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How the Steam Deck dares to untether PC gaming from the PC

PC gaming has long been thought of as something tied to… well, the PC. Duh. PC gaming is nothing without the PC, right?

Well, in a lot of ways, that’s exactly the premise the Steam Deck wants to challenge. The system is finally being shipped to eager gamers around the world, and it’s about to redefine what PC gaming might look like in the future.

A PC unlike any other

Factorio running on a Steam Deck.

The Steam Deck is a unicorn in the PC gaming space. It’s not a device that matches any of our current definitions of what a “PC” is. It’s handheld. It’s focused squarely on gaming. And the hardware is fairly limited.

Like consoles, developers are able to target the Steam Deck’s AMD APU consisting of a Zen 2 CPU and RDNA 2 GPU. In that sense, it’s more in line with the PS5 and Xbox Series S/X than a modern gaming PC.

If you’re a desktop PC gamer like myself, that hardware won’t impress you. My latest build has an AMD Ryzen 7 3700X CPU, 32GB of DDR4-3200 RAM, and an Nvidia RTX 3070 — all packed inside of an Ncase M1 small form factor case. It’s powerful and fully upgradable. The Steam Deck, on the other hand, pales in comparison to even a basic budget gaming laptop you can buy right now.

You won’t find yourself editing spreadsheets on the Steam Deck any time soon.

But PCs aren’t just about hardware. Yes, my rig plays current AAA games at a 1440p resolution. But it also handles video editing in Da Vinci Resolve, my freelance writing on the side — and yeah, I can file my taxes on it too. That’s the beauty of the PC.

You won’t find yourself editing spreadsheets on the Steam Deck any time soon. Without killer hardware and multi-purpose functionality, the Steam Deck lacks two of the most attractive things about PC gaming.

What is left, however, is Steam itself. It’s the kernel of PC gaming that can continue on when you are many miles away from your desk. And that’ll be key to the future of PC gaming.

Steam on the go

Steam Deck with verified games.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Gaming is rapidly pushing toward an important inflection point. The initial success of cloud streaming services like Game Pass and GeForce Now is transforming how we think about game systems altogether. Latency issues aside, cloud gaming does provide an excellent way to play games especially when current-gen consoles are still hard to find. It also removes an obstacle for new gamers by allowing them to ditch both consoles and gaming PC if they don’t already have one.

You might even think we’re heading toward a future where owning true gaming hardware will be a thing of the past. Ardent PC gamers might scoff at the idea, but the painful drawn-out GPU shortage has made cloud gaming even more attractive.

If PC gaming is going to continue to thrive, it’s imperative that it extend beyond the bounds of traditional gaming PCs. And that’s where a platform like Steam comes in.

The Steam Deck doesn’t need to compete with consoles to be a success.

Unlike consoles, the Steam Deck has access to nearly the entire Steam library of over 50,000 games. That means you can play much older titles like Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and the original Quake — or recently released titles like Destiny 2: The Witch Queen. Granted, many of them have to run on the Proton compatibility layer since most games are compiled strictly for Windows, but the possibility is still there. And if the Steam Deck becomes an unbridled success, you better believe developers will be racing to optimize their games.

It’s going to take a long time for Game Pass’ measly list of 100 games to ever get close to Steam. It’s all there at your fingertips — no monthly fees required.

It’s not that the Steam Deck needs to compete with consoles to be a success. It just needs to let you bring Steam gaming with you wherever you go. Yes, that’s something laptops can do too. But handheld gaming goes beyond the portability even of a laptop. It’s one of the reasons the Nintendo Switch is the best-selling Nintendo home console ever.

The future of PC gaming is at hand

Someone playing the Steam Deck.

Obviously, the Steam Deck isn’t the only portable gaming PC. The Aya Neo, Onexplayer, GPD Win 3 (and Win Max) are all worthy alternatives to the Steam Deck. But Steam Deck has one important advantage. Valve’s tight control over the Steam Deck specs allows it to be specifically targeted by developers. Valve’s vertical integration between the Steam Deck hardware and Steam store platform gives it a unique advantage that other portable gaming PCs can’t offer.

That doesn’t mean, however, that we won’t see some competition to the Steam Deck in the future. Alienware showed off its own handheld gaming PC concept at CES 2020. And though it never came, we know gaming companies have been experimenting with the form for many years. If the Steam Deck catches on, we may see a whole wave of new handheld gaming PCs flood the market.

That might sound fanciful at first blush. And maybe it is. But so was cloud gaming just a few years ago.

If the Steam Deck can make it work, decoupling PC gaming won’t mean the end of the PC. It can simply mean the PC games you love are available in more places. And that feels like something all PC gamers can get behind.

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David Matthews
David is a freelance journalist based just outside of Washington D.C. specializing in consumer technology and gaming. He has…
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