Valve surprised the world when it announced that it was making a handheld of its own, the Steam Deck. A powerful little machine that's capable of playing the hundreds of games sat in your Steam library that you've never gotten around to playing. Because of its form factor and hybrid design, it's drawing a lot of comparisons to the Nintendo Switch. That's something of a sore subject right now, given that many believed Nintendo was gearing up to release a souped-up, 4K enabled Switch Pro that had long been rumored, only to announce the Switch OLED instead.
But there's more to the Steam Deck than a Switch competitor once you dig into what Valve is offering here. Beneath that handheld gaming shell lies a miniature PC with a (relatively) affordable price tag. Not only will it open up the door to a library of PC exclusive games you can play portably, it's also fully customizable, with the option to install whatever you want and make use of any peripherals – just as you would with a beefy PC build. Really, it might have the looks of a handheld gaming console, but for all intents and purposes, it's a small PC that has the scope to do so much more.
The appeal of the Steam Deck is that you'll be able to play your entire Steam library wherever, and whenever, you want. I mean, being able to play PC games from the comfort of my bed or sofa? Yes please. With the Steam OS optimized for the handheld, and with the inclusion of functioning Cloud saves, you'll have access to your entire Steam collection on the go. But more than that, the Steam Deck is in no way restricted to Steam's platform, which means you really will have a wealth of games in your hands. As Valve designer Greg Coomer confirmed in a Q&A with IGN (opens in new tab), the console will let you do pretty much anything you can do on a PC, which means you'll be able to access the Microsoft store or Epic Games, for example. This also means you'll be able to use mods just as you could on PC, with features such as the Steam Workshop supported to boot. It could even have functionality with Xbox's Game Pass and Cloud Gaming, if Valve's promises of an open platform are to be believed.
And as it is a little PC, the Steam Deck gives the freedom to install the software you want to use, and change up your gaming setup with any peripherals that have USB connections or Bluetooth functionality – a mouse, keyboard, Xbox controller, you name it. Just like the Switch, Valve's console can be docked using the company's own or any dock with a USB-C connector. With the ability to also plug it into a monitor, you can quite literally transform it into a functional desktop PC. Honestly, when you consider everything the Steam Dock is capable of, I can already see just how much it will fill a gap in the market for players who want to play PC games reliably – with the added bonus of having access to a desktop – without having to shell out a lot more for a big PC build.
While the core hardware isn't upgradable because of its "small form factor", as Valve developer Pierre-Loup Griffais put it, all of the control inputs can be fully customized and mapped to suit you, with key binding functionality which will hopefully cater to more players. This also extends to its unique control features such as the precision trackpads, which can be used as an effective alternative to a mouse, and four back buttons on the underside of the machine that is reminiscent of Xbox Elite controllers.
As great as the level of customization is, I do have some concerns over the layout of the thumbsticks, which are positioned at the top of the machine. It's impossible to say right now just how natural it will feel to hold, or how comfortable the Steam Deck will be throughout lengthy play sessions, but it could take a little spell to adjust to after using other handheld machines. Still, the fact that you can change up the layout and customize it to your liking is fantastic.
Switching it up
While Valve's console certainly has shades of the Switch's look, in comparison to Nintendo's console, the Steam Deck is considerably heavier. Weighing 669 grams or around 1.4 pounds, when it comes to holding the Steam Deck during handheld play sessions, it could be a little more cumbersome in contrast to the lighter build of the Switch. Still, when you consider just what its innards and it's PC functionality are, that might be a tradeoff many are willing to make.
Battery life is also another point to note when it comes to the Steam Deck undocked. Since it is capable of running your big AAA titles and smaller indie numbers, the console's battery life will have more longevity depending on what you're doing with it and what you're playing remotely. Its 40WHr battery is said to be capable of two to eight hours of battery life depending on how demanding your playing sessions are. So, if you're hoping to tuck into a big sprawling RPG for a lengthy amount of time, you'll have to make sure you're not too far away from a power source.
The Steam Deck might not necessarily serve as the go-to handheld when you're out and about in the same way as, say, a Switch Lite might, but it's one way to have a portable PC that's easy to take out and set up as and when you need it. Not only that, but there's still an undeniable appeal to the idea of being able to play PC games without being tied to a desk if you don't want to be.
There's clearly a desire out there for a more powerful Switch console, but the Steam Deck isn't the Nintendo Switch Pro – it's something else entirely. Valve's handheld is a truly portable PC, one that can let you play your huge backlog of Steam games on the go or sit down to tuck into the latest PC exclusives – all without worrying about the system specs or whether your old rig is up to the task.
Whether there's demand out there for something like this remains to be seen, although with the Steam Deck pre-order page set to go live imminently we won't have long to wait and find out. Steam Deck is versatile enough that it puts the power in your hands, and if you want to tinker with it then you can, or you can simply use it to play games. It's perhaps Valve founder Gabe Newell who put it best: "We think Steam Deck gives people another way to play the games they love on a high-performance device at a great price," he says. "As a gamer, this is a product I've always wanted. And as a game developer, it's the mobile device I've always wanted for our partners."