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With the Steam Deck, Valve might beat Nintendo at its own game

Steam Deck
Steam Deck (Image credit: Valve)

Ever since the age of the original Game Boy over 30 years ago, Nintendo has dominated the portable gaming space. This trend continues in the modern day, as its latest console, the Nintendo Switch, which is a handheld/docked hybrid and has enjoyed years of market supremacy. The reason why? At the end of the day, there's nothing else like it available.

Notably, though, the Switch does have one key weakness: lackluster tech specs. The console often struggles to play Nintendo's core games at 30 FPS, and significant downgrades have had to be made to many of the other games ported to the system just to get them to run semi-smoothly. Despite this glaring flaw, however, Nintendo has chosen to rest on its laurels instead of developing a "Nintendo Switch Pro" with more capable hardware (but, hey, there's an OLED version coming. That's cool, I guess).

Unfortunately for Nintendo, a new challenger approaches in the wake of its complacency, and it's a developer that nobody expected to see enter the ring: Valve. The PC gaming developer, publisher, and distributor recently announced the Steam Deck, a Switch-sized miniature gaming PC that threatens to beat Nintendo at its own game. Here's how.

Hardware that blows the Switch out of the water

Source: Valve (Image credit: Source: Valve)
CategorySteam DeckNintendo Switch OLED Model
CPUAMD Zen 2, 4 cores/8 threads (2.4-3.5GHz)Custom NVIDIA Tegra X1 processor
GPU1.6 TFLOPSUnknown
Memory16GB LPDDR54GB LPDDR4
StorageUp to 512GB NVMe SSD64GB
Display7-inch 1280x800 (400 nits), up to 8K @ 60Hz or 4K @ 120Hz via USB-C DisplayPort7-inch OLED, up to 1080p in TV mode, 720p in handheld
Battery40WHr (2-8 hours estimated)4,310mAH (4.5-9 hours estimated)

Above all else, the biggest edge that the upcoming Steam Deck has over the Nintendo Switch is its significantly better hardware specs. Compared to the Switch's rather outdated NVIDIA Tegra X1 system-on-chip, 4GB of LPDDR4 RAM, and 32GB of storage (64GB on the new Switch OLED Model), the Steam Deck boasts an impressive 1.6 TFLOPS GPU, an AMD Zen 2 CPU with four cores and eight threads, 16GB of LPDDR5 RAM, and either 64GB of eMMC storage or 256/512GB of NVMe SSD storage. At 400 nits, the device's 7-inch touchscreen display is also about 100 nits brighter than the standard Switch's. It even comes with a 40WHr battery, which is impressive for the size of the Steam Deck.

Steam Deck looks like it will be the powerful Switch Pro that Nintendo never made.

Of course, whether or not the Steam Deck actually performs as well as its specs suggest it will remains to be seen. It's worth pointing out that the Steam Deck's official website shows actual gameplay on a prototype, though, and the experience looks very smooth. Overall, based on everything we've seen so far, the Steam Deck looks like it will be the powerful Switch Pro that Nintendo never made.

Huge versatility in a small package

Source: Valve (Image credit: Source: Valve)

Another big advantage that the Steam Deck has over the Nintendo Switch is its immense versatility. Featuring a USB-C port for peripheral connectivity, full Bluetooth 5.0 support for wireless accessories, a dock you can use to hook the device up to a full-sized monitor, and the ability to install Windows, Linux, and third-party content, the Steam Deck sounds like it's going to be one of the most versatile portable gaming systems ever made. Compared to the Switch's very limited selection of peripherals and capabilities, you'll be able do anything you want and use any wireless accessory you want with the Steam Deck. There's even the possibility of emulation on the Steam Deck (60FPS Zelda anybody?).

The versatility of the Steam Deck isn't limited to gaming, either. Pair it with a Windows installation and a wireless keyboard and mouse, and you'll have a quick and snappy productivity device at the ready. A foldable stand on the back would have made the Steam Deck even better for this, but there will most likely be affordable third-party stands made after the device launches later this year.

