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What the Steam Deck does that your PC doesn’t

In a conversation about the Steam Deck at a party last weekend, one guy said something that’s stuck with me since: “I want one, but I’ve got a PC. I just keep telling myself that.”

It’s an entirely valid point. The Steam Deck is irresistible to anyone who’s got even a little bit of gadget-hound in them; it’s a whole gaming PC that fits in a carry-on, and Valve has gone on the record as saying that, once you buy a Deck, it doesn’t care what you do with it. The possibilities are endless, especially if you’re the sort of person who’s still using that PlayStation Vita you modded six years ago.

On the other hand, if you’ve put the time, money, and work in to be a dedicated PC player, you’ve already got a PC that can run a lot of the games in your Steam library, and statistically, it’s probably a laptop. The Deck might be more convenient, but are you really willing to spend a few hundred bucks for that slight degree of convenience?

Well, yes. More importantly, though, there are a few things that the Steam Deck has going for it that your gaming PC doesn’t, some of which don’t necessarily apply to you. There are some cases beyond its basic portability, in fact, where the Deck is a legitimately superior option.

Easy access

Factorio running on a Steam Deck.
Steam

One of the quieter conversations the video game industry is having recently is the overall cost of entry. Anyone who wants to get into non-mobile gaming for whatever reason has to invest a substantial amount of money upfront, especially if they’re looking to buy a decent gaming PC.

The cheaper models of Steam Deck go a long way toward addressing that. The 64GB and 256GB Decks are comparable in price to older smartphones, and while the relatively small hard drives are an issue, they’ve got enough processing power to handle all but the most intensive games on the market.

Long story short, the Steam Deck is an excellent “gateway product” for anyone looking to get into PC gaming for the first time. Just in terms of money versus processing power, it’s one of the best deals going right now, especially if you use its desktop option so it can also serve as a portable workstation. It’s not something you’d want to invest in if you’re already a couple grand deep into your primary gaming machine, but for anyone who’s just dipping a toe into PC gaming, the Deck’s a solid, defensible choice.

Actual portability, outside the cloud

Two players use Steam Decks to play Stardew Valley.

While comparisons between the Steam Deck and the Nintendo Switch are generally overblown, one thing they do have in common is that neither is necessarily reliant upon the cloud. At a point in time when portable gaming has come to mean piping into a data center via a cloud server, the Deck still primarily runs off of local installation.

At this point in cloud gaming’s evolution, the Deck’s hardware-based gameplay is a point in its favor. You aren’t limited on the go by whatever coffee shop or airport terminal you can sponge data from. This will be less of an issue once 5G becomes more widespread, but for right now, there’s still something to be said for having actual hardware.

The Deck does have a relatively under-advertised feature, Dynamic Cloud Sync (DCS), which is potentially interesting for people who already play on PCs. While DCS has to be enabled by game developers and won’t simply work out of the box for any game, it promises that players can suspend a game in progress on their Deck, then sit down at a PC and pick up right where they left off. Even without DCS, the Deck uses Steam’s typical cloud saves, so you can still make progress on the Deck and continue it on your PC, albeit less seamlessly than DCS allows.

Haptic feedback and homebrew

Among its multiple other features, the Steam Deck is built around a 7-inch (177.8mm) touch-enabled screen, with a small trackpad on either side of the unit equipped with haptic feedback. This comes on top of the four programmable switches on the grips, the analog sticks, the controller-style triggers and bumpers, and the D-pad.

In general, the Deck is crowded with control surfaces, many of which are rare to find together on a single unit. While the two cheaper models of the Deck also come with standard glass, which means the touchscreen gets smeared easily by touching it with your filthy human meat hands, even they feature a huge number of control surfaces.

This is likely to be something that hobbyist programmers get more out of than they will with the Valve, at least for the time being. The Deck is the single-most versatile option for homebrew development since the PlayStation Vita. There’s a real sense of anticipation here that, above and beyond anything Valve does with the Deck’s software, there’s a lot of potential for turning a Deck into an emulation platform or multimedia powerhouse, especially with its broad combination of built-in control options.

Tournaments/esports potential

The Steam Deck connected to controllers.

This was the first thing I thought about upon the Deck’s announcement. It’s a possible godsend for tournament organizers, LAN centers, cyber cafes, and esports teams. You don’t have to invest in a compact PC case or portable monitor with a Steam Deck around; just throw it in your bag and go.

Granted, this would work best with local, head-to-head competition, because anyone who loses a game going Deck to Deck is just going to blame the Wwi-Fi. The Decks are also way too easy to steal; there’s going to have to be some aftermarket solution here like a security cage, or somebody will make off with at least one of the units before the qualifying round.

Even so, the Steam Deck packs a lot of power into a small, easy-to-transport package. With some forethought, the Deck could easily become the hardware of choice for all sorts of competitive gaming worldwide, and that would save a lot of people a lot of headaches.

Organization

The library filters menu available on Steam Deck.

The first time I logged my Steam account into the Deck, I was surprised by the sheer number of filters and sorting options it gave me for dealing with my game library. You can sort by achievement progress, file size, play time, and more.

As it turned out, most of these were options that are available for Steam’s desktop client, but only within games that you’ve assigned to a Dynamic Collection. The Steam Deck, by comparison, automatically enables all of these options for your base library, as well as letting you filter out the games that Valve hasn’t yet checked for Steam Deck compatibility, or which aren’t playable on the Deck at all.

It’s an overall more sensible approach to how Steam lets you manage your game collection, and it wouldn’t be that much of a surprise to see the Deck’s approach make its way into the desktop client.

If you’re the sort of person who puts time into trying to figure out how to manage your game backlog, then the Deck is set up from the word go to be a surprisingly useful tool for that. Not only can you finally make some progress on all these games you’ve bought, but you can take some of them with you when you’re away from home.

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