Valve is taking another stab at the console market with the Steam Deck, and comparisons to the Nintendo Switch were both immediate and inevitable. But once you go beyond first impressions, you’ll realize that the Deck is something else altogether.
It’s no secret a lot of people were disappointed by the recent announcement of the Nintendo Switch (OLED model). With the Switch struggling to run various games at smooth frame rates and the lack of 4K output, the desire for a “Switch Pro” that would increase the system’s technical capabilities are definitely understandable—regardless if Nintendo ever had plans to release one. But that dream was slashed for now by the OLED model, and Nintendo stating it currently doesn’t have plans to release another new Switch model.
Now we have the Steam Deck, which is also a handheld/home console hybrid that looks extremely similar to the Switch. On top of that, it features superior hardware, meaning this system can provide the performance boosts many players were hoping for out of a “Switch Pro.” But while the Steam Deck is similar to the Switch, it’s no stand-in for it—the goals each system is trying to achieve are wildly different.
While the physical design of the Deck definitely screams “Switch,” that’s about as far the similarities go. Well, besides the dock releasing separately from the Deck that will allow you to plug it into external displays.
The Steam Deck is best thought of as a handheld PC, not just because it runs Steam games, but because by all accounts it’s literally a handheld PC. The Switch is designed to be friendly to casual and hardcore gamers alike, so the design of the system is focused on booting up a game as quickly as possible. Meanwhile, the Deck runs a heavily modified version of Linux called “SteamOS” that allows you to do anything you would do on a Linux machine, on top of quickly booting games through Steam.
This means you can browse the web with your browser of choice, install programs (anything from Discord to GiMP), and even wipe the Deck and install Windows. This freedom extends to peripherals as well, as you can use any USB or Bluetooth accessories you want with this system. Whether it’s a wireless headset, Xbox controller, keyboard and mouse, or even a Nintendo Switch Pro controller, it will all work here. You can do this regardless if you’re playing in docked or handheld mode, but there’s no kickstand on the Deck, so playing with an external controller in handheld mode could be awkward (but I’m sure third-party cases will solve that).
But perhaps the Deck’s most impressive selling point is full access to the Steam catalog. There are no limits here in regards to what games can or can’t be played on the Deck, but performance will vary with different games. And we’ve already seen the Deck is fairly capable when it comes to running modern, AAA titles, with Valve even stating the Deck has handled every game thrown at it so far (in handheld mode specifically).
At the end of the day, the Deck is trying to bring as much of the PC gaming experience on the go as possible. Both for pre-existing PC players who want something portable, or people who have never gotten into PC gaming and want a console-like access point. It’s a great concept, that separates itself from the Switch in many ways—and we’ve only scratched the surface so far.
Going off the specs Valve has already provided for the Steam Deck (which includes an unnamed AMD processor and 16 GB of RAM), it’s safe to say the Deck is considerably more powerful than the Switch. Valve is advertising that the Deck will be able to run all of your Steam games to some extent (mainly targeting a stable 30 FPS), proudly focusing on modern titles like Control and Death Stranding.
The Steam Deck also features a seven-inch, 800p display which is a more important detail when it comes to performance than you may think. 800p is a considerably lower resolution than the standard 1080p many monitors use, meaning the Deck will have an easier time running games in handheld mode than docked. Since it’s a smaller screen, the image will still appear sharp as well (for reference, the Switch uses a 720p, 6.2-inch display). The Deck is also capable of 1080p or even 4K when connected to an external display, but will cost performance. And of course, if you run extremely intensive games you’ll definitely get the lower end of the Deck’s battery life, which ranges anywhere from two to eight hours.
Will the Deck be able to run every game on Steam smoothly in handheld mode? Probably not (there are plenty of poorly optimized games on Steam), but it will outperform the Switch when it comes to modern titles. The library doesn’t have to stop at Steam either, as you can easily run other game launchers (as long as they run on Linux, otherwise you’ll have to install Windows) . Whether it’s the Epic Games Store, itch.io, or Xbox Game Pass, you’ll be able to access it all on the Deck.
