console wars

Steam’s New Handheld PC Could Be a Game Changer

Photo: Valve

PC gaming requires some real dedication. To truly play with the big boys, you’ll need about 16 gigs of RAM, a graphics card that will exceed the cost of the average home console, an expensive external monitor built to host the action, and, unfortunately, the willingness to concede that in a few short years, all of the parts rattling around in the chassis shall be rendered hopelessly out of date. With all of those caveats, casual gamers (understandably) tend to stick to the much more accessible Nintendo Switch or Sony Playstation, which don’t require nearly the same technical upkeep and arrive at a much more reasonable price tag. (The Switch clocks in at $299. Alienware’s Aurora R12 starts at $1,099.) This is the hoary divide that has split the industry for generations; the PC zealots and the console pragmatists. But Valve, with its brand-new Steam Deck handheld, aims to shake up the orthodoxy for good.

The Steam Deck, which was announced earlier today, is essentially a handheld PC designed specifically to play the massive library of games available on Valve’s ubiquitous merchant service, Steam. Games purchased through Steam were previously only available on computers powerful enough to run them, but the Deck boasts enough juice that Valve is claiming that any game you own through the platform will translate naturally to the handheld. (Not to get too geeky here, but: 16 gigs of RAM, a speedy CPU, and a graphics card that can get up to 1.6 teraflops, if that means anything to you.) Functionally, the Deck looks like a slightly bulkier Switch, complete with a trackpad, face buttons, thumbsticks, a built-in microphone, and a gyroscope for motion controls. Most importantly, the base model comes in at only $399, the same cost as the PS5 Digital Edition.

Valve is saying that the Steam Deck will basically perform like a miniature gaming computer. Players can hook it up to their TVs, or even their desk monitors, and the box will seamlessly transition into a standard PC. It’s also replete with peripheral ports, providing a home for any controllers, flight sticks, or arcade joysticks lying around the garage. Personally, I’m most stoked for the Deck’s Bluetooth capabilities, which open the door to one of the singular joys of computer gaming; chilling on the couch with a wireless mouse and keyboard, playing Civilization on the big screen. Hell, it even has an ethernet port, if you’re one of those fighting game sickos that demand ultra-precise latency at every waking moment. They’ve truly thought of everything.

But! We have some questions. The glaring issue here is the Deck’s internal storage. The aforementioned $399 model comes with only a 64-gig solid-state drive. Last night, I downloaded a four-year-old game that sat at around 50 gigs, and hardcore Call of Duty lifers have literal night terrors about the gargantuan patches that hit Warzone every couple of months. (It’s sitting at over 200 gigs!) There is a Steam Deck model with 256 gigs of storage that costs $529 and a 512 gig version that demands $649. Those are both tenable if you’re planning on playing a lot of heavyweight games, but it also takes away from the Nintendo-ish approachability that Valve is clearly angling toward. At 64 gigs, you’re either going to be doing a lot of chronic uninstalling or using the Deck as a strict 2-D-only beast.

The other question is more philosophical. There are literally thousands of games on Steam, and Valve isn’t asking any of those developers to translate those games to their brand-new device. Instead, says Valve, the Deck uses its own bespoke OS, which will automatically optimize any game booted up on the handheld. That sounds awesome, but we’re going to need to see it to believe it. Can you really go from a dense, menu-heavy strategy game like Stellaris to, say, Street Fighter with absolutely no hiccups? We have to imagine that you’ll be doing a lot of futzing with the button-mapping because the Deck weirdly assigned the jump button to the left trigger. We’d love to be wrong, but that sounds like a big ask.

Regardless, everyone interested in games should at least be intrigued by the Steam Deck. The idea of tapping into a vast catalogue of PC-only stalwarts without needing to be ball-and-chained to a desktop is a wonderfully enticing proposal. It’s especially exciting for those who’ve enviously looked over at the computer contingency for years but haven’t mustered either the will or financial capital to take the plunge. There are a lot of things wrong in 2021, but at least we now have the opportunity to play Half-Life 2 on the train. Silver linings people, silver linings.

Steam’s New Handheld PC Could Be a Game Changer