Valve has announced its Steam Deck, a gaming handheld device shipping in December. The device is intended as a Switch-style competitor and would draw attention in this context no matter what. Various companies have attempted to launch a console-style PC — Steam Machines were an arguable attempt to fit into this category, along with various vaporware systems of the past like the Phantom — but no top-tier gaming company or major OEM has built this kind of handheld before.
The Steam Deck will start at $399 for a 64GB option, with a 256GB system available for $529 and a 512GB system for $649. Valve notes that the 512GB option ships with “premium anti-glare etched glass,” the fastest storage options, and an “exclusive carrying case.” Valve notes that “there is no in-game difference in frame rates or graphics quality between the three models.”
The handheld is built around an unspecified Zen 2 APU with four cores and eight threads with a 2.4GHz base clock and a 3.5GHz boost clock. This sounds like a custom chip, because Valve also specifies eight GPU compute units clocked between 1GHz and 1.6GHz and power consumption between 4-15W. The Ryzen 7 5700U (1.8GHz base, 4.3GHz boost, 8 CUs @ 1.9GHz) sounds like the closest match for the APU Valve is teasing. If we use this chip for comparison purposes, the Steam Deck would offer faster baseline performance, a lower boost clock, and somewhat lower GPU performance than one of AMD’s upper-end mobile APUs.
The system uses LPDDR5 at 5500MT/s. That’s lower than the current maximum of 6400MT/s, but significantly more bandwidth than the DDR4-3200 we’re used to seeing paired with an APU like this. Memory bandwidth is quite important to APU performance. Assuming that the LPDDR5 subsystem is 128-bits wide — Valve doesn’t say — then this APU would actually enjoy more memory bandwidth than an equivalent desktop or laptop chip. If the bus is narrower, the chip would have less bandwidth than these solutions; the higher clocks will not fully compensate for the reduced bus width.
The display is 7 inches with a resolution of 1280×800 in 16:10 aspect ratios. That’s comparable with the Nintendo Switch, though the aspect ratio is slightly different. The top of the console has two types of shoulder buttons, with two more on the back side. A D-pad, twin thumbsticks, two trackpads, and a standard ABXY button layout are all included. The system also includes 16GB of RAM, a headphone jack, and a microSD slot. The trackpads, according to Valve, offer 55 percent better latency than the Steam controller and are pressure-sensitive for configurable click strength.
Valve claims you can use the device for 7-8 hours when game streaming or playing light titles, 4 hours in a game like Portal 2, and 5-6 hours if you’re willing to play Portal 2 at a capped 30fps. The Steam Deck can reportedly go to sleep and resume quickly, allowing for game session pickups.
The Steam Deck isn’t a Windows device by default. Valve doesn’t disclose details, but it’s running a tweaked version of SteamOS and uses Proton, “a compatibility layer that makes it possible to run your games without any porting work needed from developers.” Proton is a fork of Wine; Valve has released several versions of the software over the last three years. Enthusiasts who want to will be able to dive into the Linux distro underneath the hood, and the device will support peripherals. Hooking a keyboard, mouse, and monitor to the same Steam Deck may require a port multiplier, though, as we only see one USB-C port on the device. Valve notes that the external dock will offer more ports and that a powered USB-C hub can be used instead. If you want Windows on the device, you’ll be able to install it.
Is This Going to Be a Good Investment?
We’re not a big fan of pre-orders at ET, especially when a company is launching a first-generation product and has no prior history in the space. Valve has built some high-quality peripherals in the past, but it hasn’t built anything like this before. You can plunk down cash for a reservation on a system if you want, but we recommend waiting for reviews.
Historically, attempts to build PC handhelds have suffered from limited battery life and high power consumption. Valve may have engineered solutions to this problem by working with AMD to bring a custom APU to market, but it’s not a bad idea to wait and see how the hardware compares first. Valve’s $400 system arguably has too little storage to work effectively as a Steam handheld in the modern era, so we’d like to see more details on whether games can be played from microSD. Even if they can be, anyone looking at the $400 handheld should keep the need for more storage in mind when pricing the system. With its specs and capabilities, the Steam Deck could be a genuinely interesting product when it launches this December.
Pre-orders open tomorrow provided your Steam account has made a purchase on Steam prior to June 2021. A $5 deposit fee is required and only one console can be reserved per account.