Table of Contents
One constant through Valve’s introduction of the Steam Deck has been the company’s claim that it is your PC, and you can do what you want with it. While the gaming handheld comes with Valve’s own Linux-based SteamOS installed on it, you can, if you want, install Windows on the Steam Deck.
So we took our Steam Deck review unit, put Windows 10 on it, and gave it a whirl. While there are some definite advantages to the openness that Windows brings, there are also significant drawbacks that you should be aware of. And, in typical Tom’s Hardware fashion, we’ve also re-run our benchmarks to see how gaming on Windows compares to SteamOS (on this hardware, anyway).
Here, we’re using Windows 10, rather than Windows 11. As of this writing, the BIOS on the Steam Deck doesn’t support firmware TPM, which makes it difficult to install Windows 11 without engaging in some bypasses. That support is coming in a future BIOS revision, Valve has said.
Additionally, while Valve has dropped drivers for the GPU, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, one critical component is missing: the speakers. That means that until those drivers are released, the only way to hear your games, music or anything else will be to connect wireless headphones or speakers over Bluetooth, or wired ones with USB Type-C.
Steam Deck Performance on Windows
I assumed that given the same hardware, games run on Windows would almost always run better than games on SteamOS. That’s because unless games are Linux native, SteamOS games use the Proton compatibility layer to operate.
But that wasn’t always the case. Some games actually performed better on SteamOS.
In our Steam Deck review, we benchmarked Shadow of the Tomb Raider, Red Dead Redemption 2, Horizon Zero Dawn, Borderlands 3, Civilization VI and Guardians of the Galaxy. Of those, three ran largely better on Windows, while the other three ran better through SteamOS (in part because one game wouldn’t run in Windows at all due to driver issues).
On the Shadow of the Tomb Raider benchmark, which is a Linux native game on the SteamOS side, the title mostly ran two to three frames ahead on Windows. The exception was the highest graphics setting, where the two versions were one frame apart, with SteamOS coming out ahead.
We ran Red Dead Redemption 2 at the game’s lowest settings, and at 44 frames per second, the Windows version was a few frames behind the SteamOS version, running through Proton. The Windows version also had some other issues. For instance, it refused to let me change the resolution, but always appeared to run at 1280 x 800 despite what it claimed. The game also wouldn’t launch without me connecting Bluetooth headphones. It ends up that Red Dead Redemption 2 won’t launch without audio, and the Steam Deck is missing those drivers.
On the Horizon Zero Dawn benchmark, the game ran better on Windows across graphics presets. The delta was the largest on the “Favor Performance” setting, with Windows running the game at 56 fps, eight frames ahead of the 48-fps result on the Steam Deck. Those differences shrank in scale with higher presets (at Ultimate quality, it was just a three-frame difference), but Windows always came out ahead.
Borderlands 3‘s benchmark showed the largest differences in Windows 10’s favor. At “very low” settings, the game ran at 68 fps on Windows compared to 56 fps on SteamOS, and was a few frames ahead through each subsequent preset. On high settings, the game ran at 34 fps, making it at least playable, which we couldn’t say about the game at 28 fps through SteamOS.
Civilization VI was effectively a wash, but if you’re counting strictly, it fell in favor of SteamOS. The game typically ran one to two frames ahead in SteamOS.
Where is Guardians of the Galaxy in all of this? It wouldn’t run on Windows. The game threw up an error message that it couldn’t detect a D3D12 driver, suggesting an issue with support for DirectX 12 (other games we ran with DX12 didn’t have any problems.)
When we tested the Steam Deck initially, we couldn’t run Metro Exodus‘s benchmark, because it’s a separate executable in the Windows version. But on Windows, that wasn’t a problem. We booted up HWInfo and got recording. We use that benchmark as a stress test, running it 15 times to simulate half an hour of gaming. In this case, we ran it on the low preset at the native 1280 x 800 resolution.
HWInfo, however, still isn’t totally ready for the custom “Aerith” APU in the Steam Deck. It was only able to capture CPU clock speeds. During the stress test, the CPU cores ran at an average of 2.62 GHz. Temperatures and GPU clocks weren’t exposed. Throughout the 15 Metro Exodus runs, the game ran at an average frame rate of 64.61 fps.
In our review, we also ran Geekbench through the KDE Plasma desktop. Here, we ran it again in Windows 10. The Linux version threw up slightly higher single-core and multi-core scores than the Windows version, but nothing I find intensely worrying.
