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Some Early Steam Deck Owners Report Joystick Drift (Update: Valve Responds)

Steam Deck
(Image credit: Valve)

While you may have thought you were lucky to be in the first batch of Steam Deck orders, a few early owners are reporting that their handhelds have joystick drift after just a little bit of use.

At least three separate posts on the topic have been made to Reddit's r/steamdeck, a dedicated forum for the new gaming PC. Two of them show the issue in settings, where you can test all of the inputs on the built-in controller. The third shows the mouse moving largely on its own in the settings menu for Civilization VI. Wario64 on Twitter first highlighted some of these complaints. At least one other complaint hatt, showing the left joystick, has popped up on Twitter.

Update, March 1, 8:25 p.m. ET: Valve, however, says the issue has to do with calibration.

"The team has looked into these reports and has determined there was a deadzone calibration issue introduced in a recent firmware update," Lawrence Yang, a developer on the Steam Deck said in a statement to Tom's Hardware. "We have just shipped a fix to address the problem, and the team will continue to watch for reports related to this issue."

The original story continues below.

experiencing_stick_drift_on_the_right_stick from r/SteamDeck
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It is unclear how widespread this issue is. Steam Deck units just started being delivered this week, and complaints seem few and far between. Reviewers didn't complain about drift in reviews, either. We have double checked our review unit, which isn't showing any signs of joystick drift.

In an interview with IGN last July, Steam Deck designers said it was doing its best to ensure the reliability of its joysticks.

"We purposely picked something that we knew the performance of, right?" designer John Ikeda told IGN. "We didn't want to take a risk on that, right? As I'm sure our customers don't want us to take a risk on that either."

Drifting joysticks are inevitable; almost every controller exhibits the issue eventually, often due to dust embedding itself in the controller or degradation from regular wear and tear. What's unique here is that it's happening to some people so soon after purchasing their Steam Decks.

In 2019, complaints about drifting Joy-Sticks on Nintendo's Joy-Con controllers for the Nintendo Switch led to a class action lawsuit. Those issues popped up over time, rather than largely at once.

An iFixit teardown and a video from Valve  showed that the Steam Deck's joysticks can be replaced. IFixit will be selling replacement parts, but whether or not joysticks will be included in the kit has yet to be announced.

Andrew E. Freedman is a senior editor at Tom's Hardware focusing on laptops, desktops and gaming. He also keeps up with the latest news. A lover of all things gaming and tech, his previous work has shown up in Tom's Guide, Laptop Mag, Kotaku, PCMag and Complex, among others. Follow him on Twitter: @FreedmanAE

  • InvalidError
    The JoyCon drift is caused by the analog controls using a simple variable resistor to sense joystick position which is extremely susceptible to any variation in resistor wiper contact characteristic, carbon/polymer track wear, contamination, etc. If the Steam Deck used the same thing, then premature failure is inevitable. Older analog controls used potentiometers where the wiper reads voltage along the resistor track, which makes it far more resilient to most crap at the expense of requiring constant power.
    Reply
  • peachpuff
    InvalidError said:
    The JoyCon drift is caused by the analog controls using a simple variable resistor to sense joystick position which is extremely susceptible to any variation in resistor wiper contact characteristic, carbon/polymer track wear, contamination, etc. If the Steam Deck used the same thing, then premature failure is inevitable. Older analog controls used potentiometers where the wiper reads voltage along the resistor track, which makes it far more resilient to most crap at the expense of requiring constant power.
    So a financial tradeoff?
    Reply
  • InvalidError
    peachpuff said:
    So a financial tradeoff?
    I do not believe there is a meaningful cost difference between a variable resistor and a potentiometer, especially when printed on a flex PCB that does X+Y+button. All you need is an extra ground or power trace.
    Reply
  • Sleepy_Hollowed
    This is sadly almost expected.

    The only controller I used in the past that did not suffer from this was the gamecube, but that console was built like a tank on the controller front.

    On more recent consoles, the PS4 controller MAYBE, but then again I abuse it much less (have much less time to play) than older consoles.
    Reply
  • Alvar "Miles" Udell
    Something I don't understand is why controllers aren't designed to have easily replaceable joysticks? Sure it may add a little into the cost but to be able to quickly unlock, remove, and plug in a new replacement joystick module would solve a lot of headaches...
    Reply
  • sizzling
    Sleepy_Hollowed said:
    This is sadly almost expected.

    The only controller I used in the past that did not suffer from this was the gamecube, but that console was built like a tank on the controller front.

    On more recent consoles, the PS4 controller MAYBE, but then again I abuse it much less (have much less time to play) than older consoles.
    I would not expect it from new which is the case here. I’ve had many XBox controllers over the years and none had it from new, a few did develop it after much use.
    Reply
  • InvalidError
    Alvar Miles Udell said:
    Something I don't understand is why controllers aren't designed to have easily replaceable joysticks? Sure it may add a little into the cost but to be able to quickly unlock, remove, and plug in a new replacement joystick module would solve a lot of headaches...
    It is engineered obsolescence: these things are designed as consumables with a clearly wear-defined lifespan: the wiper contact applies a predetermined pressure to the resistive contact pads with a predetermined smoothness, which causes a very repeatable amount of wear per amount of wiper travel, a repeatable amount of dust and a fairly repeatable travel time to failure.

    In the two-terminal analog circuit, that dust ends up in series with whatever the conductive film resistance at the wiper position should be and becomes part of the readout. In a three terminals potentiometer arrangement, the voltage at the wiper is the same regardless of the amount of crap under the wiper as long as the op-amp reading the voltage has much higher impedance than the potentiometer and wiper dust combined.

    While old-school analog sticks may have required some in-game calibration to reset the dead-zone location and range limits, they hardly ever required replacement.
    Reply
  • pjmelect
    InvalidError said:
    I do not believe there is a meaningful cost difference between a variable resistor and a potentiometer, especially when printed on a flex PCB that does X+Y+button. All you need is an extra ground or power trace.
    A variable resistor and a potentiometer, is just a different name for the same thing.
    The JoyCon drift is caused by the analog controls using a simple variable resistor to sense joystick position which is extremely susceptible to any variation in resistor wiper contact characteristic, carbon/polymer track wear, contamination, etc. If the Steam Deck used the same thing, then premature failure is inevitable. Older analog controls used potentiometers where the wiper reads voltage along the resistor track, which makes it far more resilient to most crap at the expense of requiring constant power.
    Most potentiometers nowadays use a carbon/polymer track although you can get wire wound potentiometers that cost more.
    Reply
  • InvalidError
    pjmelect said:
    A variable resistor and a potentiometer, is just a different name for the same thing.
    While they can be physically identical, they are functionally different: a variable resistor is exactly what the name says with any garbage getting between the wiper and film heavily affecting total resistance while a potentiometer is a voltage divider where both ends of the resistive film are tied to different voltages and the wiper outputs something somewhere in-between based on position along the film and as long as the sense circuit has sufficiently high impedance, garbage between the wiper and film has little to no effect on reading.
    Reply
  • digitalgriffin
    Why oh why don't they use encoders? A micro slit encoder is literally about 1x1cm. Much more reliable and accurate than analog circuits.

    Steam index controllers had the same issue. Still no fix. Eventually you'll have to replace them.

    Also there's an issue with the ear speakers and display port cable. None of which you can easily fix or get parts for.

    Valve has a problem with hardware quality.
    Reply