Steam Deck: is it the Nintendo Switch for nerds?

It looks like Valve has done it again. The company that surprised everyone by pivoting from game developer to digital shopkeeper with the launch of Steam, then leapt into virtual reality with the HTC Vive and Valve Index headsets, is now taking on Nintendo with a powerful handheld games console.

Announced on 16 July and due to launch in December, the Steam Deck features a 7in LCD touchscreen, an array of analogue and touch-pad controls, a gyroscope for motion detection, wifi connectivity and a base station so it can be hooked up to a monitor. Tech-wise, it’s built around a custom Zen 2 AMD processor, AMD RDNA 2 GPU and 16GB of memory. In a recent deep dive on the machine’s specs, Eurogamer found it compared to the Xbox Series S console in terms of performance.

But the real competitor Valve must be eyeing up is Nintendo’s Switch. The Switch has effectively cornered the handheld gaming market, with its clever combination of portable and home gaming possibilities, its library of excellent first-party games and its own digital store. Through titles such as Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Monster Hunter, it has sold us all on the idea of playing epic console games on the small screen.

But the Switch is a tightly controlled walled garden, with limited online functionality – and it would never run Microsoft Office. Valve is pushing Steam Deck as a fully capable handheld PC, with web browsing, streaming video and access to all your favourite productivity programs as well as games. It’ll even let you access rival digital stores, so you’re not locked into the Steam library. The two touchpads on the front are there to mimic mouse controls, but you can also plug a mouse in if you like, and the dock will allow an ethernet internet connection. Valve says to expect six to eight hours of battery life, but let’s see how it holds up with some of the more visually demanding titles.

Full featured? … the forthcoming handheld is positioned as a capable productivity machine, as well as a games console.
Full featured? … the forthcoming handheld is positioned as a capable productivity machine, as well as a games console. Photograph: Valve

It is, in effect, a Nintendo Switch for nerds: a handheld console that provides access to thousands of Steam games, but also anything else the user wants. It’s not the first handheld PC – there are plenty available from smaller, specialist manufacturers – but it’s the first by a company with the heft, hardware design skills and digital games platform of Valve. It’s something PC gamers are going to be able to take on holiday (which they might not do with a gaming laptop), and they’ll be able to play in conjunction with their main PC – making progress on, say, Into the Breach while sitting in a cafe or on a train, then picking up on the big screen at home.

Is that something PC gamers actually want to do? And haven’t we already had our fingers burned by Valve’s other experiment with small form factor PCs – the ill-fated Steam Machines? The answers seem to be yes to the first question and a loud no to the second. Already, the Deck has caused something of a stir. The preorder system completely imploded over the weekend, as interested purchasers were hit with error messages for hours. Naturally, scalpers have reacted quickly, offering confirmed preorder purchases on eBay for up to $4,000, although Valve has prevented the block buying of pre-order machines by only allowing orders from long-term Steam user accounts, and limiting customers to one preorder each.

Valve has been aggressive on the price point. The base edition is £349/$399 with 64GB storage, £459/$529 with 250GB SSD and £569/$649 with a 512GB SSD, so the cheapest model is comparable to the new OLED Switch, which is retailing at around £310. Valve chief Gabe Newell told IGN that getting this right was “painful” but “crucial”, and it feels as though they’ve got the correct balance of power and cost – although it’s doubtful the specs will be up to those needed to handle the very latest PC titles. Users are likely to accept lower-performance versions of new games for the convenience of playing on the go, but they’ll be relying on developers actually providing the option.

Newell has said in his video interview with IGN that he expects to sell millions of Steam Decks – and if the chaotic preorder process is anything to go by, there is certainly interest from a portion of Steam’s 120 million active users. And although Switch offers an extremely stable and user-friendly experience that Valve will struggle to replicate with its more open system, the user base for Steam Deck is likely to be much more tech savvy and proficient, and less likely to need or want the sort of hand-holding, gatekeeping presence offered by Nintendo.

The way games are going right now – utilising cloud servers and remote saves to divorce games from whatever device you play them on – Steam Deck seems very much like the right gadget at the right price point. In a world where people are just starting to get moving again, it also feels like very astute timing.

source: theguardian.com