What is the point of the Steam Deck?

Steam Deck - What is the point?

The Steam Deck is almost as tough a sell as Steam Machines were. So what is the point and who is Valve’s target market for them?

Hardware History

I’m going to keep calling back to Steam Machines here because that’s the last major hardware Valve released. Those had a very easy to define target market – people who game in their living room. People like me. People who want the PC gaming experience but who maybe don’t have space for a full tower and a monitor.

And despite what the sales might suggest, I still think they were a really good idea and did their job perfectly. We’ll get into the failures later.

Target market is a much harder question for the Steam Deck.

Side note: I also think there will be a lot of confusion with Elgato’s Stream Deck, which has been around for a lot longer and is used by a lot of streamers. Why would you choose such a similar name unless you want to confuse people?

Who is the Steam Deck aimed at?

I’m asking this as a serious question, because I really don’t know.

Clearly Valve thinks that they’re going after the Nintendo Switch crowd, given the similar look and feel (as well as price point). But that’s not the case.

Console buyers typically want two things. The first is simplicity. They want to know that when they plug in their new machine, it’ll play whatever games they want. Firmware updates aside, you can guarantee that any PS5 game you buy will work on your PS5. It’ll play exactly the same on your machine as it did on reviewers’, so you know the experience is going to be the same. That is the main advantage of a games console over a standard computer.

The other things console gamers want is platform exclusives. Whether that’s Forza Horizon or Horizon Zero Dawn, there’s always something that makes you choose one over the other. We’ll ignore the grey area of PC ports for now. And Nintendo has Mario, Zelda, Metroid, Smash Bros in their corner. People who buy Nintendo want those.

The Steam Deck can’t offer any of those benefits and won’t have access to most of those exclusives.

So you’re not competing with the console market for exclusives.

Maybe they’re targeting people who already own a console and might want an easy-to-use PC for Steam’s huge indie game collection for something a bit different? Well…

the software limits

SteamOS might be the closest thing to a console experience that the PC can offer right now, but it’s still super limited. Less than half of Steam’s library is available for SteamOS and – more importantly – even some of the games that are available won’t run on the Steam Deck right now thanks to the additional anti-cheat software! And considering those are also some of the most popular games on PC in the world, that’s a big problem.

Then you’ve got giant games like Overwatch and Call of Duty, which run on a separate launcher that won’t be compatible with SteamOS and you’re severely limiting the desirability of your machine.

Valve has stated that because the Steam Deck is technically a PC you can choose to install a different operating system to it if you want, but then you’re asking your users (who just chose a console-like PC because it’s easier) to dive into the least fun part of PC ownership, buying and installing Windows. And while we’re on that subject…

The Hardware Limits

PC gamers know that you need to be able to upgrade your hardware every couple of years. It’s the major downside of choose a computer over a console, and ties back to the “it just works” mentality of grabbing a PlayStation, Xbox or Switch. One of the major issues with Steam Machines (yes, them again) was that the hardware was the hardware and, other than maybe upgrading storage and – if you were really lucky – memory, that was you forever.

The Steam Deck is exactly the same with exactly the same limitations. It’s running on as as-yet-undisclosed GPU, but spec-wise that GPU is already a generation old with very underwhelming numbers. It only has 16Gb of memory, and anyone who’s tried to run Warzone will tell you, 16Gb is about the limits of what you can get by with these days. But I guess that’s okay because you can’t play Warzone on it anyway. They’re saying it’s DDR5 right enough, so maybe that will help somewhere? And a 4-core/8-thread CPU should still be okay for most games, I guess.

But that hardware is all you get. Maybe you can swap out the SSD. But that GPU has to last you until you’re ready to buy a whole other machine. And PC games get more demanding all the time. On the little 7″ 800p screen that might not be a big deal, but if you ever want to plug it into a monitor or TV, that hardware is going to need to push higher resolutions on new games. Will it be up to the task?

So What is the point of the Steam Deck?

So I’ll ask again because I really need someone to explain it like I’m five. Who is Valve selling this to?

  • It’s not to console-first gamers who want a simple computer for indie games, because most of those games aren’t available for SteamOS.
  • It’s not for PC gamers, because most of Steam’s library isn’t on SteamOS yet and if you’re going to install Windows you might as well just buy a regular mini PC.
  • It’s not for anyone who wants to play the latest PC games because the hardware isn’t going to be good enough for that by this time next year.

What is the point?