The first Steam Decks are shipping out to eager customers today, delivering on months of hype for a PC squeezed into a handheld. While reviews are dissecting battery life, performance, and heat, I’m focused on the lesser-talked-about aspects of the Steam Deck: How much Valve has done to improve on previous handhelds.
Nintendo has dominated mobile gaming, at least outside of the massive library of Android games available. Sony has dabbled, but Nintendo created the template for handhelds. And now, Valve is throwing out that rulebook with the Steam Deck.
Performance, battery life, and all of the technical bits of the Steam Deck are important. But beyond frame rates and game compatibility, Valve has laid the groundwork to build the ultimate handheld with the Steam Deck. Here’s how.
OK, games on Steam aren’t exactly open. Like other PC gaming platforms, Steam allows developers to enforce Digital Rights Management (DRM) if they choose, but it’s only if developers and publishers choose to do that. The long list of DRM-free games on Steam is often overlooked.
In fact, Valve offers its own Steamworks publishing service for smaller developers, which is completely free and behind games like Hades, Hotline Miami, and Psychonauts. Steamworks includes a DRM, but like all Steamworks features, it’s optional. You can even play the lion’s share of Valve games separate from Steam by launching them through the terminal in Windows (including the most recent Half-Life: Alyx).
For other handhelds, Nintendo just announced that it’s closing the 3DS and Wii U game shops, and although players will still be able to download games they’ve purchased, it’s only a matter of time before the plug is pulled on that, too. Sony also announced that it would pull support for the PlayStation Vita store, though the company backpedaled following backlash.
I’m not trying to build Steam up beyond what it is. In the massive library of games available on Steam, most of them use DRM, and Steam enforces that. There are options, though, and at least you won’t lose all of your library in the event Valve ends supports one day, too.
More importantly, though, the Steam Deck isn’t restricted to Steam. If you’re worried about DRM, you can always pick up games from a DRM-free platform like GOG, who has a massive list of games that work natively on Linux.
With a handheld from Nintendo or Sony, you’re restricted to one storefront. With the Steam Deck, you can pick up games where you want, including the option to buy some games free of DRM. It’s not a perfect solution, but it’s a hell of a lot better than what previous handhelds have offered.
Anyone who has tried to work on a Nintendo Switch knows where I’m going here. When it comes to specially designed machines like the Steam Deck, serviceability is key. You can’t just buy parts off the shelf like you can with a PC, so easy access to components and a solid repair network are critical to making sure your device continues working.
Valve has made good its promise to sell parts for the Steam Deck so customers can service their own devices (or take them to a repair shop). Valve went with iFixIt as the official retailer of Steam Deck and Index VR components, and the company even shipped a Deck to iFixIt early for a full teardown.
Time is the only way to tell if Valve will keep up this support, but the signs are promising. At the very least, Valve is making the effort by doing things like partnering with iFixIt and posting the CAD files for everything on the Steam Deck. That’s a lot more than other handheld makers can say.
The Nintendo Switch is infamous for developing stick drift — an issue where one of the analog sticks will detect a subtle input even when you’re not touching the stick. There’s a robust repair ecosystem for the Nintendo Switch now, including replacement thumb sticks, but that network only came up after multiple class-action lawsuits were filed against Nintendo.
That’s not to say Nintendo is using subpar hardware — as iFixIt points out, all analog sticks have a limited lifespan. The difference is that Valve is getting ahead of that limited life span by supplying components and getting the hardware in the hands of repair experts.
The Steam Deck will inevitably have issues; components will break and they’ll need to be replaced. Even before the Steam Deck had started shipping, though, Valve put resources in place so customers have an option to repair their Deck outside of asking for help in Reddit threads.
Backwards compatibility is an issue that every console faces. Microsoft has been diligent to bring back support for older titles through the Xbox One and Xbox Series X, and PlayStation is starting the process by supporting PS4 games on PS5. PC is still the winner when it comes to backwards compatibility, though, and the Steam Deck is just a PC.
There are two big issues that backwards compatibility solves on a handheld: Bloated game prices and reselling games you’ve already purchased. Certain games are notoriously expensive on handhelds, and without digital copies available, your only option is to pay up or resort to piracy. Want to play Persona 3 on PSP? That’ll be $200, please.
Between the library at Steam and third-party platforms like GOG and Humble Bundle, you can find the vast majority of PC games ever released, no matter how old they are. There are exceptions — titles like Transformers: Devastation and even Rocket League have been pulled from Steam — but you have a lot more options for getting a game at a reasonable price on PC than you do on a closed platform like the PSP or even the Nintendo Switch.
You don’t have rebuy games, either. Nintendo is notorious for this. If you stocked up on Virtual Console titles for your 3DS, that’s the only place you can play them. If you want to play the classics you paid for on your Nintendo Switch, you’ll need to pay again for a Nintendo Switch Online membership (assuming the games you bought even come up as part of the program).
If Valve ever releases a Steam Deck 2, you’ll presumably be able to take every game you’ve bought with you. And with DRM-free options available, you’ll be able to continue playing games you’ve already purchased — even if a follow-up to Steam Deck never happens.
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