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Why Steam Deck will be better than Steam Machines

Steam Deck
Steam Deck (Image credit: Valve)

Valve's upcoming Switch-sized gaming PC, the Steam Deck, is one of the most exciting pieces of hardware that the company has created in years. It's easy to understand why people are so hyped for it, of course — the ability to access your Steam library with a handheld device will likely be revolutionary for the industry.

However, many fans are skeptical of the Steam Deck, with many believing that it will be a failure just like Valve's Steam Machines. I've been giving the comparison between the Steam Machines and the Steam Deck a lot of thought ever since the Steam Deck's announcement, though, and ultimately I believe that the Steam Deck will be different and better than Steam Machines for a few key reasons. Here's an overview on what the Steam Machines were, why they never became popular, and why I believe the Steam Deck will succeed where Steam Machines failed.

A brief overview of Steam Machines

Source: Valve (Image credit: Source: Valve)

If you've never heard of Valve's Steam Machines that were introduced in 2015, I don't blame you — the systems were nearly dead on arrival, with fewer than 500,000 units sold in the first seven months post-launch. But what were these systems, anyway? What was Valve trying to accomplish with them?

Valve wanted to bring a quality PC-gaming experience to the living room.

Valve had two main goals with the Steam Machines. The first goal was to bring a quality PC-gaming experience to the living room by partnering with manufacturers like Alienware to offer consumers a game console-style system that ran on SteamOS, a special version of the Steam software that utilizes Linux as a foundation. Unlike the standard Steam client that only really works well for desktop gaming, the SteamOS UI featured a simplified structure and larger icons and options that made it ideal for couch gaming. Valve also developed a special gamepad for the Steam Machines (and all other PCs) called the Steam Controller that swapped out the usual D-Pad and right analog stick for trackpads that provided haptic feedback and emulated the precision and speed of a mouse, which was useful for games that were never designed to be played with a controller. The controller's gyroscopic tech was also helpful for making fine adjustments to aim in shooters.

The second goal of the Steam Machines was to try to prove that PC gaming could succeed without being chained to Windows. This was a move that a fair amount of gamers appreciated, as many users lost faith in Microsoft because of the extremely controversial Windows 8 OS. With SteamOS, Valve wanted to show that gaming on Linux was a viable alternative to Windows.

Why Steam Machines failed

Source: Valve (Image credit: Source: Valve)

The main reason the Steam Machines never became popular is because in 2015-16, Linux and Linux-based operating systems were still incompatible with a huge number of PC games. This meant that if you bought a Steam Machine, there was a good chance that most of the games in your Steam library wouldn't have been available to play through the Steam Machine's SteamOS. Later Steam Machines came with Windows installations instead, but it wasn't enough to get people interested in Valve's living room gaming PCs. This is no longer the case for the most part (more on that later), but at the time, Linux just wasn't ready to support a high-quality gaming experience.

Secondly, the Steam Machines weren't very innovative or interesting beyond the Linux-based SteamOS. They were basically just pre-built Mini-ITX gaming PCs, and PC gamers who wanted a living room PC gaming experience could just build their own small gaming PCs for a lower cost than what Valve and its partners were asking. The Steam Controller itself was innovative and many PC gamers swear by it to this day, but it was available separately and thus, there was never anything exclusive to the Steam Machines that made purchasing one worth it.

Lastly, many of the Steam Machines were overpriced and featured lackluster specs, with some of the entry-level models only featuring dual-core processors, weak GPUs, and a meager 4GB of RAM. Some of the stronger Steam Machines were more capable than other pre-built mini gaming PCs and both the Xbox One and PS4, but they weren't strong enough to justify the significantly higher price.

Why the Steam Deck will be different

Source: Valve (Image credit: Source: Valve)

With its improved SteamOS, innovative form factor, and great hardware, the Steam Deck is poised to succeed.

It's understandable that some think the Steam Deck will fail just like the Steam Machines did, but I firmly believe that things will be a lot different this time around. The main reason is because over the last few years, the Proton compatibility layer that allows games designed for Windows to run on Linux has become significantly more compatible with most of the titles available on Steam. This means that compared to the version of SteamOS used in the Steam Machines, the Steam Deck's SteamOS 3.0 will let you play the vast majority of your existing Steam library. Currently, games with anti-cheat software still can't be played on Linux, but Valve indicates that it's improving Proton's support for anti-cheat solutions. Hopefully, these improvements are deployed before Steam Deck's launch, but if they're not, the fact that you can install Windows on your Steam Deck if you want to gives the system excellent versatility.

Another reason I believe the Steam Deck will be more successful is because unlike the Steam Machines, the Steam Deck has an innovative form factor. The Steam Machines' console-like designs weren't really that different from Mini-ITX gaming PCs, and as a result, Valve and its partners struggled to gain market share. The Steam Deck, though, brings the PC gaming experience to handhelds, which is something that hasn't been done well before. The ability to take your Steam library with you on the go is massive, and I expect that will interest gamers a lot more than a mediocre pre-built gaming PC will.

