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Is the Steam Deck OLED worth the upgrade? A Switch OLED coveter decides

Also, we smell the vents, for research

Baldur's Gate 3 running on a Steam Deck OLED.
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun

I like to think my Steam Deck OLED review was a sufficiently broad piece of opinioning, but in the spirit of plurality – and because we already did it with that Steam Deck Second Opinion video – I wanted our head honcho Katharine to give her take. She’s also been getting to grips with the Steam Deck OLED behind the scenes, and happens to be an expert on portable gaming devices with organic light-emitting diode screens. An expert on yearning for them, anyway.

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In this cross-RPS chat, we discuss our first reactions to Valve’s new handheld PC, ponder its power-versus-efficiency balance, and lament for the poor souls who have only just bought the old model. All in search of an answer to one question: is the Steam Deck OLED worth the upgrade?

James: Alright chief, you’re both a Steam Deck owner and a Nintendo Switch OLED admirer. First thoughts on the Steam Deck OLED?

Katharine: I’ve long been envious of Matthew (RPS in peace)’s Switch OLED (I can’t bear to part ways with the special Animal Crossing one he got me for Christmas a couple of years ago), so the idea of finally having an OLED handheld in my life is very appealing! And it really does look lovely, even though it’s obviously still much bigger than the Switch. The smaller bezels really make the display feel enormous – certainly compared to my OG Deck – and seeing all those lush colours pop off the screen makes a real good impression! I’ve mostly been playing Cobalt Core on it, which I reviewed this week, and exploding an enemy ship has never looked more vivid. Even the menus look nicer, which is something I never thought I’d really say about the SteamOS interface. Were you equally impressed when you first took yours out of the box?

James: It didn’t quite evoke the same Christmas morning feeling that I remember having with the original Steam Deck, I think because it’s so outwardly similar – the thumbsticks are obviously different and it’s a little bit lighter, but it was still quite clearly a Steam Deck. Still, there was a little "Oooh" moment when I switched it on, which became an "Ooooooooh" once I started actually playing games on it.

I had high hopes, in any case, since I knew it would be addressing my two biggest complaints against the original Deck (display quality and battery life). Ever looked at your Steam Deck and thought it was a bit... desaturated?

Katharine: Yeah, the original Steam Deck display was all right – the Switch isn’t that amazing either, in fairness, but it does the job, as did the Steam Deck. But yeah, as soon as you throw an OLED version into the picture, the difference is palpable.

A Steam Deck OLED running Skyrim.
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun

I think I probably had a similar reaction to you when I first took it out the box. Initially, I "Oooooh"ed over the lightness of it, the now all-black thumbsticks and the cute orange power button, which tripled in "oooo"s when I turned it on. In retrospect, and after some highly accurate hand scale wagging, I’m not sure there’s actually that much in it when it comes to the weight difference. The OLED is lighter, but not substantially so – and its similar dimensions make it feel more or less the same in my tiny baby hands as the original did. I do appreciate the extra grippiness of the thumbsticks, though – the original sometimes felt a bit large and unwieldy in my hands over longer gaming sessions, but that might have been down to my lack of grip on it. The OLED feels more secure when I’m playing games on it now, which, you know, is reassuring. I feel more confident that a sudden head-boop from my cat won’t send it tumbling down to the ground, which is nice. Because lemme tell ya, they do like rubbing their chins on the edges of it. The Steam Deck OLED continues to get the Castle Cat seal of approval.

Alas, they can’t warm themselves so much from its vents anymore. Which is a plus for me, because it’s noticeably quieter now, and less toasty. Both big improvements in my books. How about you, James?

James: Big fan of the new sticks. I confess, in fact, that I was probably too forgiving of the grippiness on the original Steam Deck’s thumbers when I reviewed it, and since starting using thumbstick cover accessories. I don’t need to bother with the Steam Deck OLED’s.

Also, speaking of vents, I fear we must address a previously contentious issue around these parts: how does the Steam Deck OLED smell? I'm still getting notes of Swindon-based electronics retailers.

