Valve just announced its new handheld Steam Deck, powered by a custom Linux operating system. The 7-inch device will play the latest AAA games, and because it’s a PC, you’ll even be able to install Windows on it. That means the Steam Deck could be the perfect Xbox portable, given Microsoft’s investment in shipping all of its future Xbox Game Studios titles on PC.
“Steam Deck is a PC so you can install third-party software and operating systems,” says Valve, which means this hardware isn’t locked down in the way we’re used to seeing from tech companies.
The Steam Deck itself will ship with SteamOS, a custom Linux operating system that loads into the familiar Steam interface you’re used to on PC. While Linux support for gaming has been improving in recent years, particularly thanks to Valve’s Proton efforts, less than 15 percent of all games on Steam officially support Linux and SteamOS. That’s 7,586 games out of a possible 54,280 on Steam, compared to only 13 games on Steam that don’t work on Windows.
The Steam Deck ships with the Linux-based SteamOS.
Installing Windows on the Steam Deck would open this device up to the thousands of games on Steam that aren’t listed as SteamOS compatible yet, and Microsoft’s Xbox Game Pass subscription. You can check to see if the games you play are supported over on Valve’s Steam site, or the Proton database.
Proton does most of the work to make games run on the Steam Deck, but titles with anti-cheat software are still an issue on Linux. That might be about to change, though. “We’re working with BattlEye and Easy Anti-Cheat to get support for Proton ahead of launch,” says Valve. That could mean titles like Apex Legends, Destiny 2, PUBG, Fortnite, and Gears 5 will soon work with Proton and the Steam Deck.
When you look at the hardware inside the Steam Deck, it’s even closer to a portable Xbox than you’d expect. A custom AMD GPU will power the Steam Deck, complete with eight RDNA 2 CUs, and up to 1.6 teraflops of performance. That’s slightly more than the Xbox One S (1.4 teraflops), and slightly less than the PS4 (1.8 teraflops). It’s a modern RDNA 2 architecture, so it’s difficult to compare teraflops alone, but it certainly looks like it will be powerful enough for handheld PC gaming.
Obviously, the possible downsides to installing Windows will be whether there’s full driver support, and the struggles of a desktop UI that’s not optimized for a handheld device. It’s also not clear just how well games will perform on Windows on the Steam Deck, so there are a lot of unknowns until the device launches in December.
That said, handheld gaming PCs are slowly emerging as viable alternatives to the giant rigs or hefty laptops you typically need to play PC games. A Switch-style Neo Handheld launched on Indiegogo earlier this year, and the 5.5-inch GPD Win 3 is the latest in a series of GPD handhelds.
We’ve been getting close to a Switch-sized gaming PC for over a year, and Valve’s Steam Deck device is the first to really bring the idea to the mainstream. Now we just need to find out how well this really runs games, and just how easy it is to get Windows up and running.
Update, July 15th 4:15PM ET: Article updated with new details from Valve on Proton support for games with anti-cheat.