Valve just announced the Steam Deck, its long-rumored Switch-like handheld gaming device. It will begin shipping in December and reservations open July 16th at 1PM ET. It starts at $399, and you can buy it in $529 and $649 models as well.
The device has an AMD APU containing a quad-core Zen 2 CPU with eight threads and eight compute units’ worth of AMD RDNA 2 graphics, alongside 16GB of LPDDR5 RAM. There are three different storage tiers: 64GB eMMC storage for $399, 256GB NVMe SSD storage for $529, and 512GB of high-speed NVME SSD storage for $649, according to Valve. You can also expand the available storage using the high-speed microSD card slot.
The Steam Deck has a huge number of control options. There are two thumbsticks, but also two small, Steam Controller-style trackpads beneath the thumbsticks, which could give you more precision for things like first-person shooters. The front of the Steam Deck also has ABXY buttons, a D-pad, and a 7-inch 1280 x 800 touchscreen for 720p gameplay. The device also has a gyroscope for motion controls. Like the Switch, it has two shoulder triggers on each side, and there are four back buttons (two on each side) as well as built-in microphones.
Here’s a legend to all of the Deck’s ports and controls:
As for the battery, “Steam Deck’s onboard 40 watt-hour battery provides several hours of play time for most games,” Valve says. “For lighter use cases like game streaming, smaller 2D games, or web browsing, you can expect to get the maximum battery life of approximately 7-8 hours.” Valve tells IGN that “You can play Portal 2 for four hours on this thing. If you limit it to 30 FPS, you’re going to be playing for 5-6 hours.”
And if you need to pause your game, the Steam Deck offers a quick suspend / resume feature built into SteamOS that will let you put the device into sleep mode and pick up where you left off later.
Valve will also sell a dock you can use to prop up a Steam Deck and plug it into external displays like a TV. You won’t need a dock to plug it into a TV, though — Valve says that the “Deck can be plugged in to your TV, monitor, or even your old CRT if you have the right cables.” The Deck comes with fully-fledged USB-C ports that contain HDMI, Ethernet and USB data, as well as standard Bluetooth. You’ll have native Bluetooth audio, something that’s missing from the Nintendo Switch.
On the software side of things, the Steam Deck runs what Valve is calling “a new version of SteamOS,” that it’s optimized for the handheld’s mobile form factor. But the actual OS is based on Linux, and will use Proton as a compatibility layer to allow Windows-based games to run without requiring that developers specifically port them for the Steam Deck.
Ultimately, though, the Steam Deck is still a full-fledged Linux computer, meaning that more technical users will be able to jump out to the regular Linux desktop, too. Valve notes that you’ll be able to plug in a mouse, keyboard, and monitor, and install other game stores, regular PC software, browse the web, and more.
Valve says the Steam Deck’s features are designed to emulate the regular Steam app on desktop, complete with chat, notifications, cloud save support, and all of your library, collections, and favorites kept in sync. And if you want more power, you’ll be able to stream games to the Steam Deck directly from your gaming PC using Valve’s Remote Play feature.
When reservations for all three versions open on Friday afternoon, they’ll initially be available only to accounts with purchases on Steam before June 2021, in a bid to keep reseller bots at bay. There’s also a refundable $5 reservation fee, and one reservation per person. Your reservation isn’t exactly a preorder, but it does put you in line to preorder the system once there’s inventory available.
In December, the first units will be available in the United States, Canada, the European Union, and the United Kingdom, with other areas following in 2022. The preorder invitations are supposed to go out before December, and if you miss your window on the invite, your reservation fee will be refunded to your Steam Wallet.
IGN also got an interview with Valve’s Gabe Newell, who said that Valve designed the whole system with “very aggressive” pricing in mind, calling it a “critical” and “painful” aspect of development. That’s a different strategy than Valve took with the Valve Index VR headset, when it intentionally tried to push the industry forward with what was then the most expensive consumer-grade VR experience, at $999. Here, a $400 entry-level Steam Deck comes in just $50 more expensive than Nintendo’s new OLED-equipped Switch, which goes on preorder for $350 today and ships October 8th. (Valve swooped in on that.)
