The Steam Deck has transformed PC gaming
The huge success of the Nintendo Switch would indicate that anything similar in look and price will have the same performance. But since its launch in 2017, nothing has garnered the same kind of attention as Nintendo’s hybrid console. Valve, makers of stellar hardware like the Valve Index as well as unsuccessful products like the Steam Controller and various Steam Machines (if you can even remember them), was a surprising new contender in the space when it announced the Steam Deck. A laptop that could take your Steam library anywhere and everywhere sounded too good to be true, but since its launch in February of this year, it’s been a machine that surprises time and time again.
There was a lot standing in the way of Steam Deck’s initial success. When it launched, Valve announced over 100 games that had been verified for Steam Deck compatibility, with only 60 having achieved the highest level of compatibility. It looks like a Linux-based OS and Proton — localization layer games would benefit — could ruin any Steam Deck chances before they really get going. But that didn’t stop the initial stock of pre-order from rolling out quicker than most people could react to, triggering the Steam Deck for a big, obvious launch.
When it finally made its way into consumers’ hands, it was just the right amount of imperfection to be endearing. Yes, not every game in your library works right away, but that also doesn’t seem to matter when you can easily take the games you were playing on PS4 months ago and have them run surprisingly well on a handheld. Smaller titles came out on Valve, where hardware limitations mattered far less to great performance and the form factor made playing those games more engaging from behind a monitor at a desk. Steam Deck lives up to its promise of letting you bring a large library of games with you on the go, while also urging you to continue developing them within Valve’s ecosystem.
Perhaps its biggest triumph is how it has managed to simplify the entire process of playing games on a PC. Valve has used its console-like interface, Big Picture Mode, on Steam for years now, but it never feels as at home as it does on the Steam Deck. It’s satisfyingly easy to browse through the library of existing titles and buy new games within the confines of its brilliantly designed user interface, never exposing you to the core workings of the software underneath that makes it all possible. With easy-to-decipher tags indicating whether or not a game is running on the Steam Deck, it’s easy to understand why something works or doesn’t without having to wonder if it’s something to do with your unique make-up in your desktop architecture, and worse, How will you solve it.
Ignoring its competitive hardware, this easy-to-use software layer is what sets Steam Deck apart from many other similar competitors, such as the multiple portable devices under the Aya brand. These laptops run primarily on Windows, which makes them more like a desktop computer, and coincidentally, gaming is somewhat more annoying as the operating system and hardware struggle to work together gracefully. With SteamOS and the Steam Deck so closely tied, the handheld is the closest PC gaming has come yet to replicate direct console play, without sacrificing the choice detail that lets you play games the ways you want. .
The Steam Deck is flexible enough to satisfy tinkerers too, with a variety of options for refresh rates, scaling resolution (with support for AMD FSR at the system level), and options to limit power consumption to extend battery life. All of this has an impact on how you experience gaming, along with the wealth of options that most PC titles offer. So while a higher level user experience allows most to enjoy gaming without the complexity of these options, it is still there for those who come from a background where they are essential for overall enjoyment. It’s this balance that allows Steam Deck to cater to the same PC crowd that Steam has been satiating for over a decade, while at the same time inviting those potentially intimidated by the number of options required by streamlining a huge part of the process. Valve has successfully lowered the entry barrier to PC gaming, with a device that also raises questions about why you’d lug around a much more bulky, hotter, and much more expensive laptop for gaming on the go again. It’s a feat that many PC makers have attempted to achieve without even approaching this level of success.
It’s Steam Deck’s flexibility that makes it such a tempting buy, made easier by Valve’s aggressive pricing that makes building an equivalent desktop competitor a difficult prospect. Even better, the Steam Deck can double as a productivity device, albeit fine for relatively light workloads like word processing and web browsing. Because of its open nature, you can choose to erase what Valve put it in and reconfigure everything from scratch, load Windows and engage with Xbox Game Pass if you choose. You’ll sacrifice a lot of what makes Steam Deck so easy to use, but Valve’s decision to leave that option up to you (while also giving you the tools to redo everything again if you want to) is a refreshing display of confidence in its consumers that very few platforms have to this similar mirror. It is indicative of the understanding that spending time standing in the way of such experiences would be wasted, and that ensuring the process of supporting them as accurately as possible is more beneficial to the time that Valve itself spends on these systems and to those who ultimately want support.
In the same way that it was nearly impossible not to recommend a Nintendo Switch purchase, the same could easily be said of the Steam Deck on the eve of its first anniversary. It’s become one of the simplest ways to get into PC gaming, allowing you to get up and running with a brand new Steam account to play on the go or a new home to store your existing library in. It does so without compromising the meaning of gaming on PC as well, recontextualizing the perceived barrier of entry you have to overcome to simply enjoy this space. By simplifying the entire process of installing and running a game while providing a customizable environment to do pretty much everything else, the Steam Deck is a captivating device for a wide audience that will certainly be informing the future of PC gaming for some time to come.
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