doubts and certainties about Valve’s new gaming machine

Announced by surprise with a lot of “hands-on” published on the pages of IGN, Steam Deck is a portable game machine with which Valve aims to revolutionize the balance of a commercial niche as bumpy as it is narrow: that of handheld PCs. The company’s goal is precisely to clear this particular portion of the market through customs, colonizing it with a transversal proposal designed to attract players from different gaming ecosystems. A not insignificant undertaking, the outcome of which – in the current situation – is very difficult to predict.

Valve’s bet

Valve’s new portable creature is a weird beast, a tech hybrid placed at halfway between the PC universe and the console one, designed to allow users to take advantage of the gargantuan catalog of the US giant also in portability, enjoying – theoretically – a good flexibility as regards the choice of performance presets.

In this sense, Steam Deck moves away from the classic canons of the console ecosystem both in terms of philosophy and effective versatility, occupying a market niche generally not frequented by players, namely that of handheld PCs.

Over the years several players in the hardware industry (including the likes of Lenovo and Dell) have presented prototypes and projects with features conceptually similar to the Steam Deck, but at the moment the only company to have been successful – at least to a relative extent – in this particular sector has been the Chinese GamePad Digital, although its family of GPD Win devices has never managed to reach a really significant diffusion.

On the other hand we are talking about machines that generally arrive on the market with rather high prices, without any promotional support and with widespread problems as regards the actual compatibility with third-party software, without considering the obvious frictions with the traditional dogmas of PC scene, both in terms of performance and modularity.

At this point, however, it is already clear how the Steam Deck project has a much more solid foundation compared to those of its “portable cousins”: leaving aside the enormous visibility guaranteed by belonging to the Valve family, it is clear that the Bellevue giant aims to make its “little girl” an excellent access point to the Steam ecosystem , and it certainly has the means to incentivize developers to follow this same course, at least on paper.

In this regard, the specifications of the device are quite promising, starting with that APU based on Zen 2 architecture that bodes well about the tightness of the hardware, especially keeping in mind the resolution of the supplied panel, set at 800p (1280×800 pixels). Assuming that the technical comparisons with the present and past consoles – Switch in the first place – leave the time they find, we are talking about a machine with a “power per pixel” all in all well calibrated, as confirmed by the first tests carried out by IGN. In this regard, here you will find the Steam Deck specifications.

All at a fairly reasonable price, especially if we consider the overall hardware set-up in relation to market standards or, more generally, to those of the handheld segment. It is worth noting that the base model of Steam Deck (419 euros with 64 GB of eMMC memory) represent a risky investment at least, both for the technical characteristics of the memory (less efficient and with much faster degradation times) and for the usage scenarios suggested by the peculiarities of the product, also considering the possibility of using a good “reinforcement” SD card.

Much better to consider the other two options (the more expensive also has an anti-glare screen), even more so if the intention is to take advantage of Steam Deck as a real portable PC, perhaps joining Windows to the Steam OS. The openness to this kind of “alterations” is certainly good news for hardened geeks (the writer fully recognizes himself in the category), as well as the possibility of connecting additional peripherals to the device (mouse, keyboards and secondary controllers, both via the official dock that using a generic USB-C hub) and external monitors, setting the output resolution as desired. It goes without saying that the Steam Deck specs are calibrated according to the characteristics of the integrated screen, so don’t expect performance to be as solid at resolutions above 800p. More generally, beyond the Steam Deck power estimates it is clear that the characteristics of the individual securities will have an extremely significant weight on the actual quality of the experience on the handheld.

The variables are too numerous to unbalance now in concrete assessments (we lack fundamental data such as the speed of the memory bus), but it is already clear that – albeit flexible – Valve’s hardware will have to receive specific attention from the development teams, especially for what concerns the optimization of the controls and the game interface. The support of Valve, its readiness in forging partnerships with the various development teams could make the difference, but at the moment the unknowns exceed the certainties.

The list of doubts also includes some uncertainty about the actual ergonomics of the handheld, in the face of a relatively high weight and with a rather atypical arrangement of controls, and on battery life: Valve speaks of times between 2 and 8 hours, an interval that is too wide to be really indicative.

Everything will obviously depend on the “weight” of the titles and the selected graphic presets, but it is still a random factor to be taken into account, which could significantly alter the success of the machine. In any case, technical issues aside, the outcome of Valve’s operation is closely linked to a question: Who exactly is the Steam Deck proposal aimed at?

A proposal that is as transversal as it is risky

The central node of the offer, its main strength, clearly lies in the possibility of transporting your library of games on PC everywhere, using Steam as a preferred service but without excluding the rest (GOG, Epic Store, Xbox Game Pass), compatible but not necessarily optimized for “small scale” use.

We therefore think that the primary target of Steam Deck is that portion – very abundant – of users who already have a large collection of titles on the Valve platform, which still represents the main point of reference for the PC audience. However, we must consider that we are talking about a share of the gaming community tending to be linked to consolidated play routines, to a different fruition model from that proposed by Steam Deck, which on this front is closer to the console world. We are not only talking about the hard core of the “enthusiast”, the purists of graphics in whose veins run thermal paste and cooling fluid, but also of that large slice of players proudly positioned in the “mid-end” of the market. Despite the enthusiasm shown in the face of Valve’s announcement, in short, it is difficult to quantify the concrete interest of this portion of the “platea ludens”. Similarly, it is difficult to believe that the vast majority of users of the Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo communities can recognize Steam Deck as a valuable investment, and not just because they may lack a large collection of games on Steam: in most cases we are talking about players who have long been rooted in a specific “habitat”, appreciate its particularities (features, services, exclusives, social dimension) and recognize it as the preferred setting for their leisure activities.

However, it must be said that the “core gamers”, the regular players who do not mind wallowing among the different ecosystems to indulge a wide range of playful interests, could find more than one reason to buy Valve’s machine, also in accordance with their professional and family duties. Due to its characteristics, Steam Deck could also attract the attention of users of cloud gaming services, but it is currently an extremely limited percentage of the videogame community.

Wanting to open a parenthesis on the territorial peculiarities of users, the Asian market – increasingly linked to gaming on the move – would be an ideal cradle for Valve’s proposal, but it is also one of the most difficult to reach effectively. Overall, therefore, the latest technological enterprise of Gabe Newell and associates appears as a bet as unexpected as it is extremely risky: net of the turmoil triggered by the announcement, Valve’s proposal could struggle to reach numbers that fully justify its existence on the market, especially considering that the profit margins on the single piece will probably be very narrow.

On the other hand, Steam does not need to fuel the engagement of its audience, and it is not at all obvious that the game is worth the candle. This is clearly a niche product, and therefore it remains to be understood what expectations the company has towards this new commercial venture.

Whatever the figures, it is already clear that continued support from the manufacturer will be an essential element for the long-term results of the operation, including as regards the involvement of other industry players. The future of Steam Deck is still hazy, therefore, but on our side we can’t help but want a close encounter with Valve’s new handheld, also to dispel some of the most pressing doubts related to the design of the machine. Fortunately, we won’t have to wait much longer. At this point, a question seems logical: are Steam Deck and Nintendo Switch rivals?