Steam Deck: Will it Be a PC Gaming Savior?

Earlier today, the announcement of the Steam Deck, a handheld gaming PC running an AMD APU (that means both CPU and GPU together) and a 7" screen made a big splash. Console and casual gamers from all over considered it as "the" way they'd finally get into PC gaming. Hardcore gamers drooled at the possible performance of AMD's RDNA2 architecture to deliver unparalleled performance in games that had never been "playably" portable before. And the price - starting at only $399, barely more than Nintendo's not-so-improved OLED Switch coming out later this year! - seemed almost too good to be true.  

Well, in some cases the Steam Deck's proposition in fact is too good to be true, and we'll get there in a minute.

First, let's ask: who am I to try and speak with any kind of authority about this? Simply put, if I buy a Steam Deck, it will be my fourth (!) handheld gaming PC. Yes, fourth. I'm the not-so-proud owner of the GPD Win and GPD Win 2 devices (both of which have now broken on me), which are basically the first two handheld gaming-oriented PCs ever made, and I recently bought the OneXPlayer, a larger but still handheld gaming PC from 1Netbook. Each machine has had its fair share of challenges, shortcomings, and issues. 

Now, the Steam Deck may prove to be different.  GPD and 1Netbook are smaller companies who are based in China, and Valve is an American company with a hefty bankroll, who happens to have a great reputation in the PC gaming world and are known for making quality peripherals (if a bit weird, niche, or serving as a solution in search of a problem). Still, there are going to be some real challenges that Valve Software will have to take head-on if they don't want this project to turn into a disappointment, and some of these are problems that the aforementioned Windows-based handhelds didn't even have to deal with. 

So what are these challenges Valve will run into? Storage, compatibility, and supply. 

1) Storage

Simply put, the base version of the Steam Deck, priced at $399, has an anemic amount of storage. With a 64GB eMMC module, we're looking at the system barely having enough to install the OS and a few small games on the internal storage. Many games that Valve are advertising that can run on Steam Deck won't fit on the 64GB model's internal storage even if it's the only game you put on it. Sure, there's a MicroSD slot and someone could spend the cash to put anywhere up to a 1TB MicroSD card in their Steam Deck, but that will result in even slower read speeds than eMMC, so load times would be hellacious.

The other two offerings, the 256GB NVMe storage at $529 or the 512GB NVMe storage at $649, are more reasonable although these offer only other small additions on top of the storage - there's no improved memory, CPU power, or GPU power offered for the extra cash. Still, at least with the 512GB model, you'd be able to have a small library of games you can tap into, without suffering long loading times. 

The MicroSD card option is offered on all models, but modern games may struggle at the speeds that these SD cards can do - yes, even if you buy one of the better ones from Samsung or Sandisk. 

2) Compatibility

Buried in the Steam Deck announcement is the fact that it's not running Steam on Windows, but is instead using their SteamOS, a variation of Linux, and on top of that the Proton compatibility layer for "translating" Windows-based Steam games to run on it. This offers the best compatibility for Windows-based gaming that any Linux OS has ever seen, but it's still far from perfect. For example, many multiplayer games, including quite a few that have anti-cheat measures built in (Rainbow Six Siege, Destiny 2, Fortnite, Black Desert OnlineFall Guys, etc) will not run on the Steam Deck, or at least not until Valve spends a bunch of time working with each of those developers to build that compatibility. 

Many single player games, from indie to blockbuster ones, do just fine however, although many graphical and other glitches have been reported as well. Gamers will have to simply deal with these or wait for updates to Proton. 

But this also means that if you want to use any Windows-based tools to assist with your games - like Wabbajack, for example, to install a Skyrim modlist - that's out of the question as well, and this is not to mention any games running outside of Steam. So Overwatch over in the launcher? A game that has some timed exclusivity on Epic Games Store? Something classic from GOG? None of that is happening on the Steam Deck, not how it's currently set up. Yes, you can link those games to launch from Steam over on a Windows-based Steam install, but that won't be happening on the Steam Deck unless Valve partners with those companies to work with Proton via a new solution.

A Windows install could potentially be put together by fans and installed by users to turn this into a proper Windows machine, but finding or creating the drivers might be a challenge and of course that would come fully unsupported by Valve. Then there are the many games that don't have full controller capability that Valve will have to work around too - probably with what look like those touchpads that may offer virtual mouse and keyboard support. This bit is probably the one that Valve will do the best with.

3) Supply

Looking around at the reaction to the Steam Deck, it's clear that there is more interest in this machine than in any other handheld gaming PC. But when Valve takes preorders on Friday July 16th, they may find that demand vastly outstrips the number of units they can ship. Will they take preorders beyond that anyway? How many Steam Decks can they get into gamers' hands before the end of the Dec 2021 shipping window they advertised? And after that, how many for each month following? When Valve released the Steam Index - a $1000 PC VR headset - they were stuck in order backlog for months even before the pandemic began, and I could see the Steam Deck being even more popular.

Sure, Valve's a company with plenty of money sitting around, but so are many electronics manufacturers and right now nearly all of them are dealing with semiconductor and chip supply issues of one kind or another. Time will tell on whether Valve can make this anything more than a paper launch that just serves to annoy the Steam Deck's potential base of buyers. 


Look, I don't want to just crap all over today's announcement, but having spent many hours with handheld gaming PCs, there are many pitfalls that and issues - few of which actually have to do with gaming performance - that I think Valve is kind of glossing over in their announcement. These issues may turn into some real frustrations both before and after the console gets into a particular user's hands. It's still an exciting announcement, but I recommend that anyone seriously considering the Steam Deck to buy with care, be ready to have to tinker, and keep in mind that if you can get your favorite games on the system, not all of them may run (or, at the least, run satisfactorily).