Introduction: A Switch Alternative?
I like the Nintendo Switch. The hardware is decent for its form factor (though the Joycon drift is a serious issue) and its software library is incredibly strong. You get Nintendo's very impressive array of first party IPs like Super Smash Bros, Breath of the Wild, Mario Odyssey, and Splatoon 2. On top of that, the Switch has gotten the best amount of third party support I've seen on a Nintendo console with games like Dragon Quest XI S, Monster Hunter Rise, Astral Chain, Octopath Traveler, and the upcoming Shin Megami Tensei V.
Earlier this year, there were rumors of Nintendo releasing an upgraded version of the Switch: a "Switch Pro" or a "Super Switch" depending on what you prefer to call it. Just 9 days ago, Nintendo indeed confirmed that there is new Switch hardware coming soon... only that it did not completely align with the rumors. While it did sport the larger OLED screen like what the rumors described, the Tegra chip was identical, contrary to the speculation that it would sport a more powerful SOC featuring Nvidia's DLSS technology.
Needless to say, I was pretty disappointed when I learned about the OLED Switch, though perhaps it was my fault for not taking the rumors with enough grains of salt. Regardless, I got over it pretty quickly and resolved to just wait a few more years until Nintendo releases its next-gen hardware. However, Valve unexpectedly comes out of nowhere with the announcement of its own Switch-like platform: the Steam Deck.
What's the Steam Deck?
The Steam Deck is a portable gaming platform that can play games from your Steam library. It runs on an AMD APU which features a 4 core/8 thread Zen 2 CPU with a base-to-boost clock of 2.4-3.5 GHz and 8 compute unit RDNA2 GPU with a base-to-boost clock of 1.0-1.6 GHz. On top of that, it sports 16GB of LPDDR5 of RAM and starts at 64GB of storage which can be upgraded to 512GB or can be expanded upon with a microSD card.
However, it's not just under the hood that is impressive, but also over the hood. Not only does the Steam Deck sport the usual face buttons, D-pad, triggers, and analog sticks, but it features a lot of neat utilitarian extras. The analog sticks are capacitive, the handheld has a small trackpad on both sides, and the back has 4 assignable grip buttons for additional input.
The grip buttons behind the Steam Deck.
A closeup to the right trackpad of the handheld.
On the software side, the Steam Deck runs on the Arch-based SteamOS 3.0 and KDE for the desktop environment. This is quite a departure from the previous SteamOS iterations where they used Debian as the base.
What Is The Steam Deck Capable Of?
Looking at the hardware, the handheld will likely perform better than a base PlayStation 4. The 1.6 TFlop GPU may appear to be weaker than the PS4's GPU, but (1) the PS4's GPU runs on GCN as opposed to RDNA2, (2) the Steam Deck has double the RAM, and (3) the Zen 2 CPU runs circles around the PS4's Jaguar cores. Not to mention, the TDP is only 15W maximum whereas the PS4 consumes much more power than that.
But it's not just power, but also the features. For instance, the capacitive analog sticks and trackpads offer users the ability to take advantage of the Steam Deck's gyro aiming capabilities, which will come in handy for FPS games like Doom: Eternal. Not only that, but you can use it as a normal PC, too. You can install third party software and even play games from other PC storefronts like Itch.io or GOG via Lutris.
You may be wondering whether the software support is there. After all, many games do not have a native Linux version and Valve's original Steam Machine initiative was a total flop. What has Valve done that may make things different this time?
When you navigate around the official Steam Deck website, you may notice that it displays actual gameplay footage of users playing Windows-only games like Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, Ni No Kuni, and Doom: Eternal running just fine. That is because this time, Valve has done the proper preparation to put the handheld in a good position with the RADV Mesa driver for the GPU, Steam Play Proton, the DirectX 9-11-to-Vulkan DXVK translation layer, and the DirectX 12-to-Vulkan VKD3D-Proton translation layer. If you check out the ProtonDB website, you'll see that a lot of Windows-only games are playable thanks to Proton.
However, there is one big Achille's heel and that is online multiplayer. Most multiplayer games utilize anti-cheat software such as BattlEye or Easy-Anti Cheat. If you check games such as Destiny 2, Apex Legends, and Rainbow Six Siege on ProtonDB, all of them fall under the "borked", i.e. unplayable, status. This is because Battlenet and EAC sends system calls to the kernel level which will not play nice with Proton which works at the API level (more in depth explanation here).
That said, Valve states in the Steam Deck FAQ that it is working with BattlEye and EAC to get support for Proton before the Steam Deck launches. If Valve can pull it off, then that is a big game changer (pun not intended) because that will substantially expand the number of games that are compatible with Proton for not just the Steam Deck, but for all Linux systems like my Linux Mint desktop.
Closing Thoughts: The Potential Is Definitely There
Overall, my initial impressions of the Steam Deck are very positive. Valve's Steam Machine initiative flopped because of the lack of software support and high prices. Thanks to its efforts of maintaining the RADV driver, Proton, and the API translation layers, the software situation is exponentially better today than it was back in 2015. If the Steam Deck launches today, I think it would be a very good handheld for singleplayer-oriented players like me. The elephant in the room is the anti-cheat software in multiplayer games which are currently unplayable under Proton. If Valve is able to get BattlEye and EAC to play nice with Proton before the Steam Deck launches as it has claimed, then the value proposition will skyrocket.
As for the price, I think the base model and upper tiers are priced appropriately. The $399 base model honestly makes the $349 OLED Switch look like a joke. The hardware is more powerful than the Switch and it provides a wider plethora of how you can play games with its trackpads and grip buttons. On top of that, you can use it as a desktop PC, install third party software, and even play games from other PC storefronts. I think all of those perks more than justify the $50 premium.
If you are interested, you can preorder on the official Steam Deck website. As for me, if I did not have my Linux Mint rig, then I would definitely try to get one of these. However, I do not really commute much where the Steam Deck's portable capabilities would come in handy, so my desktop perfectly fills my needs.