Steam Deck / SteamOS 3: The Promised Land?

Valve’s Steam Deck, a handheld PC capable of playing several thousand games available through the Steam store (and others), is clearly a winner as it has maintained the #1 or #2 spot on SteamDB for the last few months. Unless you were one of the first in line to reserve the coveted device it is likely that you are still waiting. The Steam Deck is interesting in a few ways.

The device itself is built well without coming off as unnecessarily premium. No brushed metal frames or campy RGB lights. Plastic, rubber, and glass. And you know what; it works. I am still waiting on my Deck to ship, but I have laid hands on a friends Deck, and let me tell you… That was a nice Deck. Junior-High humor aside, the hardware is great.

The promise of the Steam Deck is simple, yet massive: Play your games on the go. What games? Literally, any game. Okay, that isn’t entirely accurate, but is more truth than lie. There are varying levels of compatibility of games for the Steam Deck. Clicking the filter icon in your Steam Library will allow you to filter games based on some criteria:

Straight from the Steam Deck site:

The really cool thing about this is that the entire Steam catalog is being tested. Clearly that will take some time, but nothing is stopping gamers from downloading the game and trying to run it on the Steam Deck prior to verification. Just because the game isn’t labeled as Verified or Playable doesn’t mean it isn’t.

The Steam Deck runs SteamOS 3, an arch Linux distribution. As wild as it would be to have several thousand natively supported AAA games on Linux, I think we all know better. For those that don’t, let me quickly catch you up. Linux, like Mac, doesn’t really have a large library of games built explicitly for the non-Windows operating system. There are certainly some big games out there that are for multiple operating systems, but most of the time developers focus on Windows only. So, logically, the next question is: how does the Steam Deck (more specifically SteamOS) do it? Science!

SteamOS 3 makes use of the compatibility layer ‘Proton’. Roughly speaking, Proton is a polished variant of ‘Wine’ that can take software written for Windows and allow it to run on Linux with varying degrees of success. How well does this work? While playing a ‘Verified’ game (Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain) I noticed no negative difference whatsoever. In fact, I think things may have even run better than running the game on Windows! Mileage will certainly vary, but this is huge. Gamers have been shackled to Windows for a very long time, and it is refreshing to see a real viable option that isn’t a streaming service, or doesn’t require a repurchase of an entire library.

The Steam Deck allows a maximum resolution of 1280×800, which isn’t terrible for the 7″ screen on the device; however, I can’t say I would prefer that to my 3440×1440 ultrawide display for non-games or anything while in docked-mode. The Steam Deck allows user to insert mostly any USB-C dongle to get wired network, keyboard, mouse, and display out. Coupled with a ‘Desktop Mode’, the Steam Deck is actually a functional PC capable of gaming, browsing the internet, and (thanks to Proton) running a ton of Windows applications. Proton doesn’t stop at games! It can run applications too!

Unfortunately, the Steam Deck is backordered for months. You can get in line and drop $5 to reserve yours today, but will need to wait until almost 2023 to actually purchase and receive the device. Thankfully, we no longer have to wait to test-drive the docked experience. Click here to read about how you can install SteamOS 3 on a modern PC.

So is the Steam Deck and SteamOS the ‘Promised Land?’ I think so, or at least a bright neon sign directing gamers towards the Promised Land. While the Proton experience isn’t perfect, it is improving every day. With a company like Valve, and so many community members and developers, behind the cultivation and betterment of Proton and the overall SteamOS experience, I believe that this has the real potential to finally grant gamers true OS freedom without compromise. Time will tell, but I am very excited about the possibilities!