mode.
In terms of controls, the Steam Deck features the expected D-Pad, dual analogue sticks with clickable inputs, ABXY buttons, start, and select, Left and Right bumpers and analogue triggers, as well as four padel buttons on the rear, two touchpads on the front which can be clicked as buttons, a touch screen, and two system level menu buttons which access device level settings, and system performance settings.
While I found all of the buttons on the Steam Deck relatively easy to reach and move between during general play, I recognise that will not be a universal experience. The device is fairly weighty and large, and that size and weight is likely to not only cause issues for some gamers with chronic pain or hand strength weakness, but also may make manipulating the system to reach all of its inputs somewhat tricky. While the level of customisation of controls on offer is pretty solid, it is still likely to be a factor worth considering.
As the Steam Deck is basically just a PC, it is thankfully fairly easy to connect bluetooth controllers to use while in game, though wired controllers are very hit or miss. While HDMI output is currently a little temperamental, you can in theory use the Steam Deck on your TV as a decently powerful mini PC, using an existing controller that works for you, or something like the Xbox Adaptive Controller. The only caveat is that you will not have access to the Steam Settings and Power Management buttons on the Steam Deck unless you press the physical buttons on the hardware.
As the Steam Deck is a PC, you also have the option of connecting up other PC peripherals you may use for accessibility support, with varying success. You can connect bluetooth wireless headphones, cameras, and other external devices, so long as they are compatible with Linux.
If you boot the Steam Deck into Desktop Mode, you lose a lot of the user-friendly console style interface, but will potentially gain access to some Linux based accessibility support options. Currently, users who boot into Desktop mode have access to a screen reader tool, but this tool does not currently function in Gaming Mode.
In theory, if you can find Linux based accessibility apps, you may be able to install them in desktop mode, add them to Desktop Steam, boot into gaming mode, then run those apps in gaming mode to potentially bring that support into the Gaming Mode interface, as that does support running multiple apps at once, such as having Discord running in the background so you can voice chat while gaming. That said, a lot of existing Windows accessibility tools don’t have support for Linux, and even if you find a Linux accessibility app there is no guarantee it’ll play nicely with Gaming Mode, as some Linux apps such as OBS simply refuse to boot in gaming mode at the present.
Lastly, and this feels really important to note, the Steam Deck right now has a real issue with Gaming Mode struggling to decide which window to prioritise when adding non Steam apps into Gaming Mode. If a program wants to open a second full screen window, while Gaming Mode decides which full screen window to prioritise, it will rapidly full screen flash between the two, which could be a potential trigger for users with epilepsy. This usually happens when trying to open menus to browse for files if you for example wish to use VLC Media Player in Gaming Mode, and could be a really big issue for some disabled users.
If flashing screens are an issue for you, I would highly recommend not running any non Steam games in Gaming Mode, instead opting for Desktop Mode, and even then I would still use the device with caution. Some games on the device, while verified as playable, feature a similar issue on first boot, if they have a text box you have to click an option within before starting the game.
At the end of the day, while the Steam Deck is a phenomenally powerful piece of gaming tech for its price point and form factor, it’s also a heavy and large Linux PC with none of the system level settings or support a curated console experience would offer. You’ve got a lot of options for customising your controls, and using peripherals on a handheld, but even simple things such as screen magnifier support in Gaming Mode are lacking in actual utility.
The Steam Deck is a handheld PC, with all the pros and cons that comes with it. You’ve got a lot of options for customisation, but you’re left to seek those out for yourself, and if you’re not familiar with Linux then installing external accessibility apps to improve your experience could be very tricky.
Much of this could change or improve over time, but right now the Steam Deck is a device that refuses to in any way make itself accessible. It’s a PC, not a console, so it treats accessibility as your problem to sort, or a task for game developers to be responsible for fixing.