Valve to deal another hand in the hardware game with Steam Deck

Valve's new Steam Deck hand held console

A little while ago, Gabe Newell gave a cryptic answer to a question about Valve’s relationship with the console market.  Asked whether there would be more ports coming from Valve onto consoles or if they would continue to stay on PC, the Steam head honcho responded “You will get a better idea of that by the end of this year and it won’t be the answer you expect.  You’ll say, ‘Ah-ha!  Now I get what he was talking about.”

Now we seemingly have an actual answer to that question and it is definitely something that not many people would have guessed at.  The Steam Deck will be a new hand-held device, allowing you access to your Steam library (as well as much more) on the go, be that on a plane, train, the local park or your lavatory.

Valve have no doubt seen the incredible success that the Switch has had, not only for games that come out of the Nintendo factory, and have decided they want in on the action.  This seems like a massively smart move from Valve too, with none of the other big players really trying to muscle in on the market and offer an alternative to the Switch.

Looking at the outside of the device, this could almost be a modern Sega Game Gear.  A chunky looking thing that at first glance looks like it isn’t too concerned with its aesthetics.  On closer examination though, we have some curves in the right places that might make it appear as if it might be a little more pleasing to hold for extended periods of time than the rather pins and needles inducing Switch.  There is also plenty of buttons and controls featured, with the usual that you would expect from a modern controller (2 analogue sticks, 4 face buttons, a couple “start” buttons, a trigger and bumper button on the left and right hand side of the device).  There are also two buttons at the bottom of the device, one saying “STEAM” on it, presumably to quickly access the Steam interface and another that has three dots, perhaps for further options. 

Steam Deck playing Factorio

Nothing particular unusual there, but we then come to some of the more interesting extra buttons.  On each side of the back where your fingers will naturally rest you will find a couple of buttons.  Then, because it wouldn’t be Valve hardware device without them, you have touchpad controls on both sides of the screen, likely to allow for mouse focused games to be more playable.

With the excellent controller customisation that is present in Steam already, expect plenty of custom made button layouts to be created for this thing by the community.  With the wide range of control options available, there are bound to be layouts that will meet what works for you.

Away from the controls, we have a 7” LED screen.  Perhaps a little disappointing to hear after Nintendo using the superior OLED tech for its new version of the Switch, but it sounds like this device will have pretty good brightness, going up to 400 nits.  The resolution is going to be 1280×800 (using the slightly unusual ratio of 16:10).  This is basically the same as the Switch’s 1280×720, which has proven to be adequate, although certainly not great.  More goes into a good looking screen than a resolution though and this is something that can’t really be judged until seen in person.  The extra brightness should help, but worth holding onto judgements until we see how it turns out in practice.

The other specs we have been given tell us that it will be operating with AMD architecture.  Zen 2 specifically, so not the latest.  It will be featuring 4 cores (8 threads) clocked at 2.4-3.5GHz.  This will go with 16GB of LPDDR5 RAM, so that side of things is going to be reasonably nippy. 

For its graphics, it will be using an 8 RDNA 2 CUs, clocked at 1-1.66Ghz.  They say that this will be capable of up to 1.6TFlops.  For comparison, the PS5 is specced for 10.29TFlops, so quite a significant amount more.  Don’t expect this thing to be a beast of a machine.

Worth remembering though, the resolution that this will be going for is quite a bit lower than those next gen consoles.  Plus, it is 60% faster than the Switch, which is around 1TFlop.  These things aren’t exact sciences either, so there is no doubt plenty of other technical wizardry going on inside to get the best possible performance and we can’t say just how well this device will work with the latest games until people start getting their hands on it.  If you aren’t too worried about the latest blockbusters though and want this just for indies and retro games than you shouldn’t need to concern yourself too much with the power.

The back of the Steam Deck, showing the rear finger buttons, triggers and bumpers

Storage is another area that might possibly of concern.  Coming in three different models, storage will be the only thing that differentiates them.  The smallest will be 64GB eMMC storage.  The larger models will be 256GB and 512Gb of NVMe SSDs using PCIe Gen 3.  On face value, 64Gb is really small and likely will not be worth having unless you are very specific on your requirements and won’t be playing any games that are likely to take up much space.  Having said that, there potentially could be ways for game sizes to be smaller, if there is incentive for developers to go in that direction.  Particularly with this device’s lower resolution, downloading huge textures to the Deck is likely pointless.  Adding additional download versions will require a little more work, but it certainly isn’t outside the realms of possibility.  The Deck will also feature a microSD card slot, so you can expand the size yourself.  Valve have said that they have worked quite a lot on making this as fast as possible, so depending on how well they have done with that the size might be moot point.

The other area that is worth mentioning is the compatibility of the games.  Valve have been quick to say that this will not be a closed system and that users will be free to download and install any software they like, including Windows.  That could be useful, as the device will be running SteamOS, Valve’s modified Linux.  Game support for Linux has always been patchy at best, particularly with AAA games.  Valve do have an answer for that with Proton, a layer that is automatically applied to improve compatibility.  No personal experience of trying this out, but reports are mostly positive (see ProtonDB for list of tested games), except for games that feature anti-cheat software.  This cuts out most multiplayer games.  Again, Valve have addressed this point and said they are working on a new version of Proton that should resolve this problem before the Deck is released.  When the big selling point of the device is that you can access your Steam library anywhere and then only half the games work that is definitely a problem, so this is something that might worth waiting on reports to see how much it will be an issue.

The fact that you will be able to install Windows though, along with any store you want, is fantastic.  This makes the library potentially huge presumably with no more headaches to accessing than you would from a regular PC.  There is also the possibility of running emulators on this thing, putting to shame the mediocre effort that Nintendo have put into their NES and SNES offering with Nintendo Online.

Release date for the Steam Deck will be December 2021 for United States, Canada, EU and UK.  Other regions will follow in 2022.  Price will £349/$399 for 64GB, £459/$529 for 256GB and £569/$649 for the 512GB.  This includes a case. A dock to connect to monitor or TV will be sold separately. Reservations open today.

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