Let's talk about those controls

Source: Valve (Image credit: Source: Valve)

Uncomfortable controls may undermine Valve's efforts to challenge Nintendo.

While everything about the Steam Deck from a hardware specs and software standpoint looks incredible, something that's a bit concerning about the device is its ergonomics. The control surfaces on either side of the screen are quite bulky, and I'm skeptical about Valve's decision to put the ABXY buttons and D-Pad directly next to the joysticks. It also remains to be seen whether or not the trackpads are enjoyable to use in shooter games where lining up shots quickly and fluidly is important. Overall, the machine just doesn't look very comfortable to use. In a hands-on preview, IGN said that despite its looks, the Steam Deck is actually very comfortable to use for long periods of time, so we'll reserve any judgments until Steam Deck is actually out in the wild.

If the fear that the Steam Deck's controls aren't pleasant to use comes true, Valve's efforts to challenge the dominance of the Nintendo Switch may fall short. The Switch is certainly disappointing from a power standpoint, but a huge reason why it has and continues to sell so well is because of how comfortable and easy to use it is. A portable gaming system needs to be enjoyable to use, so it's crucial that Valve gets this right.

Final thoughts

Ultimately, I think this is the most exciting thing Valve has done in years, and I can't wait to see how the Steam Deck squares up to the Nintendo Switch. People have been asking for a Switch Pro for a long time now, and Valve has a serious opportunity to eat Nintendo's lunch and beat it at its own game with the Steam Deck. If it's as good as the spec sheet indicates, the Steam Deck will also be one of the best ways to play some of the best PC games portably.

Steam Deck prices start at $399, and preorders begin on July 16 at 10 AM PT / 1 PM ET on the official preorder page. Will you be getting a Steam Deck? Let me know in the comments.

Brendan Lowry is a Windows Central writer and Oakland University graduate with a burning passion for video games, of which he's been an avid fan since childhood. You'll find him doing reviews, editorials, and general coverage on everything Xbox and PC. Follow him on Twitter.

