Valve is getting into the handheld gaming space with the launch of the new Steam Deck. It’s basically a gaming computer that you can hold in your hands… or a PC that looks a bit like a Nintendo Switch.
The Steam Deck went up for pre-order starting July 16th, with prices starting at $399 for a model with entry-level specs. But customers can pay more if they want additional (and faster) storage. The Steam Deck should begin shipping in
December February, 2022.
The Steam Deck features a 7 inch, 1280 x 800 pixel touchscreen LCD display sandwiched between two game controllers. The screen has a 60 Hz refresh rate and supports up to 400 nits of brightness.
Under the hood, the Steam Deck features 16GB of LPDDR5 memory, 64GB to 512GB of storage, and an custom low-power AMD processor which features:
- CPU: AMD Zen 2 with 4 cores, 8 threads (2.4 GHz to 3.5 GHz for up to 448 GFlops performance)
- GPU: 8 x AMD RDNA 2 compute units (1 – 1.6 GHz for up to 1.6 TFlops)
- Power consumption: 4 – 15 watts
Valve says the custom chip is code-named Aerith, and while it only have 1GB of dedicated video memory, it can access up to 8GB of shared LPDDR5 memory with a bandwidth of 88 GB/s.
While it’s a low-power chip designed for use in a handheld, Valve says it performs the same whether the Steam Deck is running on battery power or plugged in, and the company didn’t put any artificial performance constraints on the processor… but recommends developers consider capping frame rates on their games in order to extend battery life.
The Steam Deck may only have the graphics performance of an entry-level discrete GPU like NVIDIA’s GeForce MX450, that processing power should go a long way on a device with a 1280 x 800 pixel display since there’s no need to render 1080o or higher res graphics. And Valve is also allowing developers to upload versions of their games to Steam that are optimized for lower-resolution displays in order to reduce the storage needs and speed up download times for Steam Deck users.
The Steam Deck measures 298 x 117 x 49mm (11.7″ x 4.6″ x 2″) and weighs 669 grams (1.5 pounds) and packs a 40 Wh battery that Valve says should be good for up to 7-8 hours of web browsing or several hours of game play.
You can charge it via a 45W USB Type-C power adapter, and the Steam Deck’s USB-C port also supports DisplayPort 1.4 Alt-mode, meaning you can connect it to an 8K/60Hz display, a 4K/120Hz display if you want to game on the big screen. Alternately you can connect up to two 4K/60Hz displays.
Other ports include a 3.5mm audio jack and a microSD card reader, and the Steam Deck has dual microphones and dual speakers.
The game controllers feature most of the usual buttons you’d expect including dual analog sticks, X, Y, A, and B buttons, shoulder trigger buttons, and a D-Pad. But there are also trackpads on each side of the screen, which can come in handy if you’re playing games that normally require a mouse. This is a carry-over from Valve’s discontinued Steam Controller.
There are also View & Menu buttons which could be useful for navigation.
If you’re wondering what exactly you’ll be navigating, other than games, it’s SteamOS. Valve’s computer will ship with a custom GNU/Linux distribution based on Arch Linux and featuring the KDE Plasma desktop and Valve’s custom user interface.
SteamOS first debuted years ago when Valve was making a push to work with third-party PC makers to deliver “Steam Machines,” or compact desktop computers that customers could use like game consoles, but with support for PC games downloaded from the Steam store.
Steam Machines never really took off. But Valve did port the Steam game client to work with Linux, encouraged many developers to port their games to Linux, and even built on existing open source tools to release Proton, a tool that allows many Windows PC games to run on Linux without any modifications at all.
And that all could give Valve an edge in the handheld gaming PC space over competitors… and there are competitors. In recent years two Chinese companies have released a number of handheld gaming computers that feature the guts of laptop stuffed into compact chassis designed to be carried around.
GPD and One Netbook have sort of dominated this space, with a little recent competition from AYA, but their devices are also aimed at enthusiasts willing to drop as much as $1,000 on a handheld gaming device from a Chinese company with limited presence outside of their home countries.
You can see how the Steam Deck stacks up against the competition in our comparison table.
Valve’s Steam Deck is a little more expensive than a Nintendo Switch (even the new OLED model). But it’s cheaper than most GPD or One Netbook devices, and it’s also backed by a company that’s made a name for itself in gaming. SteamOS may not support all Windows PC games, but it will support many of them.
