Nintendo dominate the hand-held market. While they technically do fight Microsoft and Sony, and battle against mobile gaming, they’re currently the only option for a proper hand-held console. That reign of power, though, is finally being challenged, not by Microsoft or a returning Sony but rather by Valve, the dominant force in PC gaming. A company with plenty of resources to throw at any project it fancies, stepping into the market and trying to expand PC gaming in a whole new way. Valve are aiming to do something dramatic, something big and something very exciting. Can it succeed?
Starting at £349 for the 64GB version the badly named Steam Deck is going to launch in December of this year and is packing some serious hardware for the cost. A 7″ touchscreen, Bluetooth support, two analogue sticks, a D-pad, face buttons, two touch pads, shoulder buttons and four rear buttons make up this hefty 669g beast, roughly twice the weight of a Nintendo Switch. It’s not small, either, measuring in at 298mm x 117mm x 49mm. It’s big, and with that size comes a slight loss in portability. But the flip-side is a machine that can run stuff like DOOM Eternal at high settings.
There’s no magic trick behind the performance, rather it’s the 7″ screen’s 720p resolution that helps the Deck run so well. While the truth of the technical specifications are far more complex (I’d recommend checking out Digital Foundry’s breakdown,) the simplest and most straightforward comparison to make is that the Deck’s hardware puts it roughly on par with an Xbox One S . Normally that would mean 30FPS or so, but because of the low resolution a small screen can get away with it means the Deck can play something like Jedi: Fallen Order without a hitch, at least according to IGN who have gotten proper hands-on time with the new machine.
Battery life could suffer, though. There’s a substantial 40Wh battery packed into the Deck, but even with that providing the juice Valve are claiming 2-8 hours of battery life depending on the game or task. Personally, however, I’m okay with that because my gaming sessions don’t tend to last more than a few hours at a time. Still, it’s likely to be a power hungry machine, which could be a problem for people who do a lot of commuting and don’t fancy having to charge the Deck up constantly.
If you want to get some better storage, and you will unless you purely play small indie titles because 64GB is a pretty measly offering for PC games, then there are a few options. You can opt to buy the pricier version of the Deck, at £459/$529 for a 250GB SSD and £569/$649 for a 512GB SSD. There’s no other hardware improvements for that money, but the 250GB and 512GB both use NVME storage rather than the 64GBs regular old SSD, meaning faster loading times. The good news is that there’s a cheaper option: the Deck comes with a MicroSD slot, so you can buy a card, slot it in and install everything on that, if you’d like.
According to Valve’s big boss Gabe Newell, hitting that £349 price-point was “painful.” That’s not surprising because that price puts it just £40 above the newly announced Switch OLED model, and that £40 gets you a vastly more powerful piece of hardware. In fact, while it was likely purely coincidental the Steam Deck was announced on the same day Switch OLED pre-orders went live, almost making it appear like a direct punch aimed squarely at Mario’s face. Mind you, the comparison is perhaps a tad unjust since you can pick up a Switch Lite for around £190, and a regular Switch for around £270. Keep in mind the Steam Deck doesn’t come with a dock by default, either. More on that later, though.
But the most exciting thing about the Steam Deck is how versatile it is. While it might look like a Switch it’s actually much closer to a PC, just in a compact form. You’re free to install any PC software on it, and you can even wipe the default Steam OS (Linux based) and install Windows, if you prefer. As the Steam Deck website says, “Games are purchased and downloaded using the Steam Store. That said, Steam Deck is a PC so you can install third party software and operating systems.”
This opens the door for a wide variety of emulators, potentially even letting you play old Nintendo games that Nintendo haven’t released for the Switch. The most intriguing prospect to me, however, is that you can theoretically use Game Pass with it, installing whatever you fancy from the extensive library straight onto your Deck and playing on the go. If that’s correct and you can stick the Game Pass app onto the Deck, then, Hell, Microsoft are essentially getting a hand-held Game Pass machine out of this without having to spend money on creating hardware.