The Windows Experience on Steam Deck
While games may run well enough on a 7-inch 1280 x 800 display, desktop operating systems really need a bit more breathing room. I felt the same way about the KDE Plasma desktop on SteamOS; I was glad to have access to it, but I wouldn’t want to use it regularly using just the built-in controls and screen.
One of the biggest benefits of SteamOS is that it was designed with both touch and the built-in controller in mind. Windows, despite changes made to make it more touch friendly, wasn’t made for a screen this small.
You can get around Windows with the controls, but there’s a learning curve. The right control stick or touch pad (Go for the pad, trust me) can move the mouse around. The left stick can move through selections in menus, while the right touchpad lets you scroll either vertically or horizontally.
One thing that took me a while to get used to is that the right trigger is a left click, while the left trigger is a right click. This might make sense if you’re playing a first person shooter, where the right trigger is typically set to fire, but I found it confusing here.
Either way, I did find that sometimes the controls would freeze, especially when launching programs. It’s weird to have your mouse hang, but sometimes the touchpads — including the haptics — would freeze up.
There is a touch keyboard in Windows 10, but there’s also the option for the Steam keyboard overlay, which lets you use each of the two touchpads to pick letters. As long as Steam is open, you can trigger that by pressing on the thumb sticks.
In Windows 10, the Action Center will be your friend. You’ll want to expand all of the options so that you have quick access to the brightness slider and Bluetooth connection options. I wish you could bind these to the “…” button on the hardware, which is otherwise useless in Windows 10. For now, if you’re playing a game and want to adjust an option, you have to back out to the desktop to make these changes.
The “Steam” button also does nothing, with one big exception: Big Picture Mode in Steam. Like SteamOS itself, this was designed to be used with a controller. When in a game, the Steam button brings up the Big Picture mode overlay for controller options, the keyboard overlay and to exit the game easily.
Those controller options also let you bind a shortcut for screenshots while playing Steam games. But the Windows Screenshot tool is heavily dependent on the Windows + Shift + S shortcut, which effectively makes it a no-go without a keyboard.
Big Picture Mode is the closest you’ll get to SteamOS. It also provides some of the controller configurations you get with SteamOS, giving Steam a bit of an edge over other stores, even on Windows.
But the biggest benefit to installing Windows on your Steam Deck is that you can install launchers other than Steam. Epic Games, Origin, GOG Galaxy, Rockstar Games and others are all fair game. If you have PC Game Pass, those games will work, too, as will games that don’t run on SteamOS due to anti-cheat issues.
You could even install a library manager like Playnite to launch games from any launcher in one place. (But you have to trust them. Playnite, for instance, requires your logins for other launchers to sync everything.)
I imagine, in time, that the community of Steam Deck users may end up coming up with its own software and fixes to issues the Steam Deck has with Windows. It wouldn’t be the first time that when no one supports something, the users do. But there’s no timeframe on when Steam Deck users and developers may coalesce around fixing issues, but Valve has already said that it is”unfortunately unable to offer ‘Windows on Deck’ support.”
SteamOS or Windows?
There’s no doubt, the Steam Deck is a better experience when it’s running SteamOS. It fits the hardware and has quick access to any setting you may want to change mid-game.
Windows, by contrast, doesn’t have the same support, and Valve says it won’t be providing it. It works, and some games even run better on it. But you’ll have to jump through more hoops to make it work. You’ll get the benefit of the freedom that the PC ecosystem provides, including more launchers and games that aren’t on Steam.
The ideal, to me, would be dual booting. Valve has said it is working on a SteamOS installer that will allow for it, but the company hasn’t announced any timing. Right now, it’s an all-or-nothing situation with the SSD. SteamOS or Windows. Pick one.
Ideally, you could keep your Steam library on SteamOS with a small Windows partition for Epic Games, PC Game Pass or other launchers. Right now, the closest you can do is to install Windows on an SD card. We haven’t run performance tests there, but going that route should let you easily swap between Windows and SteamOS by changing the boot device. You can learn how to do that in our tutorial if you want to try it out.
If your entire library is on Steam, there’s no reason to switch. But the PC ecosystem has always been about openness, so while the Windows experience is rougher around the edges than I would like, I’m grateful that it works. I have plenty of free games I’ve downloaded from Epic and I ought to get to them eventually.