Steam Deck
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Can the Steam Deck Beat the Nintendo Switch?

Valve's Steam Deck is here (kind of) and the reviews are in. Can the newcomer hybrid console dethrone Nintendo's mega-popular Switch system, or is it doomed to fail like Valve's other console attempts?
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When Nintendo unveiled its newest system in 2016, it promised to revolutionize home and handheld gaming alike. The system, then codenamed the NX, would feature a hybrid design, allowing it to be used as a standard home console or taken on the go for mobile gaming. A few companies had tried similar approaches in the past, but Nintendo, a company known for its excellent industrial design and top-quality first-party games, clearly found a perfect format for its unique brand of polished gaming.

When the Switch landed in stores in March 2017, it represented a seismic shift–both for Nintendo and the gaming industry as a whole. During the nadir of the Wii U’s sales in 2016, some industry insiders grumbled that Nintendo might be better off getting bought out by a company like Sony or repositioning itself as a mobile game developer. After all, 2016’s Pokemon Go was a smash hit, so the company would clearly move in that direction, right?

The Switch has gone on to become one of the best-selling consoles of all time, and its hybrid design is a huge part of that success. PC game developer Valve clearly saw this success and realized it could offer something similar in the console hardware market. Its answer to the Switch, the Steam Deck, has been hard to purchase due to shipping constraints and high demand. 

However, Valve seems to be clearing its backlog. Soon, it might be possible to just order a system from the company. Could the Steam Deck be a Switch killer, or is it doomed to languish in obscurity like the PSP or Game Gear?

What Is the Steam Deck?

The Steam Deck is the latest piece of gaming hardware from Valve. Valve is best known these days for owning the PC gaming meta-platform Steam, a digital storefront and software launcher used by most PC gamers. The company also once made video games like the critically-acclaimed Half-Life and Portal series, though these have both been dormant for a decade (outside of the VR-only Half-Life: Alyx, but that doesn’t count). 

As for the Steam Deck itself, it’s essentially a miniature version of a gaming computer. It features a 7-inch touchscreen display, custom processors and a bespoke graphics card, and a solid-state drive for storage. The device is larger than a Switch, but still small enough to carry in a bag and take on a long trip. It doesn’t feature a media port, though. You’ll need to download any games you plan to play on the Steam Deck.

Valve has a bit of a troubled history with hardware. The Deck isn’t its first foray into the hardware space. The company has already created “Steam Machines,” ill-fated microconsoles that failed to move many units and became more of a punchline than a serious product. These included the Steam Link, which sold about as well as hot soup on a summer afternoon. 

Hybrid Console

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IKDcbkZxHvg&ab_channel=PCWorld

The Steam Deck promises the same kind of hybrid gameplay as the Switch, albeit without the ease of use that Nintendo’s console offers. The Switch comes pre-packaged with a pair of Joy-Con controllers and a dock, so it’s easy to pop it into TV mode and back into handheld mode as soon as you get your hands on it. The Steam Deck requires a bit more setup to function as your full-suite gaming console, though. 

The Deck doesn’t come with a Switch-style dock. If you want to use it on your home TV, you’ll need to rely on third-party docks, cables, and controllers. This is all up to the player, but it does mean that each Deck owner has a lot of control over the experience. This applies to the system’s user interface and games, too! Since the system is essentially a small gaming computer, you can install whatever operating system and programs on it you’d prefer.

The “primary” use case of the Steam Deck, though, is as a mobile way to play the games you’ve already purchased on Steam. If you’re a PC gamer with a robust backlog of games on Steam that you want to play, you’ll love the Deck. You’ll be able to take your huge stack of Steam games with you on the train, on the plane, or just to the bathroom. Just being able to play games like Elden Ring or Slay the Spire from your bed or couch is a huge change, and well worth the price of admission.

