Switch OLED vs Steam Deck
Image: Nintendo Life / Tom Bramwell

When Valve announced that it planned to make a handheld called the Steam Deck, it was immediately compared to the Nintendo Switch. You can understand that kneejerk reaction. They both let you play “proper games” on the go, they share a similar shape, and they would both have you muttering covetous obscenities if you saw someone pull one out on the train.

Realistically, though, this is an apples and oranges comparison. The Nintendo Switch OLED Model, the most expensive one, costs £310, and the system is essentially a slightly underpowered home console with legs. The Steam Deck costs £350-570 depending on the model, and is basically a gaming laptop chopped up and jammed into a plastic surfboard.

Clearly they do different things. We can prove this with the simple fact that we have purchased both, because we wanted them in order to do different things.

Still, this is the internet, and the straw man must be satisfied, so let us consider the merits of these two vastly different bits of hardware on the basis that someone, somewhere, may be considering purchasing one and never purchasing the other. Onwards to discourse!

Switch OLED vs Steam Deck
Image: Nintendo Life / Tom Bramwell

Nintendo Switch OLED Model Vs Steam Deck - The Hardware

We live in a world where some people like the appearance of the PlayStation 5, so all bets are probably off in the looks department, but for our money the Nintendo Switch OLED Model is the prettier of these two devices.

It’s closer than you might think, though. Familiarity breeds contempt, and we’ve been staring at the Switch for hundreds, if not thousands of hours at this point. Then along comes the Steam Deck with its gargantuan dimensions, ergonomic grips, and more buttons and sticks than a 70-year-old wedding party. Valve’s handheld looks and feels premium and exotic. Even the Switch OLED Model with its glossy curved bezel struggles to feel expensive in quite the same way.

Then again, while the Switch OLED Model is bigger than its predecessor, it is still sensibly proportioned. It has heft but does not feel heavy, as The Killers once sang. It feels comfortable and well-engineered, at least in every other aspect besides the goddamn drifting joysticks for pity’s sake Nintendo.

we cannot overstate the size of the Steam Deck. Well, we probably can. 'It’s the Lady Dimitrescu of handhelds!'

In contrast, we cannot overstate the size of the Steam Deck. Well, we probably can. “It’s the Lady Dimitrescu of handhelds!” It’s not really. It is big though. Remember the Sega Nomad? Damien [McFerran, Nintendo Life Editorial Director] probably has one in his lap right now. [But of course - Ed] The Deck is bigger. The Switch OLED is 24cm across and the Steam Deck is 30cm. It’s taller and deeper, too. And it’s heavy. The website says 669 grams, but after holding it without support for a few minutes, you will feel like describing it as “two thirds of a kilogram” instead.

Now, look down at your hands. Remember the Xbox “Duke” controller? Did your hands like that? Because the Steam Deck is pretty similar to hold. It is much less comfortable even than the oversized PS5 controller. The sticks are tall and our thumbs sometimes struggled to cling on during particularly energetic levels of Teardown. Unless you are Richard Kiel (RIP) or Big Show, you will probably have to adjust your grip at times while playing.

In fact, at the risk of veering into the culture wars, there were times evaluating the Steam Deck that we did wonder how many women got the chance to hold this thing before Valve sent the plans off to the factory. Anecdotal research among our female friends who have the Steam Deck (hi Bianca) suggests that it is about as practical and comfortable as a thornmail catsuit if your hands are smaller than dinner plates. Your mileage will undoubtedly vary. We merely offer these thoughts for consideration.

So if you ask us, which you tacitly did by clicking on this feature, the Switch OLED Model is better-looking and more comfortable to use than the Steam Deck.

Beneath the surface, it’s a tougher comparison. The Nintendo Switch OLED Model has a quad-core ARM CPU and a Maxwell-based NVIDIA GPU. The Steam Deck has a proper AMD APU combining Zen 2 processor architecture and RDNA CUs on the GPU side. We don’t have a clue what any of that means, but the bottom line is that the Steam Deck can play Elden Ring at 30fps and the Nintendo Switch is more comfortable with less intensive titles. In terms of raw horsepower, this is a clear win for the Deck.

But of course there are other hardware considerations. The entry level Steam Deck (a mere £349, financial ruin fans) has 64GB, but the more expensive options have 256GB (£459, probably the sweet spot) and 512GB (£569). Both systems can be expanded with microSD cards, which is good news if you can never make your mind up about what game to play.

Control-wise, both systems have touch-capable displays, two analogue sticks, proper d-pads, two shoulder buttons on each side, physical volume controls, and various function buttons. The Switch has a built-in screenshot/video button, whereas the Deck relies on a button combo to achieve the same effect, which hardly seems like the worst offence in the world. The Deck goes slightly further for control, though, by offering two trackpads with haptic feedback and pressure-sensitive clicking actions, as well as two additional grip buttons on either side for things like changing gears in racing games. Both systems also have built-in speakers and a headphone port.