The only thing lacking when it comes to game selection is console exclusives on par with the Switch. Nintendo games hold a special place in the hearts of many people and the chances of those games ever coming to PC is slim to none… officially at least. Emulators are a great way to unofficially play older titles from previous console generations whether it’s the Sega Genesis, PlayStation, or Nintendo GameCube. Since emulators are usually built to run on Windows and Linux with relative ease, installing them on the Deck will be no problem.
This level of freedom when it comes to software is a huge benefit of the Deck. No matter what you want to do or play, chances are there’s a way to get it done. When in handheld mode, the Deck puts on an impressive showing while still having enough power to be viable in a home setting as well.
With more power comes a heftier price tag, and that is easily seen with the Deck. Even the cheapest model costs $399.00, while the Switch OLED model (the most expensive Switch model) only costs $349.99.
The different models of the Deck come with a few differences, mostly in storage. The base model comes with 64GB of storage (so twice the base Switch’s storage), the $529.00 model comes with 256GB of faster NVMe storage and a carrying case, and the $649.00 has 512GB of NVMe storage, a case, and a more glare-resistant screen. You can expand the memory of any of the models with a microSD card just like a Switch, which is good because even the premium 512 GB model is a bit low considering the size of modern games.
As previously mentioned, the dock is going to be sold separately (the price is not yet known), and if you want to play local multiplayer, you’ll have to pick up some extra controllers . That could easily add another $100 or so to your final bill depending on how much the dock costs, so the Deck is certainly a costly investment no matter how you slice it.
The Deck is hardly Valve’s first attempt at releasing hardware, and if you weren’t aware of that, that’s because most of Valve’s previous projects flopped. The Steam Machine was a big project Valve focused on for a while—it was basically a home console that could run Steam games (and is where SteamOS originated). It barely sold any units and Valve quietly stopped selling them, which was a similar fate to the experimental Steam Controller that was discontinued a couple of years ago.
Both of those products had some good ideas behind them, just like the Steam Deck does now. But whether it was because of poor marketing, a lack of interest from consumers, or actual issues with the product themselves, they failed. This leaves the Valve Index—a VR headset released in 2019—as the only piece of hardware currently supported by Valve.
Basically, the company is very hit or miss when it comes to hardware, which can make purchasing the Deck a bit of a gamble. Sure, people are excited about it right now, but the system could still underperform similarly to the Steam Machine. This means Valve would slowly stop supporting it and early adopters would be left stranded. Valve’s hardware usually has a great concept at heart, but it often gets lost somewhere in the execution. While everything we’ve seen makes me think the Deck won’t suffer that fate (along with the mass hype surrounding it right now hinting towards successful sales figures), you can by no means rule it out.
After everything we’ve talked about here, I think it’s safe to say the Steam Deck isn’t a definitive upgrade over the Switch. The higher prices, lack of exclusives, and Valve’s own hardware history are all downsides that make the Switch still as viable as it ever was, even if it’s a bit outdated.
But don’t take that as us saying the Steam Deck won’t be a great system, as it offers a lot of unique benefits. The increased power means playing modern games on the go is actually feasible now, unlike on the Switch where they either have to be severely graphically downgraded or streamed from the cloud. On top of that, the Deck features a lot of the inherent benefits of PC gaming like increased customizability, a wider selection of games, and the option to do anything a PC can (especially if you load Windows on it).
If you mainly use the Switch for its portability and don’t care much about Nintendo’s software offerings, then the Steam Deck is a great alternative. But don’t expect the same experience you get from the Switch—both of these systems have their own identities. Regardless, I will be very interested to see how the Steam Deck and Nintendo Switch compete with each other for the portable gaming space over the coming years.
The Steam Deck is only available for reservation right now (it costs a $5.00 deposit) and will start shipping in mid-2022 currently—although, that will likely change as more people order the system.
A handheld system that aims to bring all the benefits of PC gaming on the go.