Katharine: You know what? I didn’t think to try! But. For science, I can confirm that, at rest, yes, there is definitely a whiff of new electronics store carpet in there. When I’ve got a hefty game going... I think it might smell of... the EGX show floor? (see also: your convention centre of choice). How to describe such a concoction of heat, light sweat and gently crisping electronics...? Which sounds worse than it is – I'm pretty confident my Steam Deck is not cooking from the inside – but yeah, there’s definitely "a smell" (though not a wholly unpleasant one).

A rear view of the Steam Deck OLED.
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun

James: Glad we sorted that out. Not every convention centre, though, it doesn’t smell of sawdust like Messe Berlin. Anyway! Can you notice the heat reduction when it’s in your hands? To me it’s one of those things that doesn’t make quite a crucial difference, as the hottest parts of the Steam Deck were the rear panel bits you don’t normally touch, but sometimes I’ll get a stray feel of a hotspot on the Steam Deck OLED and remember how the Steam Deck is/was just that little bit warmer. Like it’s something Valve didn’t need to do, but did anyway, and the OLED model is better for it.

Katharine: Yeah, I can’t say I ever played many particularly heavy-duty games on my OG Steam Deck. I tended to use it to catch up on lightweight indie games, as I knew I’d want the big full-screen experience for flashier games. But with the couple of bigger games I have played on my OLED – Talos Principle 2 being the main one – it does feel cooler overall. I think I tend to notice it more when I pick it up - after setting it down on a table to give the cat a scritch, or just while I get a fresh mug of tea, for example. Handling the original Deck, it would often be reasonably toasty, but I haven’t noticed this so much with the OLED yet.

James: Do you think Valve were right to hold off making performance upgrades in favour of efficiency gains? It sounds like I’m more AAA-inclined with my Deck usage and have moaned on the site about certain games not running well (or at all). But I’ve also tried the Asus ROG Ally, which is a more powerful handheld PC, and I’m still not convinced the extra few frames are worth the battery life/heat/price tradeoffs. It’s a tough one, though I feel I can probably live with the Steam Deck OLED’s horsepower for a while longer.

Playing Stray on a Steam Deck OLED at night.
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun

Katharine: Yeah, I think so. Another, more powerful model now would feel like a bit of a gut punch to anyone who bought an original Deck – myself included! It only came out last year, after all, which in traditional console cycle terms is kinda nothing. I think I, and probably many others, knew going in that it wasn’t really built to be 'next-gen' so to speak, and that it was primarily designed to ‘just about’ play games of the moment (eg: games from 2021/2022), but that it was arguably better suited to mopping up our ever-present backlog of games instead. I know I mostly bought mine not as machine to play the latest games away from my desk, but just... everything else away from my desk, while I saved the powerful, shiny stuff for my gaming PC. If Valve took another two, even three years to release a more powerful Deck, that would be fine by me. As you say, I think the current technical constraints around battery life versus performance aren’t worth the extra cost and hassle. I would much rather have a more convenient device than something that’s more powerful. Battery life is king!

James: We’ll come back to battery life, but I’ve been thinking about the gut punch thing myself – this might not be a more powerful Steam Deck, but it is a better Steam Deck, in almost every way. There must surely be folk who bought, say, a 512GB Deck last month, and will now be raging that there’s a comprehensively improved 1TB OLED model for the same price. And I wouldn’t blame them, though I guess that is just the danger of buying gaming devices these days?

Katharine: Oh yeah, absolutely. I would not want to be their shoes right now, and I'd feel rightly miffed about the timing of it all. There is a risk of this happening any time there’s a surprise announcement of something new, though, and I’d imagine it happens every single someone announces a new console. The difference there, of course, is that those consoles still have whole (mostly different) libraries of games to play on them, and prices on said games tend to drop when new stuff’s on the horizon. The Steam Deck is, well, still all the same games in your Steam library, which probably makes the sting feel worse in some respects. But even if Valve had made vague noises about 'oh, we’re going to announce something on X date,' there will still be reams of people who bought one the day before that too. It’s kinda a no-win situation, really. The eternal peril of waiting for sales and price cuts on things, I guess.