Valve’s Greg Coomer told IGN that should the Steam Deck succeed, the company’s already thinking about future models, and offering the “building blocks” to other manufacturers as well. “We look at this as just a new category of device in the PC space,” he said. That might bring back echoes of Valve’s failed Steam Machines initiative, in which it tried to encourage partners to build desirable Linux gaming desktops, but with key differences.
This time, Valve has created its own hardware first, it doesn’t need to sell every game developer on Linux ports, and this “category” of PC already exists to some degree: we’ve written about how Windows portables have been edging closer to the dream of a Nintendo Switch-like gaming PC.
While Valve has already announced that the Steam Deck will support dual-booting between SteamOS and Windows 10, new info from a Steam Deck designer has also revealed that Valve is working with AMD to help ensure support for Windows 11 as well.
In a recent interview with Valve’s Greg Coomer, one of the Steam Deck’s designers, PC Gamer learned that while Valve’s main focus so far has been on optimizing Steam OS and the Steam Deck’s performance when running Windows 10, Valve is also leaning on insight from AMD to help ensure support for Microsoft’s next OS too, which is due out sometime later this fall.
In regards to Windows 11, Coomer said “We’ve focused so much on Windows 10, so far, that we haven’t really gotten that far into it. Our expectation is that we can meet that.”
One of the issues for Valve is that some of the new hardware requirements like TPM chips that are expected to be part of Windows 11 require the company to do some extra work to provide baseline compatibility. That said, Coomer seems optimistic that thanks to the collaboration between Valve and AMD (who is making the custom APU slated for use in the Steam Deck), the Steam Deck should get support for Windows 11.
“It’s also a conversation that’s going on with AMD, to make sure that, at the BIOS level, we can accommodate that. So there’s nothing to indicate to us yet that there’ll be any issues with Windows 11,” said Coomer.
Out of the box, the Steam Deck is slated to run the latest version of Valve’s Linux-based Steam OS, which uses a compatibility layer called Proton when playing games that don’t have native Linux support. And while Valve has been clear that its focus with the Steam Deck will be to deliver the best experience when gaming on SteamOS, support for both Windows 10 and 11 remains quite important, especially because right now it’s unclear if anti-cheat protocols in games like Apex Legends, Gears 5, and others will function properly outside of Windows.
In one of its FAQs about the Steam Deck, Valve says “We’re working with BattlEye and EAC to get support for Proton ahead of launch.” So even though Steam OS will be the default OS for the Steam Deck, it’s really encouraging to see Valve also looking to beef up the Steam Deck’s compatibility with Windows 10 and 11. Not only will this move potentially provide gamers with more options when it comes to playing a wide range of titles, but it also reinforces the ethos that the Steam Deck is much more open and flexible compared to more locked down console alternatives like the Nintendo Switch, which is something Valve founder Gabe Newell has been talking about a lot.
Unfortunately, unlike the Nintendo Switch, according to another story from PC Gamer, it appears that the Steam Deck doesn’t have a performance boost setting when connected to a dock. This means the Steam Deck should provide similar performance in handheld mode or when connected to an external display, which might be a bummer for people dreaming about playing games on a big 4K TV with the Steam Deck.
Coomer explains Valve’s thought process by saying “We really wanted to prioritize for using it in what we thought would be the highest use case, which is actually mobile. And so since we were focusing on that, and we chose like a threshold where the machine will run well, and with a good frame rate with AAA games in that scenario. We didn’t really feel like we should target also going after the dock scenario at higher resolutions. We wanted a simpler design target and to prioritize that.”
And while Coomer says that it might be possible to create a higher power mode for the Steam Deck when docked, currently it’s not a “high priority design target.”
So while new info about the Steam Deck is trickling out as we get closer to its official launch sometime before the end of the year, the excitement about an upcoming handheld gaming machine built for the PC crowd continues to grow. Some of Valve’s early gaming hardware like the Steam Controller may have been somewhat clunky (especially at launch), but the Steam Deck is quickly shaping up to become Valve’s second attempt to make its Steam Machines initiative from back in 2014 a reality, and this time, it just might work.