A few weeks ago, Valve boss Gabe Newell confirmed that the company was working on something console-related, but did not say what it was. We speculated that perhaps they would expand their relationship with Microsoft, bringing the Steam Store to the Xbox consoles in the same way Microsoft wants the Steam Store to enter the Microsoft Store on Windows 11. As it turns out, the company had a much grander plan for entering the space, announcing the Steam Deck handheld gaming computer. This is not to be confused with Elgato's Stream Deck, which is also a gaming product (and one we use in the studio).
What is the Steam Deck?
Think of it as a beefed-up version of the Nintendo Switch, mixed with the company's ill-fated Steam Machines, with a focus on a different breed of gamers. This is a proper computer, running Valve's SteamOS, which was originally created for the epic failure that was the Steam Machine brand. Now, using the same Linux-based operating system and game launcher, you will be able to take your games on the go.
The big promise of these devices is the ability to play the games you already own through your Steam account. As it is the world standard for game distribution, most PC gamers already have a lot of games in their catalog. Using the Steam Deck, you'll be able to play those same games in a portable environment, as well as in a more console-style experience, finally fulfilling the Steam Machine hopes and dreams. The company says that most of the Steam catalog will be available on the devices, even though Linux support is not native for many of the titles.
The device sports a 1.6 teraflop GPU. This would be an impressive stat if it were 2016, as it beats the Xbox One S, which had a 1.4 teraflop GPU, and comes in just under the PlayStation 4's 1.8 teraflop GPU. Unfortunately, the Xbox One X boasted 5.8 teraflops and the PlayStation 4 Pro came in with 4.0 teraflops. It is important to note that all of these devices have been retired in favor of newer, more powerful hardware - save for the Steam Deck. This spec makes it a little more difficult to justify the cost of $399 to $649.
Next up is our faith in the company's focus. As noted, this is the second time Valve has tried to launch hardware running this same operating system. Last time, the products never actually made it to market. In fact, several of the partners gave up and launched these computers running Windows. This time, Valve is not working with partners but instead launching the hardware under its own brand. Other hardware developed by Valve, including the Steam Link device, was never given the love it deserved, and the Steam Controller was... just bad. Will Valve be able to stay focused on this hardware and ecosystem, or will it inevitably see a Windows install to make it useful in the long term? Only time will tell on that one.
The comparison to the Nintendo Switch is obvious, and that leads us to another concern over controller drift. Nintendo has famously had issues with the Joy-Cons for the Switch, and Microsoft and Sony have had significantly less, but still not not zero, issue with their controllers. The Steam Deck is the only one in this list to have the controllers connected to the console, meaning that drift issues would be devastating. You could not easily swap them out, or return just the controller to the company for repair or replacement - you would be out the entire device in this situation.
Video Capabilities and Latency Issues
Because the Steam Deck is designed to work as both a handheld and as a console, its video capabilities become more important. The company says that it can output at 8K running 60 Hz, or 4K running 120 Hz. But, there could be choke points in this setup. For example, video output runs over USB-C, meaning conversion will be involved. This might not limit the overall output, but could lower real world framerate and introduce latency.
In addition to external display issues, there are other points of game latency possible. Controllers connect via Bluetooth, which has proven stable for the PlayStation and Xbox hardware, but performance on PCs can vary widely depending on whose Bluetooth chipset is installed. If a lower quality radio is part of the Steam Deck hardware, external controllers could introduce significant lag, which is felt most severely in fighting games and first-person shooters.
Framerate also has a major impact on battery life. The company says that playing Portal 2 at 30 FPS will result in 50% more playtime than the same game at 60 FPS. This, of course, means that gamers will have to choose between graphics performance and battery performance - a choice that will be difficult for most.
When Can I Get One?
The announcement said that hardware would be shipping in December 2021, with pre-orders opening immediately. After some serious server issues, pre-orders have gone smoothly, though expected delivery dates continue to drift farther from the original date. As of the writing of this article, pre-orders for the top model are estimated to ship in Quarter 3 of 2022. They are going to have to ramp up production if they don't want to be delivering the hardware a year after launch for pre-orders placed this week.