Steam Deck OLED review: much more than a screen improvement

In early 2022, Valve released my favorite video game console. But even I had some gripes. With the Steam Deck, I could — for the first time — play the bulk of my sprawling collection of video games wherever I’d like. But I tended to bundle it with a huge portable power supply. I also couldn’t quite shirk how much better games looked on our family’s OLED TV.

And yet, for me, an adult with limited time to play video games alone in a quiet room, nothing could beat the Steam Deck’s freedom. Barring the occasional diversion, Valve’s handheld PC served as my preferred gaming option ever since I published our review. Then, last week, the Steam Deck OLED arrived. It’s as if the Steam Deck team collected a laundry list of complaints about the original, then responded to all of them one by one.

It appears, at first glance, that Valve cribbed Nintendo’s playbook with the Switch OLED, which upgraded the screen but not its guts. In terms of raw power, the Steam Deck OLED is identical to the original Steam Deck. Valve says this synchronicity is in part to continue to provide developers a single goal when optimizing their games — though it promises the Steam Deck 2 (which the company hopes to release in two to three years) will have a generational power leap.

For those who haven’t tried a Steam Deck, though, I wouldn’t wait for its sequel. Because while Valve hasn’t upped the horsepower, it’s improved practically everything else. The Steam Deck OLED has a longer battery life, faster Wi-Fi, and a stand-alone Bluetooth module, and the OLED screen isn’t only OLED; it’s HDR OLED — the first HDR OLED screen on any gaming portable, with a peak brightness of 1000 nits for HDR content and 600 nits for SDR (for comparison, the original’s peak brightness was 400 nits). And somehow, with all of these additions, the Steam Deck OLED is lighter.

So, goodbye, old Steam Deck; hello, new Steam Deck.

Photographs of the Steam Deck OLED, and of its hard zip-up case. Each photo is taken with the handheld sitting on a hot pink sheet of thick paper.

Photo: Amelia Holowaty Krales/Polygon

The Steam Deck OLED delivers on Valve’s original promise

OLED is in the name for a reason.

The OLED panel is lighter, thinner, and more power efficient than its LCD predecessor. It’s also bigger and faster. Though the device has the same shape as the original Steam Deck, smaller screen bezels allow for the slightly larger 7.4-inch screen, compared to the original 7 inches. The panel has a wider color gamut (110% P3, for the visual obsessives) and the beautiful, inky blacks that OLED dorks like myself adore.

The panel also has a 90 Hz refresh rate — perfect for frame-doubling from 45 frames per second. In case that jargon means nothing to you, suffice it to say that gameplay on Steam Deck OLED looks smoother. The improved 90 Hz falls short of the Asus ROG Ally’s 120 Hz, though it’s worth considering the faster the frame rate, the faster the battery drain — assuming you can even spot the difference between 90 Hz and 120 Hz.

You know what’s more interesting than a list of technical specs? Actually seeing the screen. It’s gorgeous. On Sunday morning, I picked at Sega’s Like a Dragon Gaiden: The Man Who Erased His Name while watching football and Christmas movies with my family. The new Yakuza game looks fantastic on high settings at 60 fps, its night sequences flaunting the OLED’s dark blacks and the abundance of neon signage showcasing the HDR.

I got so distracted pulverizing bad dudes that it took me a few hours to first notice the Steam Deck OLED’s most welcome feat. When playing AAA games on the original Steam Deck, I had always kept the handheld plugged into an outlet. But with the OLED, a couple hours had passed before I realized I’d forgotten to connect the charger.

The OLED screen makes for a fancier Steam Deck, but it’s the battery (and some tweaks throughout the design to carve out extra battery life) that lets Valve’s handheld truly deliver on its promise of a portable gaming PC.

Photographs of the Steam Deck OLED, and of its hard zip-up case. Each photo is taken with the handheld sitting on a hot pink sheet of thick paper.

Photo: Amelia Holowaty Krales/Polygon

All the tiny, delightful improvements of Steam Deck OLED

Since the original Steam Deck launched, Valve has been improving the hardware through updates — its team estimates around 300 to date. That will continue with both the Steam Deck OLED and the original Steam Deck, the latter of which will get a fresh BIOS update to align itself with some of the OLED’s improvements. The original will see some battery life improvement, just don’t expect 30-50% more battery life.

Some changes — even smallish ones — demand new hardware. And so, alongside the big improvements, Valve has made a gaggle of small physical upgrades with its new iteration, too. The Steam Deck OLED now includes a Wi-Fi 6E module (great if you have a modern router and connection to make use of it) and a dedicated Bluetooth module, which allows for improved audio quality with wireless headphones, the option to wake the Steam Deck from a controller, and the capability to connect many Bluetooth controllers for multiplayer. The haptics are noticeably improved, with a wider frequency range. And the touchscreen is markedly better — it’s responsive to the point where I don’t feel the need to plug in a USB-C keyboard anytime I need to type a few words.

Valve also claims the Steam Deck OLED is more repairable, which, mercifully, I didn’t have the need to test for myself. (Parts will once again be sold through iFixit.) However, I did enjoy the new power supply, with its faster charging (45 minutes gets you from 20% to 80%) and 2.5-meter cable that stretches the length of my couch.

One small, charming detail: The carrying case now has a tinier carrying case within it. If you want to be extra cautious, stick to the original bulky case. But if you need to toss the Steam Deck in your backpack for a day trip? Go with the slim case that has funny little thumbstick nipples!

All of the tweaks, large and small, amount to a perfect handheld — made better by the price, which remains the same as the original Steam Deck available today, just that the OLED will come with more stuff. Valve will be selling three models:

  • $649 – 1 TB OLED (up from 512 GB)
  • $529 – 512 GB OLED (up from 256 GB)
  • $399 – 256 GB non-OLED Steam Deck (up from 64 GB)

Plus, for a limited time, Valve will sell a special edition 1 TB OLED made with a translucent shell for $679 — available only in the U.S. and Canada. Though let’s be real: This thing will sell like hotcakes and Valve will reconsider the definition of “limited supply.” Have I considered ordering one of these limited editions? Yes. But I am also practicing restraint. Like, how many Steam Decks should one human have?

I suppose that’s the question, really. If you already have a Steam Deck, is the OLED technically an incremental improvement? Yes. But you might find that the screen and the battery justify the double dip. For someone like me, who puts hundreds of hours into the Steam Deck each year, the upgrade is inescapable.

And if you don’t have a Steam Deck? How many times can I say it: This is my favorite console ever. And it just got better.

The Steam Deck OLED will be available Nov. 16 to purchase through the Steam storefront. The hardware was reviewed on a unit provided by Valve. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.

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