36 Comments
  • Is this a potentially amazing Device. Definitely. Will this eat Nintendo's lunch? No. Not at all. Just ask Sony with their PSP and Vita, both of which were technologically superior to the DS, and were crushed. Then there's Valve and how willing they are to support this thing, given their track record the failed attempt as a home console, the Steam Machines. I definitely think there's a place for this in the Gaming PC market, because there really hasn't been a solid contender for PC gaming handheld. But this ain't a switch
  • Nintendo shot themselves in the foot for not upgrading the switch for 4K or at least the 4K base. $10 per each new model to make more is just lacking in trying from Nintendo. Absolutely no reason to buy the new switch.
  • 4K wouldn't have changed a thing since Switch games don't even target 4K or use 4K assets. The OLED Switch is definitely a tough sell, but while the Switch could use a bit more juice, Nintendo doesn't need it.
  • You are correct that Nintendo fans won't be ditching the Switch for a Deck. No more than Sony fans will ditch their Playstation for an XBox. It's the gaming world version of the tyranny of the installed base. However, there is a whole universe of PC gamers who are vested in the Steam ecosystem, many of whom will be thrilled to get a Deck either as their first gaming PC or as a companion to a full spec gaming PC. More than enough to make this fly.
    It's a separate customer base. The key is it comes to market with a large catalog of games and it is dockable. Not any good gaming PCs in the $400-600 range. This has potential but it is as an extension of the PC gaming market.
  • Not the best argument about Xbox and Sony being in a similar situation to Switch with users not ditching that platform for Valve/Steam. Unlike Switch the Xbox and PS actually are direct competitors that are fighting for mostly the same customers. And customers moving from PS to Xbox or Xbox to PS is not uncommon between gens. The fact is there are quite a few that will jump ship to the console that is the perceived best on cost, power, and overall gaming value between Xbox and PS. It happened last gen when the first couple of years showed 30% of PS4 buyers were Xbox 360 owners who never owned a PS or did not own the prev-gen (PS3). I am seeing first-hand several friends of mine that have already bought an Xbox Series over a PS5 after only having a PS4. While others I know would act similarly if they could (or when they can) get their hands on an Xbox Series now over continuing to the PS5 from their PS4. My brother bought his first Xbox after only investing in PS ecosystem since the PS One. And over time all this carries over to the casuals (which make up roughly 80% of PS and Xbox buyers) and that group is not nearly as anchored to a console from gen to gen as that more dedicated 20% of console owners. For casuals, it is perceived value for their money, friends, and the current console with public momentum that are primary decision points over allegiance to a piece of plastic that the 20% that are locked in no matter what. Now, will it be a mass exodus to the other platform? No. But it can add up to be a sizable amount that will affect a company's bottom line. In this case, it looks to be Sony that will be losing consoles sales compared to last gen. Sony knew Microsoft's Xbox would be much more competitive even before Xbox surprised everyone with the Series X reveal at the TGAs. IMO, Sony realizing this is one of the reasons SIE under Ryan has increased the game prices by $10, is willing to charge for updates, moving more and more games to PC (wouldn't be surprised day and date in a couple of years), and are supporting the PS4 for several years longer then even Xbox was planning to support Xbox One. I am willing to bet this gen will end up being closer to the PS3 and Xbox 360 gen console sale numbers than the last-gen with its 2 to 1 lead the PS4 had over the Xbox One and Sony knows it. In any case, PC gaming (and that means the Steam Deck), for the most part, is not a competitor with Switch or any other console. In fact, that is what Switch and PC have in common, they really don't compete directly very much with Xbox or PS for the same gaming customers.
  • Read again: The point is that all the camps have locked in customers that won't switch (sic) their ecosystem easily. The competition is mostly for newcomers to gaming. Phil Spencer has said the same thing repeatedly: MS wants to rope in new-to-gaming customers, not play a zero sum game solely about taking customers from Sony or Nintendo because while some might switch, they won't ever be enough to build a console generation strategy around.
    The same applies to the Deck; it will succeed or fail by buikding its own customer base, not taking them from Nintendo. And the lijeliess place is with PC gamers alrrady invested in STEAM.
  • Meh, I'm happy with Xcloud.
  • But if it has a browser that supports xcloud, I'm in.
  • You can do xcloud with this too, probably!
  • Nintendo fans won't buy this and not enough PC fans will either... The Steam controller was an awful way to play mouse and keyboard games and this will be too...
  • Time will tell. Not about Nintendo fans buying it. That agree it is highly unlikely in that Switch gamers will buy the Deck in any large numbers. However, time will tell if PC gamers (you know those ones who talk about their rigs being so much better than console and now would be playing so much less so with a Deck) are willing to invest in this device in large numbers. And I highly doubt price-conscious gamers are going to invest in this over a console. Again time will tell.