As for their screens, the Nintendo Switch OLED Model features [checks notes] an OLED screen. This displays 720p visuals, and it is so vibrant and gorgeous that it makes us want to cry. Believe it or not, the Steam Deck display is the same size – seven inches diagonal – at 1280x800 resolution, which is pretty close to 720p, and it uses an “optically bonded IPS LCD for enhanced readability”, it sez ‘ere. Everything looks very nice. We have no complaints.

Of course, the main area where the Switch OLED Model outguns the Deck is in its big-screen connectivity. The Switch is designed to connect to its docking station – stop us if you’ve heard this before – and then let you immediately pick up what you’re doing on the TV. It still feels like magic five years later. The Steam Deck will have a dock at some point, complete with lots of USB connectivity, networking and so on, but it isn’t out yet and presumably won’t be free. In the meantime, players need to use a USB-C cable, a USB-C hub with HDMI output, and an HDMI cable to physically tether the device to the TV. This, let us tell you based on personal experience, is not worth the hassle.

Even playing games that seem visually undemanding, the Deck runs out of juice in a couple of hours.

It is also not possible to charge the Steam Deck while it is outputting video to the TV, which leads us onto perhaps the biggest problem we have with the Deck as it stands: battery life. Even playing games that seem visually undemanding, like Inscryption or Vampire Survivors, the Deck runs out of juice in a couple of hours. We haven’t scientifically tested this stuff, but it seems fair to say that’s almost as bad as the Nomad. (Sorry Damien.) People who have scientifically tested this stuff report that tweaking settings to cut frame rate increases battery life, but where’s the fun in that? Say what you like about the gaps in Nintendo’s third-party software line-up, but at least we can play Breath of the Wild for a good few hours between charges.

Finally, we have to talk about fans. The Switch OLED Model, as with its predecessors, has a small fan that helps with cooling, but we doubt it will be a huge consideration for most. To be honest, we had to Google it to make sure it did have a fan, because it is not something we remember noticing. The Steam Deck, in contrast, has a proper fan, and it is fairly audible, especially when playing demanding games. This is hardly surprising, but it is unusual for a handheld gaming device. We can’t say it bothered us too much, and it won’t matter at all with headphones, but it is worth bearing in mind.

Also, we feel like the internet is being a little coy about the secret benefit of the Steam Deck fan: that absolutely gorgeous fan exhaust smell. When that baby starts whirring, ejecting all that game-soaked hot air through the little vent above the screen, have a little nose of it. It’s got that amazing metallic circuit-board tang to it. There’s nothing quite like it.

Switch OLED vs Steam Deck
Image: Nintendo Life / Tom Bramwell

Nintendo Switch OLED Model Vs Steam Deck - The Software

Phew! So far we’ve talked about size, weight, performance, longevity, production value, and Damien’s love of the Sega Nomad. We’ve covered a lot of ground on the hardware front. But hardware is only ever as good as the software that runs on it, as [if you put one more Sega Nomad joke in this feature, we are not going to pay you - Ed] … a wise person once wrote. Probably. So let’s consider the operating systems and software catalogues.

This is where the comparison is perhaps most interesting. The Nintendo Switch is the ultimate walled garden handheld, with its proprietary physical game cards, one official eShop for digitally distributed games, and – if you behave very well for several years – perhaps an occasional system update that allows you to group games together in folders. What you see today is pretty much what you get forever. A comparatively stagnant OS is the price of immortality – you will probably be able to turn on a Switch in 30 years and fire up Mario Kart 8 Deluxe no problem.

Nintendo Switch is the ultimate walled garden handheld... Steam Deck is designed to be more of a living thing

The Steam Deck is designed to be more of a living thing. Valve is a PC company, obviously; a billionaire tinkerer with a libertarian worldview. The Steam Deck runs on a modified Linux operating system dressed up as “SteamOS”, giving you intuitive and comfortable access to all your Steam games and settings. But Valve has no intention of cutting it loose and moving on. At the time of writing, the most recent update added a lock screen, a new Achievements page, localised keywords, multiple window switching for launchers, web browsers and the like, and a myriad other useful tweaks. There will be a lot more of this stuff as time goes on.

Not that you have to wait for Valve. If you want, you can install other operating systems and game launchers, like the Epic Games Store, Ubisoft Connect or – if you work for EA and really want to suck up to the boss – Origin. The built-in browser even supports Xbox Cloud Gaming and Google Stadia. We have tried a few of these and generally they just work. If they don’t, there are usually a bunch of people on the Steam forums who have already figured out how to make them work. And if you are big on emulation, you can run all sorts of things on the Deck. It is, after all, basically a PC.

