Valve only just opened reservations for its Steam Deck to anyone over the weekend, and the wait times are already up to six months long in some cases. As of this writing, the Steam Deck 64GB and 256GB models have an estimated availability date of Q2 2022, while the Steam Deck 512GB model is delayed until Q3 2022.
This puts an amusing spin on the debate over whether the Steam Deck will succeed. Valve has clearly tapped an interest in the PC market. An ordering system loophole spotted by Ars Technica disclosed that roughly 110,000 people pre-ordered one of the two higher-end systems in the first 90 minutes the system was available for pre-order. Figures for the base model were unknown at the time, but tallies suggest at least 10,000 base systems from North America alone.
Just because the calendar currently says Q2 2022 or Q3 2022 doesn’t mean it’ll actually take Valve that long to ship the hardware; there’s a chance the company will place larger component orders in response to this kind of presale interest. It’s also possible that there might be limited opportunity to meet demand, however. The semiconductor shortage has made chips of every sort hard to find. We’re hoping for things to have improved substantially by the end of the year, but long-term forecasts are difficult to come by right now.
Without some absolute figures, we can’t speak to how much demand there really is for the Steam Deck. Some people may have jumped the line to grab a reservation with no intention of actually buying the system. Putting down $5 to make a reservation is not a major commitment, after all.
How Will the Steam Deck Be Perceived?
It’s hard to know how PC gamers will take to a PC handheld. We’ve never had one before — not beyond a handful of niche devices produced by small companies, often as part of a crowdfunded project. Devices like the Onexplayer (Intel Tiger Lake, 1165G7) and the Aya Neo are fundamentally unappealing by comparison. Not only do they cost substantially more, they offer what’s likely to be weaker performance. The SoC inside the Steam Deck will offer four CPU cores and a full eight GPU CUs backed up by LPDDR5-5500 (estimated memory bandwidth is either 44GB/s or 88GB/s depending on bus width).
The Aya Neo comes close to competing with these specs — it offers a 4500U and LPDDR4-4266 — but the 4500U only has six CUs and is based on AMD’s old Vega architecture. If we assume that RDNA2 offers AMD even a 1.15x uplift at the same memory bandwidth, and the full eight CUs inside Steam Deck should be between 1.3x – 1.5x faster than the 4500U. This will ultimately depend on cooling, however — a poorly cooled system won’t be able to maintain full performance no matter what’s under the hood. Interestingly enough, the Aya Neo claims a 47 watt-hour battery and just 144 minutes of maximum playtime. That’s not as good as what Valve has implied. This could represent some marketing shenanigans on Valve’s part, or various power consumption improvements related to AMD’s latest APU.
The Tiger Lake-powered Onexplayer might be more competitive under the hood, but the developers equipped it with a 2560×1600 native display. That’s going to give the 1165G7’s integrated graphics a headache under the best of circumstances; the Switch targets 720p for a reason and 800p would be a better target.
The Aya Neo starts at $689, though it offers a lot more built-in storage. Steam Deck has just 64GB — a pittance, really — and opens at $400. The lack of storage is a serious drag, but the price is also substantially better. In comparison with what’s already in-market, the lower-end versions of the Steam Deck aren’t badly priced — assuming the console itself is any good.
I don’t think it’s possible to evaluate if the Steam Deck is going to be a hit with gamers yet, because we don’t know enough about three major factors: Ergonomics, battery life (both gaming and not), and overall compatibility between Linux (with some games supported via Proton, Valve’s fork of Wine) and Steam. The Steam Deck supports Windows, however, which may be one way Valve intends to deal with that potential problem.
Some co-workers and friends of mine have opined that the Steam Deck is expensive for what it offers. This, I think, will depend entirely on how well Valve picked its hardware. If AMD’s APU can offer acceptable performance in 1280×800, $400 for a reasonable gaming PC isn’t that expensive at all. Graphically, 1280×800 is ~1 MP, or roughly half the rendering load of 1080p. It shouldn’t be too difficult for a modern APU to offer acceptable performance at that resolution.
The big difference between PC gamers and Nintendo customers is that Nintendo customers know the Switch is the only way to play the company’s latest and greatest games, while the Steam Deck is just one method of playing on a PC. The more expensive models are the only reasonable storage options (the 64GB is eMMC, while the others are NVMe), but they also carry much less attractive prices. Valve is also promising that it wants to avoid joystick drift and that it believes customers will be happy with its hardware choices.
My prediction is this: If Valve can offer ergonomics, battery life, and overall compatibility that hits “good enough,” it could have a genuine hit on its hands. I don’t know how many millions of units that would translate into — let’s call it somewhere between 1-10 million, probably towards the bottom of that stack. No one has ever tried to build a device quite like this at a price point this low, so it’s hard to say how PC gamers will see the value. Anything less than a home run, and we’re looking at a smaller number of sales though they might still be respectable for a first-gen device.
I don’t have any plans to purchase a Steam Deck in the near future, but there is a version of this device that I could see appealing to people. Under the right circumstances, this system would offer all the performance of a solid laptop with additional storage and peripherals available via a USB-C port extender. The limited amount of expandability offered by a single port means a dock might be necessary to play, charge, and attach peripherals simultaneously, but this is not insurmountable.
I don’t think anyone would want to try and use the Steam Deck as a primary PC, but if what you want is a gaming/handheld optimized PC that can transform into a full productivity system for troubleshooting or emergency use, this thing might be great. I’m not jumping on any hype cycles, but I am curious to see if Valve pulls this off.