Oh, and since Sony are now in the PC gaming scene with stuff like Days Gone already out and much more to come, that means the Steam Deck is going to be a sort of Sony handheld as well. How freaking cool is that? Can you imagine being able to play Horizon: Zero Dawn on a handheld machine without needing to stream it? Just the thought of it makes me all tingly in my special place.
As for the SteamOS, Valve are claiming it has been heavily reworked for the Deck and is running a much-improved version of Proton, a piece of software designed to help games run on Linux. “On Steam Deck, your games run on a different operating system than the one on your desktop PC. It’s a new version of SteamOS, built with Steam Deck in mind and optimized for a handheld gaming experience. It comes with Proton, a compatibility layer that makes it possible to run your games without any porting work needed from developers. For Deck, we’re vastly improving Proton’s game compatibility and support for anti-cheat solutions by working directly with the vendors,” says the Steam Deck website.
If those claims are true it’s good news for developers since they won’t have to go out of their way to make their titles work on the new hand-held. They can simply publish to Steam like normal and anyone with a Steam Deck can play it. Still, the SteamOS on PC never gained much traction, and I’m not a fan personally, so Valve will have their work cut-out to prove their operating system, especially when if and when users start installing third-party software.
The versatility of the Deck extends outside of gaming, too. Using any USB-C adapter or the official Deck dock that Valve are developing you can hook the Deck up to a monitor or TV. Gaming performance will suffer when you ramp the resolution up, obviously, but since the Deck is basically a computer you can plug in a mouse and keyboard and use it for work or browsing the Web or just about anything else. The official dock even comes with three USB ports and a Ethernet port. While it won’t be as good for productivity as a more traditional laptop, then, it does make the Steam Deck an interesting proposition as an entry level gaming PC that you can use when travelling, and then plug into a screen at home to browse the web, check out some videos and do some simple work tasks.
“You can also install and use PC software, of course. Browse the web, watch streaming video, do your normal productivity stuff, install some other game stores, whatever.” states Valve while tossing its hair and casually leaning against a wall.
I don’t just want to heap praise upon the Steam Deck, though, because I do have some concerns that will only be alleviated once I get my grubby hands on it. Based on the pictures I have doubts about how comfortable the machine is. Looking at the photos and video, both the D-pad and the face buttons sit extremely close to the very edge of the Deck. The rightmost button is the big offender, actually going over the edge a touch. And then small thumb sticks sit really high up on the machine as well, which could be another issue. Yeah, I just don’t know if this chunky-boi is going to be nice to hold in the hands and play games on for long periods of time. IGN claims it’s fine, mind you.
The other big concern is Valve. As a company they’ve ventured into hardware a few times now with the Steam Link, the Steam Controller and Steam Machines, and have quickly abandoned all three projects. The Link hasn’t been updated in ages, the Controller is barely mentioned and Steam Machines died out faster than a Lemming suffering from depression. Their track-record in the hardware field does not inspire great confidence, and I’d hate to see anybody who buys a Deck getting abandoned because the machine doesn’t meet Valve’s definition of success. Although, even if Valve do ditch the Deck you should still be able to use it to play Steam games for a long time to come. Hopefully.
The final concern is the same one facing most of the industry right now: component availability. The Deck is using AMD hardware, which is what the PS5 and Xbox Series S/X are using, both of which have been suffering from the shortage of chips. The initial pre-orders are already sold out, and according to the official website the next batch of orders won’t be up until Q1 2022.
Maybe I’m hyping myself up too much but I do believe this is one of the most exciting developments the industry has seen in quite some time. While the Switch is a great console and continues to sell like crazy there’s a growing number of people who feel that Nintendo are growing stagnant, so it’s great to see some competition in the hand-held market. While I’m not sure if this can find anywhere near the level of success as Nintendo’s premier console, especially since Nintendo have the advantage of just being Nintendo and having a list of exclusive IP, I do think the Deck will be an incredibly tempting piece of hardware for a certain audience. Whether that will translate into enough sales is impossible to tell, but I don’t think that stops the Steam Deck from being interesting, exciting and even a potential game-changer. There’s so much potential packed into this one device, and that makes the tech geek in me scream like a little girl.