The more time I spend with Valves Steam Deck, the more fascinated I become. It's a great little PC for work, creation, and for everyday PC-related tasks, and today I'll show you how to make your Deck a powerful little PC in its own right.
Nothing involves installing strange software, arcane Linux witchery, or using another OS. SteamOS is still very good, making for a fun, experimental little computer that is great for getting a first taste of Linux. And weird art games. And it's also a good idea to get started learning on this system.
Let's see what it has to offer.
Getting In And Out Of Desktop Mode
The Decks full-featured Linux Desktop Mode, which many users refer to as its desktop functionality, is very simple: Hold the power button and select Switch to Desktop, and a few short loading screens later you're in. It's a shame that you cant launch directly into this mode when powering up the device, but switching is quick.
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From Gaming Mode, you may also go to Desktop Mode by tapping the Steam button (or the touchscreen equivalent on the lower left-hand corner), navigating to Power, and selecting Switch to Desktop.
Reboot if you do not want to return to Gaming Mode.
Welcome To Linux, Expect A Few Hiccups
Steam Deck runs on SteamOS, which is a Valves spin on a Linux-based operating system. Microsofts Windows and Apples MacOS are excellent, and there are endless uses for them.
No, we have not entered the year of the Linux desktop (yet). However, the last decade has seen significant improvements in the area, bringing us some very reliable and functional operating systems. Some even feature style and character. SteamOSs Desktop Mode is kind of a greatest-hits of different developments in this sphere of computing.
However, you should still expect some Linux glitches. For example, installing apps isnt as simple. Its recommended to use SteamOSs Discover app store for finding and installing apps. Beyond that, it'll be hit or miss, and you'll likely need to learn some Linux tricks.
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Using SteamOS in Desktop Mode will be quite different from switching to a smartphone OS you're not as familiar with. Things will be different; some features will function in surprising ways. Sometimes, a Linux desktop can behave in ways you're not used to. Fortunately, SteamOS includes a number of modern OS features to deal with common problems.
Valve has included an auto-launching feature to handle stubborn, unresponsive apps, for example. The System Monitor will also allow you to kill frozen programs, similar to Task Manager on Windows. It's available in the Decks equivalent of the Start Menu.
But don't expect a sluggish OS where apps are crashing left and right. SteamOS is one of the most reliable Linux desktop environments Ive tried in a long time. You're far less likely to burn down the installation by doing something you didn't know you weren't supposed to do in the Terminala common enough Linux accident that's worryingly easy to do even in a very popular and user-friendly Linux distribution like Ubuntu.
If youre okay with getting your hands dirty with learning new OSs quirks, you should do it. There are a few things you should do immediately. Like, don't use the Deck as a desktop computer until you do these things.
Set Steam To Launch On Startup
Steam being able to run while in Desktop Mode is essential, but by default, Steam does not launch alongside Desktop Mode. Valve should correct this.
We need to ensure that Desktop Mode works as efficiently as it can without the use of an external monitor or a physical keyboard.
Running Steam is a free app that allows you to customize a virtual keyboard, move the mouse around with the touchpads, and perform other SteamOS commands. If you dont have any peripherals attached and Steam is closed, the Steam Deck is a tablet with a touchscreenone that isn't as accurate as your phones.
In Steam itself, go to Steam's settings. In Interface, check Run Steam when my computer starts. While you're there, uncheck the box at the bottom labeled Notify me about updates or changes to my games, new releases, and upcoming releases. Thatll shut off the annoying store deals pop-up.
Desktop Mode apps may be accessed via the Decks main Game Mode interface (the one that appears like Steams Big Picture): Right-click on an app you want to include in your Steam library and select Add to Steam. Some programs may not launch this way, while others may have interface issues, so you'll need to go through a bit of trial and error from app to app.
Set The Displays Appropriately
If you connect an external display to the Steam Deck in Gaming Mode, it will automatically switch over. It takes a second longer than it probably should, but it's pretty seamless. This isnt the case on Desktop Mode, though. Setting up your displays here can be a little tricky at first.
In Desktop Mode, the Steam Deck will default to its own little screen as a primary display and will use your external monitor as a secondary display. In System Settings, youll find it refers to its own screen as a Laptop Screen (aww, it thinks its a computer!).
If you want to use your external screen as the main display, complete with the actual main desktop and taskbar, set your external screen to Primary. You might also want to disable Enabled for the Laptop Screen, as this will give the smaller screen a break by shutting it off.
Keep your monitors on the go while you connect to Gaming Mode. This is usually a bug in the setup.
Set A User Password
The Steam Decks Desktop Mode does not require a password by default. If you plan on using this device as a computer, you should change that. Under Personalization > Users, youll find the ability to modify your account information, as well as the option to create a password.
This password will be used in Konsole, SteamOSs equivalent to a basic Linux terminal. It's just a pretty good idea to have a password. (And while you're at, it's the Year of Our Lord 2022, so you do use a password manager, right?)
The Essential Taskbar Setting: Cover, Not Auto-Hide
Steam Decks Desktop Mode has a Windows-like taskbar at the bottom that shows you the various applications you have open. Theres a tray of options in the bottom right-hand corner with a clock, as well as a menu similar to a Windows Start Menu on the left.
Enter Edit Mode will appear when right-clicking on the taskbar. Here you may edit the appearance of the taskbar, add widgets, etc., but it's critical to navigate to the correct part of the screen in Edit Mode and under More Options, enable Windows Can Cover.