Finally, the specs of the Steam Deck are excellent for a handheld. With a 1.6 TFLOPS GPU, an AMD Zen 2 4-core 8-thread CPU, and 16GB of LPDDR5 RAM, the Steam Deck is on par with an Xbox One or PS4 and is considerably more capable than a Switch (Valve is arguably beating Nintendo at its own game because of this). Since the Steam Deck's 7-inch 1280x800 display will require fewer system resources to render on than typical 1080p HD display, the performance of the specs will also most likely be higher than what they would be when a standard screen. Valve claims that the Steam Deck will be fully capable of AAA gaming, and I don't doubt it at all.

Final thoughts

While I understand why some think that the Steam Deck is doomed to fail like the Steam Machines did, I think that Steam Deck's SteamOS 3.0, form factor, and hardware specs will help it succeed where the Steam Machines fell short. What do you think about the Steam Deck? Do you think it will be one of the best systems to play some of the best PC games on? Let me know in the comments.

Steam Deck prices start at $399, and reservations have begun on the official preorder page. The Steam Deck is expected to start shipping in December 2021.

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.

14 Comments
  • The real question is will you be able to play Xbox Gamepass Games on it since for "over the last few years, the Proton compatibility layer that allows games designed for Windows to run on Linux". Microsoft goal is to let you play on the platform you want and not be tied to just PC or Xbox platforms.
  • I imagine so, but possibly not on SteamOS itself. You definitely should be able to play XGPU games on a Windows installation.
  • It will be interesting to see which is more successful "Steam Deck" or "Surface Duo". If gamers can play their Gamepass games on the Steam Deck then they could give the Surface Duo some competition. Gamers have been looking for a good portable handheld that can play their games without having purchase them all over again for a different platform.
  • It all depends on whether or not the Duo's software issues get solved, honestly. IMO, the Duo won't be a serious competitor in this space until MS gets everything working properly. Xbox Game Streaming is excellent, but Duo is not
  • I hear that. I usually like to wait a generation to make sure all the kinks are worked out.
  • less than 500000 steam machines sold? I'm surprised they sold any
  • Well it does say fewer than, so it could still mean 0 :-)
  • I anticipate Deck will sell better as it is a Valve machine and not reliant on other OEMs. Certainly Valve hopes it does better as Steam machines failed
  • Obviously steam deck will sell better, much better bang for buck and doubles as a handheld + mini pc. And SteamOS is not so relevant here, since Windows can also be installed on it. Heck you can even install other competitor game launchers on it.
  • The hardware is right and the price is on point compared to other handheld PCs so it seems like it would do well. The fact that you have the option to install Windows is what sold me. If SteamOS does not work out, being able to replace it with another OS is a nice safety net to have.
  • Steam machines were just gaming PCs without Windows, the Steam Deck however is a unique machine with even a costum APU for a very good price.
  • Steam needs only a few games with cult characters as Nintendo and it's good.
    Best wishes and greatness awaits.
  • Guys, stop misleading people! > The first goal was to bring a quality PC-gaming experience to the living room by partnering with manufacturers like Alienware to offer consumers a game console-style system that ran on SteamOS, a special version of the Steam software that utilizes Linux as a foundation It was never been a goal for Gabe! His primary and ONLY goal was to continue to sell games on Steam. When he heard Balmer's plans to introduce Microsoft Store, he become hysterical and start to scream: "Screw your Windows, I will have mine console with SteamOS and ... games." His SteamOS was horrible, full of bugs, with almost 0 games supported. When he complete failed as manager, trying to organize SteamMachines production and simultaneously trying to convince developers to make Linux versions of their games - Balmer announced that nobody wants to get rid of Steam on Windows 8. And this was the end of the project. He start to sell everything for cheap, just to get read of it. His project management was awesome. For hardware side he just gave very broad specifications to vendors, and told them: "Hey guys! Just put any **** in small box and we call this Steam Machine! And people will buy it cause we are awesome!" For the devs he told: "Hey guys! SteamOS is awesome, Windows is ****. Why not to make Linux versions of the games, so people will buy it via Steam for my not even working yet SteamMachine? Imagine the money you can bring me!" Of course it was loud laugh from both sides. Only after some years, when SteamOS was dead, some people in Valve started to adopt open source Wine to their proprietary needs. In their spare time. And called it "The Proton!". A, yes. After this story - epic fail with VR. So why do you think, that something changed over time?
  • Yeah SteamOS is not all that interesting but what is interesting is the price for this handheld and its specs. So if I would buy one (personally I won't since I already have a Surface Go 2) than I would install Windows on this.