Feb 25, 2022 - Technology

Portable PC gaming's moment arrives with Valve's Steam Deck

The Steam Deck. A dock that allows for easy connections to monitors will ship later in 2022. Image: Valve.

One of PC gaming’s top companies is making one of its biggest bets with today’s launch of the Steam Deck.

Why it matters: Valve hopes Steam Deck can make portable high-end PC gaming a lasting thing.

  • It’s “the beginning of a new category,” one of Steam Deck’s project leads, Greg Coomer, tells Axios.
  • And it’s one that Valve will “be developing and iterating on for a long time to come,” he says.

The details: The Steam Deck ($300-$650) is a powerful portable, a bit larger than a Nintendo Switch but similar in design: a screen flanked by the inputs of a game controller.

  • Its face includes a “Steam” button, signaling its capacity to smoothly launch Valve’s Steam store and any customer’s library of games.
  • Not all run on Steam Deck–a slow, manual compatibility test is underway, which Coomer estimates has checked about 1,000 games so far. But a great many do, including today’s hot release Elden Ring, Sony’s PlayStation 4 ports Horizon Zero Dawn and God of War, and piles of indie games.
  • It’s also kept the system open, letting users of the Linux-based device switch to a desktop to install apps and even other operating systems, such as Windows.

Between the lines: Valve is a software company first, maker of acclaimed games and operator of Steam, the dominant online PC gaming marketplace.

  • Its efforts with hardware have had middling success, at best.
  • The Valve-backed line of gaming PCs called Steam machines was discontinued years ago.
  • Its Index virtual reality headset has impressed, but, like all VR gear, remains relatively niche.

Origin story: Valve had been considering a portable PC for a while, Coomer says, but had to wait until chip development led to a viable intersection of processing muscle and low energy conception.

  • “We spun the effort up and gained all the confidence about three years ago that we were actually going to be able to ship it.”

Our impressions: I’ve dabbled with the Steam Deck for a couple of weeks and consider it a revelation.

  • The ability to play high-end PC games and quirky indies from my bed or while relaxing is as refreshing as it was to first play Nintendo’s best franchises on a Switch.
  • That makes the occasional discovery of an incompatible game–Destiny 2 doesn’t currently run on it–disappointing.
  • Navigating its menus is a little clunky, but daily firmware improvements have helped.

What’s next: Steam Deck, as with most hardware launched in this pandemic, will be supply-constrained for a while.

  • “We're going to be ramping up as the year goes on into very high volumes, but it's not going to start that way,” Coomer said.
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