The one Steam Deck feature that Valve still needs to get right

It’s been a pretty wild year for the Steam Deck. From the moment it first went on pre-order it was obvious it would be a success. Even now, despite recent accelerations in production, Valve still hasn’t fulfilled all the pre-orders for its handheld PC.

Despite being on the large side, the hardware is fantastic. I’ve been truly amazed by how much performance you can get from what is basically a handheld games console. Playing Marvel’s Spider-Man on the go at similar graphics and performance to its initial PS4 launch, but, well, anywhere, never gets old.

A big part of the experience is the software, though. Valve has managed to turn SteamOS into something easy to use on this type of device. Those who care know that it’s Linux underneath, but those who don’t need never know. And SteamOS has come a long way even in the short life of the Steam Deck to date. But there’s still one key feature it just doesn’t hit the mark on; off-line mode. Something that’s pretty essential for a portable games console.

Offline mode still isn’t good enough

Halo MCC on Steam Deck

Simply put, offline mode is necessary because without a data connection your Steam Deck can’t ping the servers as and when it needs to. Obviously multiplayer is out, but it has implications for simply being able to play games. Traditionally Steam hasn’t needed to worry as much about not having a data connection since, well, PC gamers quite often have one.

Recently Valve has tried to address the issue with updates to SteamOS but it just hasn’t nailed it. At least not yet. My own experience so far has largely entailed connecting my Steam Deck to a hotspot from my phone just to get around offline mode being a pain. But I’ve not tried it in a while. But a segment on a recent Linux Game Cast episode mentioned that it’s still not good and, low and behold, that seems to be the case.

The issue isn’t that it doesn’t work, because it does, it just doesn’t work very well. In my own experience, even just enabling offline mode can be a chore, resulting in a mixed understanding of if it’s even on. Unless you remember to turn the offline mode on manually while you’re still connected to data, it can just, forget. And as such, it’ll try and connect to the servers, even though there’s no data connection, and launching a game will take an age. It usually works in the end, but I’ve lost count of the times I’ve given up and put the Steam Deck down because I just can’t be bothered with this.

An under-appreciated but important feature

Steam Deck unboxing

The whole purpose of a handheld games console is that you can take it anywhere. Issues such as battery life can be addressed with outside help, but issues such as offline mode’s distinct jankyness cannot. And it’s putting a real dampener on the experience, frankly. Maybe we’ve been spoiled by the fact the Nintendo Switch doesn’t suffer such issues.

But the Switch is also the gold standard. Unless a game actually needs a data connection, it’s just not an issue. As it shouldn’t be. Workarounds aren’t the user experience we need, and I guarantee that on my next trip I’ll forget to turn on offline mode and I’ll probably end up hot spotting my phone again just to make everything work swiftly.

The Steam Deck is so good already and Valve should be commended for the speed at which work has continued on SteamOS throughout 2022. And clearly, the company knows that the offline mode isn’t good enough. But the most recent fixes don’t seem to have done enough. I really hope that as the last batches of pre-orders start to arrive, this feature finally gets what it needs.

    Steam Deck

    Valve’s first portable gaming PC, the Steam Deck is one of the hottest devices of 2022 with a huge library of games to play on it

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