  • The Switch is for kids, families and casuals. The Steam Deck is for gaming adults with an extensive steam library that wants an accompanying handheld. Each device has its market. Steam has a lot of adult content beyond the cheeky Bayonetta or ultra-violent Resident Evil. Doubt parents will be flocking to buy the dark device over the fluffy colourful "safe" recognisable Nintendo device. The GPD handhelds already beat the switch on specs a year ago and you can play Steam titles on that, so it's nothing new. The Valve name will be more of a pull, but only for those adults that know about it and already have gaming PCs. It will perform well in its niche market, just like the Index VR headset, but it's doubtful it will topple the mainstream Switch in the general market.
  • Do new GPD handhelds have RDNA2 GPUs?
    They didn't when I scoped them out.
    This is a step up akin to the move from XBOX One to Series S: similar resolution, more sophisticated graphics.
  • You heard it here first. The Switch is safe. It's hard to be a device killer when the device you're trying to kill has already sold around a 90 million units. This isn't the first attempt at a portable PC handheld and it certainly won't be the last. Nintendo and PC gaming are on two separate spectrums that will likely never converge. I'm a Nintendo gamer through and through and I know plenty others that are the same. There's enough gamers of each to go around. No need to try and destroy the other.
  • My kids have already invested in two nintendo switches and they are saving forna third one, for the third kid. I love nontendo for one reason. They don't try and upgrade every three years. They are more a software company than a hardware company and they do wonderful with that model. They basically created an advanced gamboy that can run on a TV if need be. With that being said. I care more about the portable battery life vs the power. I can keep their mouths quiet longer when we are out and about. 4.5 vs 2 hours. My kids all like something different and the switch allows them that luxury. They can all play smash brother with 8 controllers or they can each play a one person game, it just works.
  • The specs look promising. Curious about the controls and button placement. The thing about PC games is that they often have more hot key mapping than a person can map to a controller. Whereas the UX and Input in console games are primarily designed around the limited set of buttons on a controller. I'm curious to see how Valve will get around this - even moreso with that button placement. Especially for older games that don't support controllers natively. As others have alluded, the Steam Deck won't be replacing the switch any time soon as they both cater to a different set of audiences. Personally, I hope this finally lights the innovative spirit of Nintendo again.
  • Won't happen. Nintendo is following the Gameboy formula. Gradual advances in tech that won't spoil the honey pot. Now, the next one will habe a gradual upgrade. Maybe a bit faster but nothing that will scream amazing. Sor of like the game boy advanced did.
  • The last time it happened with Nintendo that I recall was the late 90's (N64), I was waiting for 10yrs for the next big thing from them, but eventually gave up in disgust -I was young & naive!
  • I agree that this is the most exciting thing Valve has done in years. Unfortunately, that's more of statement on the sad state of Valve than it is praise of the Steam Deck... Most people didn't buy a Switch to play ports of PC games on the go, they got it to play Zelda and Mario. Most people couldn't care less that the Switch can't do 4K (which it doesn't appear the Steam Deck is powerful enough to do either, btw). I'm pretty sure Nintendo's lunch is safe.
  • Yes I would buy one.
  • The only way they beat or tie Switch is if they bring out new games such as the illusive HL3
  • No, HL3 would sell more GPU cards, not more Decks (OK it may sell some Decks). But PC gamers aren't going to buy Deck for a game. At least, not in any meaningful numbers. Not like those that bought a Switch just for BOTW. They have rigs to play games at 1440p/4k/8k with top visuals, audio, and overall capabilities and I can't them playing at 720p on a small screen on any regular basis. A Deck would be in addition to not instead of for PC gamers. And given a choice between a new GPU and a Deck, I bet most would invest in the GPU.
  • Looks great. But I'd be waiting for V2
  • Just to be clear, this is a shot at Microsoft and an attack at the role of Windows for gamers. This is bad for Microsoft. I certainly understand if Microsoft doesn't matter, this is fine, but for those of us who are MS fans, this should be concerning. MS has been very good to Valve, even putting its own IP on Steam. Valve in turn builds a PC that runs Windows programs, taking advantage of Microsoft's huge investments in developer tools to bring users and apps to Windows, and then doesn't even offer a version that ships with Windows. This is a big FU to Microsoft.
  • That's one read.
    Since the thing runs (a lot? of) Windows games it is actually expanding the reach of Windows/DirectX games.
