Steam Deck: Everything we know about Valve’s upcoming handheld

The Steam Deck is like a Nintendo Switch for your PC games, but there's a lot that separates this device from other handhelds. Here's what you need to know.

Steam Deck: Everything we know about Valve’s upcoming handheld

The Steam Deck is Valve’s first attempt at making a game console — if you ignore the fiasco that was Steam Machines, that is. Although Valve doesn’t have a great track record with hardware, the company’s recent Index VR headset proved it has the prowess to produce excellent devices. And the Steam Deck looks to continue that trend.

It’s not here yet, but the first devices are set to ship in a matter of months. Before they arrive, we rounded up everything you need to know about the Steam Deck, including its release date and price, and what you can expect in terms of performance.

Pricing and release date

Two players using Steam Decks to play Stardew Valley.

Pre-orders are live for the Steam Deck now, and Valve says the first units will start shipping in December 2021. If you missed the day when pre-orders went live, however, you can expect your device much later. At the time of publication, the Steam Deck product page simply says devices will arrive after the first half of 2022. That could mean the end of 2022 or the beginning of 2023. We don’t know right now.

We know that Valve is taking orders on a first come, first served basis, though, so the sooner you secure your pre-order, the sooner you’ll be able to get the device. To pre-order the Steam Deck, you need to have a Steam account in good standing and must have made a purchase on it prior to June 2021. Valve is charging a $5 reservation fee, which will be deducted from the final price when your unit is ready to ship.

For pricing, Valve offers three versions of the Steam Deck:

64GB — $399 256GB — $529 512GB — $649

All three models are identical in terms of performance — they all feature the same internals short of the storage. The only exception is the 64GB model, which uses eMCC memory instead of the faster NVMe storage used by the 256GB and 512GB models. The more expensive models also come with a carrying case and some exclusive Steam profile goodies.

What is the Steam Deck?

Playing a Steam Deck handheld console.Steam

The Steam Deck is a new handheld gaming device that was announced by Valve in mid-July (right after Nintendo opened pre-orders for its OLED Switch). As the name suggests, the handheld is designed to work with Valve’s immensely popular Steam platform and will allow players to play their Steam library on the go.

The Steam Deck shares some similarities with the Switch, such as dual joystick controls, dock-based charging, and the ability to connect it to an external display. There is also a 7-inch screen with a 1200 x 800 resolution (no 4K output supported), and battery life is reported to last up to seven or eight hours, depending on use. Connections include a USB-C port for charging, as well as an SD card slot for extra storage.

Valve has said that Steam Deck will support cloud saving tied to your account, which means you will be able to play a game on your PC and then pick it back up on the Deck for mobile play without losing any progress. Steam features like Chat and Remote Play are also supported on the Deck, so as long as you’re comfortable with the small screen, you won’t miss much.

Specs and performance

A Steam Deck lying on a gridded table with its back panel removed.

The Steam Deck isn’t here yet, so we don’t know how it will perform. However, some leaked benchmarks suggest that the handheld will be able to run some recent AAA games at 30 frames per second (fps) at native resolution, while older titles can often crack 60 fps.

Before getting to that, though, let’s look at the specs:

CPU: Custom AMD quad-core Zen 2 APU GPU: Eight AMD RDNA 2 compute units RAM: 16GB LPDDR5 Storage: Up to 512GB NVMe SSD, high-speed microSD card slot

Originally, Valve said that the Steam Deck would come with dual-channel LPDDR5 memory, but the company issued a spec correction to clarify that the device uses quad-channel memory. That effectively doubles the total memory bandwidth.

For specs, the Steam Deck is built on the same foundation as the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X. It’s not as powerful, but Valve’s handheld uses an AMD APU with Zen 2 CPU cores and RDNA 2 GPU cores, just like current-gen consoles. Overall, the Steam Deck is capable of about 1.6 TFLOPs of power, compared to 10.3 TFLOPs on the PS5.

Based on TFLOPs — which isn’t the best way to measure performance — the Steam Deck should perform between a base PS4 and an Xbox One. Keep in mind both of those consoles targeted 1080p resolution — the Steam Deck targets 720p, so you can expect higher frame rates overall.

Leaked benchmarks back that up. The tests show the Steam Deck achieving above 60 fps in Shadow of the Tomb Raider with custom settings, as well as cracking 60 fps in Doom Eternal on the Low preset. Cyberpunk 2077  even produced between 20 and 30 fps at its High preset, suggesting that the Steam Deck will be able to play some demanding games.

We recommend waiting until the device is here, though. Third-party benchmarks are important to validate performance.

Valve released a breakdown video showing the internals of the Steam Deck. This breakdown doesn’t say much about performance, but it shows how Valve is making the device and how it’s handling cooling.

Game compatibility, Windows, and Valve’s Proton

Steam deck grading shown in Steam's library.

One of the problems with the Steam Deck is that it supports Steam. There are tens of thousands of games on Steam that cover decades of development, and it’s hard to ensure that all of those games will run on a certain system. Valve has said the machine can run “pretty much” any Steam game, but there are still some notable exceptions.

Valve isn’t preventing you from playing any titles, but the hardware itself has some built-in limitations. At the core of the system is a Linux-based OS using Valve’s Proton compatibility layer. Basically, this layer helps games that were designed to run on Windows to run on Linux, and the vast majority of Steam games work great with Proton.

Not all of them do, though. ProtonDB maintains a list of games that work with Proton, and there are some key titles that aren’t supported. Half of the top 10 most popular games on Steam don’t work with Proton at the time of publication, including New World, Destiny 2, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, Apex Legends, and Naraka: Bladepoint. 

You may notice that all of these games are multiplayer-only titles. The main issue comes down to anti-cheat software, which throws up red flags at the Proton compatibility layer. Thankfully, BattlEye and East Anti-Cheat —  anti-cheat services used across the majority of multiplayer titles — have said they are working on supporting the platform ahead of launch.

Valve is doing its part, too. On your Steam Deck, you’ll be able to see if a game is supported or not. Valve isn’t stopping users from playing anything, so even unsupported games may still work. However, the ones that have been validated are guaranteed to work.

If you don’t want to mess around with Linux, you don’t have to. The Steam Deck is a handheld PC, and Valve says users are free to install Windows if they want. You may experience decreased performance, though. Windows is a relatively demanding operating system, and we suspect the Linux build on the Steam Deck requires far fewer resources.

Steam is the main platform for the Steam Deck, but Valve says players are free to use other platforms as well. You can install games from the Epic Games Store, Origin, or anywhere else.

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