Why It’s Awesome

The Steam Deck is a huge, sturdy console that can handle demanding games like Deathloop and Elden Ring on the go. While these huge games will chew through the battery life swiftly, the fact that the system can play them at all is a feat of astonishing engineering. Even taking these games into another room to play from the couch (while plugged in and charging) is a massive plus for the Steam Deck.

Beyond this, the control layout on the device is solid. The placement of the analog sticks looks weird at first, sitting closer to the screen than the D-Pad and face buttons, However, reviewers have noted that, unless you have very small hands, this control scheme is intuitive and comfortable. The system also sports trackpads that can mimic a traditional mouse input, a must for some games that aren’t fully integrated into the Deck’s software. 

For the target audience, the Steam Deck is a no-brainer. It’s a gaming PC that can play a huge library of titles you’ve already purchased. It’s a backlog-crusher, complete with the option to turn your living room TV into a monitor for games you want to see on the big screen.

That doesn’t mean it’s all good news, though.

So What’s the Catch?

The Steam Deck is certainly an excellent piece of gaming technology. However, it’s not perfect. The base model, which includes a paltry 64 GB of internal storage, retails for $400. That’s $50 more than the premium-priced OLED Nintendo Switch, and, as mentioned, the Deck doesn’t come with detachable controllers or a docking station. 

If you want more storage or better specs, you could shell out as much as $650. It’s worth noting, however, that’s well under the price of some comparable gaming laptops. But, as a console, it’s a steep price to pay. That’s more than the MSRP of a PlayStation 5, which features significantly more impressive specs. Sure, the PS5 isn’t portable, but I’m not convinced that the Steam Deck has earned its sticker price.

What’s more, you can’t just buy a Steam Deck right now. If you want one, you need to make a Steam account and get in line for a chance to pre-order one. Even though the system is technically already out, Valve is struggling to make enough units to fill the demand. Even if you could order one today, it’d be weeks (or maybe months) before the company would even have a system to ship to you.

Steam Deck Versus the Switch

Some have called the Steam Deck a “Switch Killer,” suggesting the console’s massive library of games, open-ended UI, and powerful specs will make it the ideal counterpoint to Nintendo’s massively popular hybrid console. This is unlikely, though. The Nintendo Switch has outsold nearly every game console ever created, currently only falling behind the PS2, Nintendo DS, GameBoy, and PS4. It’s also only halfway through its life cycle and will likely exceed at least the PS4, if not also the GameBoy. 

The Steam Deck lacks a few elements that make the Switch so popular. It’s expensive, it’s not readily available in stores, and it doesn’t have first-party titles like The Legend of Zelda or Mario to drive sales. The Switch has six first-party titles that have sold over 20 million copies, showing how important software is for driving the system’s success. Valves’ system, while technically impressive, isn’t as eye-catching for the average customer as the Switch.

Here’s the thing, though: Valve isn’t competing with Nintendo. Well, in a literal sense, it is. However, Valve doesn’t need the Steam Deck to outsell the Switch in order for it to be considered a success. The two systems are serving different purposes, despite their outward similarities. The Switch is a general-market powerhouse, an affordable hybrid system that can bend itself around your schedule and gaming habits. The Steam Deck is a reconfigured gaming laptop for a core audience of gamers.

Bottom Line

If you’re a PC gamer who won’t mind waiting for a chance to shell out $400 (or more) for an ambitious hybrid console, you’ll love the Steam Deck. It’s the most accessible way to take your Steam Library with you on the go. You won’t have to worry about using a mouse-and-keyboard control scheme for games that are better with controllers or trying to fit a bulky laptop into a bag. Instead, you’ll have a durable, all-purpose gaming console that has all the best parts of a handheld device and a PC.

If you’re more of a home console fan, to begin with, you won’t find much value from the Steam Deck. It’s a system that lends itself to existing Steam users first and foremost, so those gamers who prefer to play Nintendo games and other console-based experiences will likely stick with the Switch. So, is the Steam Deck a Switch killer? No, and it doesn’t have to be.