In the age where the PlayStation and Xbox consoles both have narrated interfaces though, just how does Valve's handheld alternative stack up as a gamer without sight?
Underneath this, you'll find a case with a sleeve wrapped round it that has the words "your games are going places", "Steam Deck" and of course "Valve" and various other pieces of information like the contents of the box and Valve's address. Having opted fo the highest tier model possible, the case I received was a streamlined design, though if you purchase a model with less storage your design may be different.
In a much smaller box to the left you'll find the power supply (a USB C one if you're curious) and a cleaning cloth sealed away in plastic wrapping. Though I don't explain how to open these here, in a rare moment of triumph, this should honestly feel pretty intuitive, even for newcomers to unboxing.
And that's pretty much it. A straightforward unboxing for a straightforward piece of equipment. But how accessible is this out of the box?
Consequently, after getting sighted assistance to set it up and verify that a game would run on it, namely Blind Drive, as well as that the accessibility in the game's menus did not function under Steam OS, I resorted to measures that might seem drastic but are actually quite commonplace: installing Windows.
Consequently, yes, it's back to following various sets of instructions alongside the trusty and long-utilised method of sighted assistance to get things going. Having done my research in advance as best I could, after a couple of hours I had Windows, NVDA (through Narrator) and Steam installed, all with Valve's official drivers running in the background.
What I hadn't recognised, unfortunately, was the issue that the media creation tool would wipe all data from the drive I'd used to install Windows on it. Fortunately, from what I could tell at any rate, there wasn't any data that I couldn't get back on there, though if Steam OS were accessible in the first place, this headache would've been null and void entirely for any gamer without sight, not just me.
With the initial frustrations of installing Windows and getting things up and running out of the way, it was time to start installing things.
I also discovered that Steam's Big Picture mode had some accessibility in a beta branch at the time, which allowed things to feel similar to the native version of Steam OS by letting you move around a grid of options, press the onboard A button on the controller to activate things, etc.
If installing programs, games etc was so straightforward though, how did the device perform under load?
I next moved to a more recent release, the then newly accessible Brok The InvestiGator from CowCat games. I had a great time playing this on the SD, given that it was just as snappy as my rig I'd normally run on. The small speakers built into the device produced a surprising amount of sound, with the volume controls allowing me to boost said audio levels to surprisingly high ranges, whilst still maintaining clarity.
Killer Instinct was next, normally I'd start with this first, but it's historically a well-optimised port that has run well on anything I've thrown it at that has a proper GPU and thus I did not expect the SD to struggle.
The game, unsurprisingly, ran very well and smoothly on the device, unplugged and with headphones connected I wouldn't have been able to tell that this wasn't on Xbox, but that brings me to the next point of discussion, the controls.
For fighting games, I've always advocated that if you can, you should use the DPad as that provides greater precision and consistency. However, though the Steam Deck's DPad is good for 4-way movement (i.e. the kind you'd find with arrow keys), unfortunately I didn't find its diagonal movement to be as viable, especially when there's no way to easily move your hands as you would on a standard controller because the device's screen gets in the way.
That being said, I am aware you can connect Xbox Series or other controllers to the unit, thus making for a more pleasant experience and the game performed amazingly irrespective of that inconvenience.
Hooking up a Braille Display to it also was a useful idea that I thought I'd try and, whilst this might not be an option for all, having it work with NVDA like this could also allow it to serve as a laptop substitute in terms of documents as well.
Though the Steam Deck is an expensive investment, including the time it can take to install and troubleshoot Windows, if you have the assistance to get set up with one, I would recommend at least giving it a shot. After all, this is a machine that is smaller than a laptop that can, at least from my tests, run games at solid performance levels, at least in the audio department, as well as other applications like Discord etc for portability if you wanted to go that route.
As a gamer without sight, however, I'd also keep your eye on the Asus ROG Ally, which I've heard some people have had success with from an accessibility standpoint. Rest assured, if I'm able to get hold of one, you'll have my thoughts on that too, and some comparisons as well.
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