This allows apps to expand beyond the taskbar on Steam Decks small screen, thereby preventing you from seeing the main menu with the touchscreen. If Steam crashes or starts up when entering Desktop Mode, then youll have no taskbar on the desktop as it auto-hides.
Letting app windows cover the taskbar guarantees that the most critical options it provides are always available when you minimize or move a full-screen app window, no matter what input methods are connected or activated.
Get Some Essential Peripherals
The Steam Deck is a fairly small device, probably inspired by Apple's design. You can still use this one USB-C port for all of your connectivity needs. For reasons Ill cover, you may want to go for a more attractive (or home theater friendly) custom dock. (If youre serious about peripherals, you may need to select a hub that plugs into the wall and has its own power.)
Im currently using the Jsaux Steam Deck dock, which is fantastic. It holds the Deck and provides two USB-A 2.0 ports (gross), an Ethernet port, an HDMI out, and power in. A right-angle USB-C cable plugs into the device and sends everything through there.
Docks, like the one from Valve, are a great way to set it up and forget about it. For gaming purposes, though, you may need to pick the device up from time to time, which is why having everything anchored down to a single spot is just a bit too cumbersome.
If the dock life isn't for you, a USB-C hub with a ton of great ports might be the answer, perhaps alongside a structural dock that is useful if you're still able to stand the Deck up. Otherwise, the Deck can lay flat enough, provided you don't obstruct its heat vents.
Moving on to input, youll likely want a keyboard that is small in size. Any tenkeyless or 75%/60% layouts will most likely work. You may also want to consider a keyboard that has extra USB ports for a mouse, freeing up the USB hub or docking limited ports for other uses.
A trackball is preferable to a traditional mouse. With the Steam Deck, you may be computing in cramped areas, and not having to drag a physical mouse around can make life much easier.
The Deck has a 1/8-inch output jack, so you may want to keep an audio cable handy if you're having trouble getting audio out of the device over USB-C for whatever reason.
Consider getting a set of Bluetooth headphones. Bluetooth connections are fairly reliable on the Deck (especially in Game Mode), though there can be a bit of audio latency if you're using more performance-intensive applications.
With a set of headphones, a hub or dock, a small keyboard, and a trackball or mouse, you can sit in a corner at a coffee shop or library and use the Deck like you would a laptop. Youve got no time to spare; youre living in the future.
Embrace Light Mode
Yes, I am also surrounded by huge blackout curtains and am usually surrounded by screens with user interfaces set to dark mode. When using the Steam Decks small screen, though, you may want to switch to light mode, as it greatly improves visibility and readability. With light mode, I find myself squinting at the screen much less often, and I can even go away with lower brightness settings for the most part.
Just search for themes and navigate to the Global Theme setting; here are two decent light-mode options: Breeze or Breeze Twilight. You may also download some new themes from the App Store, but themes seem to be a bit slow right now.
Have A Backup Plan (Just In Case)
Im surprised I haven't completely broken SteamOS yet; Compared to more typical LInux distributions, the Valves operating system seems to have a few extra safeguards that prevent accidental software destruction. Still, Id expect its easier to accidentally break this OS than a Windows or Mac installation. As with computing in general, make sure to have a backup of SteamOS itself in case things happen unexpectedly.
If you need to recover the Deck from another computer, Valve has provided some pretty straightforward instruction. It's suggested to purchase a compatible USB drive and dedicate it to storing the OS if you're in a position to create a bootable disk from another computer.
Instead of putting unrealistic expectations at risk, set effective use-cases.
What follows when you have all the necessary peripherals and made all the software changes to maximize Decks desktop performance?
The Steam Decks Desktop Mode provides basic computing without much fuss. Email, IM, web browsing (watch the tab count though), playing music, viewing videos, and more are all available here.
The Deck offers a great opportunity to begin playing Linux given the number of games that are playable on the Deck thanks to the Proton compatibility layer. It's unlikely to happen again in the future when a gaming PC running Linux alone will fulfill all of your needs. Use the Terminal (called Konsole on the Deck), package managers, sudo commands, and everything in between.
People are using the Deck to program code and experiment with music production in the wild. Other brave individuals are using the device to develop games directly on the device, since they don't have to spend a lot of time. Drawing tablets aren't that difficult to set up, although some are just plug-and-play.
There are also a variety of wonderful productivity and multimedia applications that can run on SteamOSs Desktop Mode without much difficulty. For music, I highly recommend Bitwig; it's a great software, but as it's a simulated modular synthesizer, it requires a whole other set of skills to even use effectively. Also, it might be difficult to choose the wrong audio driver in the beginning.
KdenLive for video editing, Krita for art, and Blender for 3D stuff are some of the best programs out there. The SteamOS Discover app is fairly well-populated, so you're quite likely to find apps that meet your needs.
The Steam Decks software and hardware will only improve with time. However, I am beginning to savor the convenience of using the device as a transportable computer as well as my need to run Cyberpunk 2077 while waiting for a bus.
The Deck is my go-to portable computing device, which is amazing at playing games. Sure, I'll need to carry a few extra peripherals than a laptop, but I think that's a nice addition to the collection.
The Steam Deck is, in the playful sense of the word, a hacking console as much as a gaming console, the sort of fun Linux-project box Ive been wanting for years now. Im excited to see what else we can do with this wonderfully open and flexible device.