And since the Steam Deck is basically a PC, you can install Windows or other operating systems on it, as IGN confirmed.
And if the little computer doesn’t have enough horsepower for the titles you want to play, you can always use it to stream games from a more powerful PC using Steam’s remote play service.
I don’t expect GPD or One Netbook to give up without a fight. But positioning the Steam Deck as a mobile gaming PC with a starting price of $399 will put a lot of pressure on those companies to offer lower-cost devices and/or features that Valve’s handheld doesn’t match.
That said, the entry-level version of the Steam Deck has just 64GB of eMMC storage. If you want more & faster storage, you have to pay extra. Here are the pricing options:
- 64GB eMMC for $399
- 256GB PCIe NVMe for $529
- 512GB PCIe NVMe for $649
All three models have an M.2 2230 socket, so you could theoretically buy the cheapest model and add your own SSD. But Valve does say that the SSDs are “not intended for end-user replacement,” suggesting that you’ll have to open the case and potentially void your warranty to perform upgrades, since there’s no easy access slot. Upgrades are possible, but not necessarily easy.
The good news is that Valve says you can also expand storage via an SD card, and the company says that while games load more slowly from eMMC or SD card storage than from an NVMe SSD, the performance hit isn’t that big:
- Games load 12% slower from eMMC storage.
- Games load 18% slower from an SD card.
- A Steam Deck with eMMC storage takes 25% longer to boot than one with an NVMe SSD.
All three models also come with a carrying case, but the most expensive model also comes with “premium anti-glare etched glass” and has an “exclusive virtual keyboard theme” if that’s something you think you’ll need.
Valve’s Linux-based SteamOS is another key feature that helps set the Steam Deck apart from the competition. Shipping a handheld gaming PC with a custom operating system focused on gaming gives Valve more control over the user interface and performance of its device, while also helping keep costs down since the company doesn’t have to pay for a Windows license.
The Steam Deck will ship with a new version of the operating system called SteamOS 3 with an updated user interface that’s been optimized for small, handheld devices.
Among other things, there’s a new home screen layout, a universal search feature, a notification area that can be accessed with the press of a hardware button, and a mobile-friendly virtual keyboard. There’s also a new Steam Input configurator.
SteamOS 3 is based on Arch Linux and currently uses Linux kernel 5.13, but Valve is working on an update to version 5.15 of the Linux kernel. The operating system features an immutable OS filesystem by default, which means that Valve will release operating system updates as complete OS images. But users can enter developer mode to change the filesystem to read/write if they want to make changes or install packages the same way they would on other GNU/Linux distributions.
And although many Windows PC games don’t natively support Linux, Valve has been a leader in both encouraging developers to create native Linux ports and developing Proton software that allows many Windows titles to run on Linux without any additional work from developers.
The company is also now giving developers the option to take advantage of new APIs that will make PC gaming a little more console-like. For example, instead of just synchronizing user’s saved data to the cloud when they exit games, developers can now add an option for saving when a Steam Deck is suspended, allowing users to suspend and resume the Steam Deck without losing any data and quickly get back to where they left off when the system wakes up.
While SteamOS 3.0 is made with the Steam Deck in mind, the new user interface will also replace Steam’s Big Picture UI for the company’s desktop clients in the future, making the Steam experience more unified across platforms and allowing Valve to roll out updates more quickly.
Other features built for the Steam Deck will also be coming to the company’s desktop clients. For example, the new controller settings configurator will have the same user interface on desktop and laptop systems as it does on handhelds.
Valve will also sell an official dock accessory that’s basically a USB-C hub and stand that gives you additional ports including HDMI, DisplayPort, and Ethernet jacks. Pricing and availability details haven’t been announced yet.
The Steam Deck will be available in the US, Canada, UK, and European Union at launch, before eventually expanding to additional markets.
|Valve Steam Deck Specs|
|CPU||AMD Zen 2|
|GPU||AMD RDNA 2|
|Other buttons & switches|
|Battery & charging|
|Webcam & mic||Mic only|
|OS||Steam OS (Arch Linux with KDE Plasma)|
|Dimensions||298mm x 117mm x 49mm|
11.7″ x 4.6″ x 1.9″
This article was originally published July 15, 2021 and last updated November 13, 2021.