    Until Valve introduces a subscription service comparable to GamePass with a boatload of exclusives (which might happen, I suppose) they aren't actually attacking MS, just going where they aren't (mobile gaming hardware). If anything they are complementary.
    To say Deck undercuts with MS is like saying Alienware undercuts them.
    As long as Deck run DirectX games they are *helping* MS with the audience that most matters to them: developers.
  • No, Alienware adds users to the MS ecosystem. This strips them away.
  • No, it doesn't. I am willing to bet a good percentage may even wipe the Linux OS off and install Windows for a variety of reasons. In fact, I see on forums that is the plan for a good amount of users interested in this device. First, It has been noted many games don't run well under Proton and some will only run under Windows OS. Secondly, the games that more people care about are only Windows-based and Deck uses Proton to get them to run on Steams Linux OS (if it can). Games that run directly on Linux are a small number compared to Windows on Steam. Not as if devs are suddenly going to invest money in Linux dev because of this device. Proton actually allows them to avoid doing such. And this all means Steam users are still going to be buying the games under Windows not Linux. And let's face it PC gamers arent' going to just have this device. For most this would be in addition to the Windows PC. That PC is where they will play a majority of their gaming on. I can't even see those that invest in this device willing to play at 720p on a small screen using a controller for any length of time over better graphics even a (low end) mid-level PC will have and a mouse and keyboard. 97% of Steam users are on Windows and that is in a world where Windows is only 85% of PCs worldwide. I also can't see a large population of console-only gamers investing in this. Some will, just like some invested in Stadia. In fact, Microsoft should have as much fear of this affecting Windows as Stadia would. And that is none. So really exactly how is Windows going to lose customers? This is not leading to the year of the Linux desktop. Sorry!
  • ??? MS doesn't care. Really. XBox and gaming is just a vanity project for MS, just a PR thing to make them seem cool and a lot of their employees are geeks so like games themselves. Hell, its the same for the Surface line, even if it hadn't become a multi-billion dollar business, I think they would still make them just to promote MS. Its a physical manifestation of the company in peoples hands and demos design, innovation, quality, etc.
  • Really there's going to be an article about how this will beat Nintendo. Not really likely.
  • Nintendo is popular for it's quality exclusives, not it's me too hardware.
  • True, however I would argue that people who aren't super attached to Nintendo exclusives have a strong reason to opt for a Steam Deck here. The Switch's performance is lacking, especially in regards to third-party ports. If you're a handheld gamer that doesn't love Mario or Zelda enough to offset the annoyances of underperforming hardware, I don't see why you wouldn't want a Deck instead (assuming the controls are comfortable).
  • This is me. I never owned a Nintendo and I typically don't play games on a mobile device but if this Steam device has decent games, I might give it a go.
  • 2-8 Hours battery life eh.... I would say that 8 is more of a "sitting in the main menu doing nothing" kind of number. Realistically when actually playing a game I bet we see numbers in the 3 hour range at best. This is a cool device but it will suck a lot of juice. Also that 399 price is for the base 64gig with the slower storage and the non-anti-glare glass. To get the better specs mentioned in this article you have to spend 650 bucks. That isn't on the same page as the switch at all.
  • Not sure what you mean - all three versions of the Deck have the same internals aside from the storage. None of them are more powerful than the other, you just get more and faster storage.
  • I am noat a Nintendo cheerleader at all. But, what is all this the Steam Deck has the Nintendo Switch beat talk? People buy Nintendo devices buy it for Nintendo games Game sales show that is the primary reason. Games like Doom that do well on PC do not fare so well on the Switch. So, unless Nintendo starts putting their games on PC the point is moot. The Switch will still dominate every place for this type of mobile gaming. This is for a subset of PC gamers to play a few hours before having to plug it back in because that is what you will have if your lucky for most games; not 6 hours, not 8 hours. Most importantly Deck won't be the primary PC gaming device for most (if any). Whereas many Switch owners that device is their primary device. And let's not ignore with all these comparisons of capability I am not aware of once in the history of Nintendo consoles/devices that they had the best on a power level compared to similar devices. But, they still usually dominate the market they sell in for the simple reason being their first-party games. And what is this 4K, 8K support in the specs? Who are they kidding a 1.6 TF GPU isn't supporting gaming at the resolution. Your lucky it can run 720p games with the visual levels it is doing. I take that back 4k tic-tac-toe incoming.
  • From a hardware perspective I would absolutely say the Deck has the Switch beat, at least based on what we've seen so far. Depends on if its as good as it looks like it will be when it launches though.