Switch OLED vs Steam Deck
Image: Nintendo Life / Tom Bramwell

Finally, then, we come to The Games. This is ultimately where personal preference is going to determine the outcome. If you love Nintendo games – and we are going to go out on a limb here and suggest the readers of Nintendo Life may at least dabble in the collected works of Miyamoto and company from time to time – then the Switch OLED Model is an essential part of your gaming collection. Or its non-OLED counterpart. Or that little one that doesn’t talk to TVs. There are more than enough stone-cold classics available for this thing now that you cannot play anywhere else. The retro download services are still a bit thin for our liking, and the Nintendo Switch Online subscription service is dubiously priced, but even if all you do is play Breath of the Wild and Mario Odyssey over and over again, this is a must-have game console.

On the other hand, even if you don’t dabble with side-loaded game launchers, emulators and alternative operating systems, the Steam Deck is an open sea by comparison. We have had a Steam account since the days of Half-Life 2, and have amassed over 250 games in that time. We know people who have double or triple that number, and many PC gamers will have a library of thousands thanks to years of Humble Bundles and their like. They pretty much all work on the Deck. Some require a little tweak here or there, and some are still being optimised, but if you have even a modestly sized library of Steam games, then you will be up to your eyeballs in things that work flawlessly. There’s even a free game, Aperture Desk Job, that has been designed to showcase the Steam Deck. (And surely the Deck deserves bonus points for convincing Valve to actually make a game for once.)

Steam Deck, like the Switch before it, is great for pecking away at games that keep slipping down the playlist. It fits into different pockets of life. Well, it doesn’t fit into anyone’s pocket, let’s be real

Then there’s the other thing about Steam libraries: nobody has ever played all the games in their Steam library. Across all the holiday sales and discounts and free tokens and whatnot, we each have a bunch of stuff we’ve never gotten around to playing. For us, it was things like Inscryption, Thronebreaker, Broken Age, and Project Zomboid. And the Steam Deck, like the Switch before it, is great for pecking away at games that keep slipping down the playlist. It fits into different pockets of life. Well, it doesn’t fit into anyone’s pocket, let’s be real, but it does occupy spaces in time that might otherwise be spent staring out of a bus window or hurling abuse at random strangers on Twitter.

It is also a great way to play brand new AAA games. The Switch OLED Model has its own high-end releases, of course, but most cutting-edge new games launching on next-gen consoles now arrive at the same time as a fairly solid PC version, and that means they are available for the Deck day and date. Elden Ring is the most compelling recent example, but the same is true for stuff like Dying Light 2 and Apex Legends. Those trackpads mean that mouse-controlled games are practical to play on the go as well. And being able to suspend and resume those games instantly will feel like a magic trick to PC players in the same way TV-docking does on the Switch.

Switch OLED vs Steam Deck
Image: Nintendo Life / Tom Bramwell

Nintendo Switch OLED Model Vs Steam Deck - The Verdict

So we come to the verdict. Ripping through all the facts, figures and emotions of playing with these two fantastic devices does nothing to dissuade us of the view we set forth at the top of the piece: There can be no objective victor in this fight.

Switch OLED is the pinnacle of current Nintendo hardware, a sumptuous way to play the latest Nintendo games and dabble in retro delights. Steam Deck, meanwhile, is one of the most exciting new toys we have had since the original Switch.

The Nintendo Switch OLED Model is the pinnacle of current Nintendo hardware, a sumptuous way to play the latest Switch games and dabble in whichever retro delights Nintendo is willing to release from its gilded vaults for digital download, plus a good helping of ports, indie and otherwise. It might be nice to replace it with a 4K version in the future, but it is hard to imagine what else could be done to improve the portable experience if and when that day arrives. Slightly better d-pad and buttons? Analogue triggers? Reliable analogue sticks aside, nothing seems that important.

The Steam Deck, meanwhile, is one of the most exciting new toys we have had since the original Switch. It lets you play most of your Steam library on the go, it can handle visually demanding games better than we expected, and it has the versatility one would hope to see from a device made by the arch PC purists at Valve. The novelty of it is one thing, but from what we have seen so far, it delivers on its lofty goals.

The difference, we suppose, is that the Steam Deck is a more esoteric choice. It will be physically awkward for some people to use because of its size, weight, and the fact it has a carry case the size of a small child. It seems like a bad choice to buy for a pre-teen who just needs things to work. And in this current world of chip shortages and whatnot, it is much less attainable than Switch: order one today, and you might get it in October “or later”. Then what happens if it breaks or gets lost? It is a handheld after all.

The truth is, you probably own a Switch OLED Model already, or you’ve got the original and decided to wait for the next model. And you know whether you want a Steam Deck. If you do, it’s just a question of whether you can justify it, because it certainly isn’t the cheapest device ever made, and it doesn’t make long-term sense to buy the entry-level version.

Us? We’re happy with our purchases, and think most people will be happy if they follow suit, but everyone’s situation is different. Goodness me, though, aren’t we spoiled for choice these days?