Horizon Zero Dawn being played on the Steam Deck OLED.
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun

James: Yeah, true. Reminds me of some old hardware humour: When’s the best time to buy a graphics card? Two weeks after you’ve bought a graphics card.

Now, those battery life upgrades. I, too, was jazzed for these, especially after a recent flight in which I had to race to finish Smushi Come Home while being peppered with critical battery warnings. I’ve been seeing improvements of anywhere between 30 minutes and two hours, depending on the game, and will happily take those! But you’ve been noticing differences when you’re not even playing games, right?

Katharine: Yeah, for sure. As you mentioned in your review, it not only charges faster thanks to the new plug (also a big fan that it’s longer too – the original charger was so short!), but I’ve found that it can hold that charge longer as well when I leave it idle. I don’t have to immediately plug it back in after a single gaming session – or rather, I’m more confident that when I come back to it the next day, it hasn’t immediately drained down to 0% again. My original Steam Deck would frequently be completely dead if I came to play it after leaving it in its case for a couple of days, but the OLED has, so far at least, been a lot better in that respect. It still can’t hold a candle to the Switch, but I do feel more confident about leaving it off charge for a bit compared to my original one – which is handy, when I put a game in idle mode intending to come back to it later, and then completely forget to a) return to it, and b) save it properly. Definitely had a few occasions on my original Deck where I lost some progress because I forgot to plug it back in, that’s for sure.

The newly orange power button on the Steam Deck OLED.
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun

Like you say, the battery gains in more demanding games aren’t hugely revelatory, but as someone who plays a lot of lightweight games on it, I’d imagine the gains will be much greater, the more time I spend with it.

James: I have lost count of the number of times I unexpectedly needed the Steam Deck for something RPS-related, fished it out of the case, and found it dead to bits. Am looking forward to this happening...less?

It’s probably more than clear at this point that we are both pro-Steam Deck OLED. Just for some healthy journalistic balance, is there anything you expressly don’t like about it, or think it’s missed any particular opportunities? I’m not down with the 512GB model lacking the anti-glare coating that the non-OLED 512GB model had, for instance. That’s the only case I can think of where the Steam Deck OLED has gone backwards, not forwards.

Katharine: Yeah, that does seem a little stingy – though I currently own the 256GB model of the original Steam Deck, which didn’t have it either, so I can't say it was a particularly huge draw for me in the first place. I do take issue with the fact that only the 1TB versions get the fancy new carry case, though. Again, the original one is fine, but I dunno. The extra velcro latch and orange Deck logo speak to me for some reason. It’s a nice touch, what can I say? And it’s a shame the 512GB one misses out on that. Personally, I would have liked to have seen them shave just a fraction more off the overall size of it, too. As mentioned, I have tiny baby hands, and it’s definitely harder for me to hold for longer periods compared to, say, my Switch. Still, I think the new thumbsticks will help with that. I hope.

The new bundled carry case for the Steam Deck OLED 1TB models.
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun

James: Oh gosh, yes, the carrying case as well! Come on Valve, share the protective wealth. And your lack of concern over the screen coating suggests you don’t react to seeing your own reflection with the same disgust that I do, which I envy. Every loading screen there’s just a big, bespectacled egg, staring back at myself.

Katharine: Haha, the sole reason I have a fringe, really. Hides more of the horror.

James: I’d still buy either of the Steam Deck OLEDs, mind. Not so sure about the orangey Special Edition they’re getting in North America. But the hardware is worth the cash, for sure. If Valve ask for their review kits back, reckon you’d trade in your 256GB Deck and upgrade?

Katharine: In a heartbeat, yeah, especially as I’d be getting more storage for (roughly) the same amount of money. The gains in both the display and its battery life are definitely worth the upgrade, I’d say, and if I haven’t bought one already, I’d go for the OLED straight away (sorry, 256GB!).

James: It would understand.

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