It’s no exaggeration to say Valve’s Steam Deck broke the internet yesterday. Unlike the Nintendo Switch (OLED model), which garnered disappointment from everyone expecting a proper 4K ‘Switch Pro’ upgrade, PC gaming’s darling is giving us exactly the handheld we want.
With a starting price at $399 and immense enthusiasm on social media (with memes of course), it’s safe to say the Steam Deck is already a hit before it launches in December. More than anything, though, the PC handheld is a blueprint for other companies.
“We look at this as a new category of device in the PC space, and, that’s assuming that customers agree with us that this is a good idea, we expect not only to follow up in the future with more iterations ourselves but also offer people, other manufacturers, that want to participate in this space,” said Greg Coomer, a designer on the Steam Deck development team in an interview with IGN’s Ryan McCaffrey.
In a sharing mood — Unlike Valve’s previous hardware reveal, the Steam Machine, which put the onus on third-party manufacturers to build hardware, Valve itself is manufacturing the Steam Deck. Instead of other companies fracturing the market with many different Steam Decks and configurations, Valve’s first device is a reference design of sorts; its success or failure will inform hardware companies on whether they should build their own or not. If early excitement is anything to go by, companies like Razer, Asus, Dell, and HP will almost surely jump on board.
The Steam Deck is similar to how GPU makers such as Nvidia and AMD handle their products. When a GPU is announced, the product shown is what’s known as a “reference card,” which is the baseline hardware designed to have the most balanced performance. From there, third-party vendors take the blueprints for the hardware and alter the look of the GPU, and offer higher clock speeds, different cooling solutions, and RGB lighting, among other features. These third-party GPUs are essentially the same GPU, but with slightly different specs and features that tend to squeeze more performance out of the card than the original. Valve is doing the same thing with the Steam Deck, providing a reference model that PC outfits can run wild with.
Currently, the device shown in the IGN reveal video is not the final product that will ship in December, but we know specs such as the AMD internals, different types of storage options, and 16GB or RAM. The AMD APU, which is a system-on-a-chip that includes both the CPU and GPU, will most likely remain in all models to maintain a similar gaming experience across the board. Everything else, such as the RAM and storage, could be upgraded to make the already beefy handheld even beefier. The button inputs, for example, which are already a sticking point with some people, could also be improved by another manufacturer. Features like battery capacity, display type, wireless connectivity, and I/O could all be upgrade candidates as well. I imagine a company like Razer debuting its own Steam Deck with green RGB up to the gills.
In an interview with Valve president Gabe Newell, he mentioned that the price point of the device was “painful.” Naturally, you might think that Valve is selling each Steam Deck at a loss, then. Not necessarily. While Newell doesn’t explicitly confirm whether or not the Steam Deck’s aggressive pricing means selling at a loss, he says Valve didn’t go in with the intention to sell a certain number of games per Steam Deck to get a return on hardware cost. So either the profit margins on each device are slim or Valve anticipates — long term — gamers will buy more Steam games to make up for the lower price., With SteamOS built-in, of course gamers will buy games on Steam, lining Valve’s pockets with every summer and winter sale.
Other manufacturers won’t have the luxury of selling games to keep making money off each buyer, a downside that could potentially put them off. However, if hardware manufacturers make higher-end versions of the Steam deck that command a higher price, that could be appealing and open the door to a whole market of PC handhelds. Though many see the $400 Steam Deck as the perfect price point, there will be those who don’t mind spending extra for a device with better specs — like more and faster storage — to future-proof the hardware. The $400 Steam Deck’s 64GB eMMC is pretty paltry; that’s barely enough to store one AAA game these days.
Valve expects to follow up with more Steam Decks, but it’s just as concerned at “establishing a product category,” as Newell put it in the interview. The Steam Deck may not be the first high-end PC gaming handheld out there, but it’s already won more respect than the ones that came before.
Failed handhelds — Most recently, Dell tried something similar with its Alienware UFO handheld. There were a ton of headlines back when it was announced at CES 2020, but we’ve heard nothing else about the PC handheld. Although the UFO was just a concept, it showed promise — a Nintendo Switch-like handheld but for PC gaming. Dell never announced pricing (again, it was only a concept), but it could have easily been a $1,000 device, a sum that would have been hard to swallow for most people. It’s the same story told over and over again for PC handhelds.
It’s why the Aya Neo and GPD Win 3 — as dope as they are — will always fail to reach a mass audience. You can add the ONEXPLAYER to that list as well, and the Smach Z, which was funded back in 2016 on Kickstarter and still hasn’t shipped. Sure, they’re powerful handheld consoles, but the high price is extremely prohibitive, and they’re upstarts, with none of the backing of a multi-billion dollar corporation like Valve. Handhelds like the Razer Edge and the Nvidia Shield were backed by large tech companies, but they both launched too early and lacked the performance at their respective price points. Timing is everything and Intel CPUs in a handheld were never going to cut it. While all these handhelds may have pushed the envelope, none of them are pulling it off quite like Valve.
The planned Steam Deck ecosystem is something Valve is uniquely positioned to succeed with: hardware meeting a proven PC gaming distribution platform. The only other company with its feet in PC gaming that could succeed here would be Microsoft, but the company seems less interested in more money-losing hardware than turning gaming into a Netflix-like subscription service. Maybe the Steam Deck will change its mind and we’ll get an Xbox portable. Long term, I think the Steam Deck could change PC gaming by creating a bridge for console gamers that want the PC experience without everything that comes with building and maintaining a PC. The lines are being blurred, essentially, pointing to a future where PC gaming transitions from an enthusiast hobby to one that everyone can access. And with multiple possible manufacturers, we won’t be tied to the whims of one company when it comes time to upgrade as we are with Nintendo.