What Is a Steam Deck and How Is It Different From Nintendo Switch?.
Nintendo Switch has owned the handheld gaming market for years, ever since Sony decided there would be no successor to the Vita. Now Valve Corporation has announced its portable Steam Deck system.
You may have noticed a buzz on social media and in technology circles about the Steam Deck being the so-called Switch killer, but is the Steam Deck comparable to the Nintendo Switch? What is the difference?
Why Are We Comparing the Steam Deck and Switch?
It is not hard to see why these two devices are being discussed at the same time. There are strong areas of overlap:
- Both devices have a similar physical layout.
- The price ranges for Switch and Steam Deck are similar.
- They both allow you to play handheld games traditionally limited to the console or PC.
In other words, Switch and Steam Deck have the same functionality. You can play the same games on both systems. With the release of the Switch Deck, anyone looking to buy a portable gaming device will have to choose between these two basic options.
This is where the similarities between Switch and Steam Deck end, because once we look beyond their looks, the details under the hood couldn’t be more different.
The Steam Deck Is a PC
Yes, you read that right. While it may look like a portable console, it’s a PC inside. It has the same basic hardware as a PC and runs the same software as any other PC.
The games you’ll play on the Steam Deck are the same games you’ll play on Steam on your gaming laptop or desktop. Like any PC, Steam Deck is an open platform. This means that you can freely install any software on it without “jailbreaking” the device. This makes it very different from Switch and other types of consoles, which are usually locked and can only run software certified by the console manufacturer.
Steam Deck Hardware Is Closer to PlayStation or Xbox Than Switch
Inside the Nintendo Switch are several ARM processor cores similar to those found in smartphones and tablets. Inside the Steam Deck, you’ll find four AMD Ryzen processor cores and an AMD RDNA 2 GPU. If you know a thing or two about the latest Xbox and PlayStation consoles, this might sound familiar. Yes, the Steam Deck uses hardware similar to the latest generation consoles.
However, this is a semblance of kind, not quantity. The CPU and GPU inside the Steam Deck are pared down compared to the larger, power-hungry CPUs found on the PlayStation 5 or Xbox Series X. They just share the same DNA.
If you’d like to learn more about the difference between ARM-based processors and processors using x86 technology, check out ARM vs. Intel Processors: Which Is Better?
The Steam Deck Is Much More Powerful Than Switch
An Nvidia-based system on a chip (SoC) inside the switch has been the most powerful piece of hardware in a portable gaming system so far, at least for its price point. However, in the company of consoles like the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, this is nowhere near as impressive.
While it’s not easy to compare consoles, the Switch is closer to consoles like the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 in terms of performance than the PlayStation 4 or Xbox One. That’s significantly better than older consoles, but Switch games are essentially half a generation taller than those older systems, but in portable form.
From the paper specs of the Steam Deck, it has the graphical power to trade blows with the base PlayStation 4 model, but with a processor that’s far more powerful than Sony’s mainstream console of the previous generation.
So, one way to think about Deck is with a supercharged PS4 that you can hold in your hands. Given the large gap between Switch and PS4, this is a clear step up from the Nintendo system.
Most Steam Deck Games Are Not Native
The Steam Deck runs Linux. Specifically, it runs a special version of Linux called SteamOS. However, most of the games you can buy on Steam are made for Microsoft Windows. So how can the Steam Deck play them?
The answer is that Valve has implemented special software called Proton. Proton translates Windows “language” into Linux language. So a Windows game speaks its language, and Linux can respond because Proton acts as a translator.
ProtonDB compatibility table for the most popular games.
This differs from emulation, where the entire system hardware is simulated to run games developed for that console. Proton doesn’t have the power-hungry overhead of emulation. In fact, in many games there is no noticeable difference in performance.
However, this paints a different picture than Switch. Switch games are specifically written to run on the Switch. Developers are developing or porting their games to get the most out of the Switch. There are no such considerations for the Steam Deck.
The Steam Deck Has a Unique Control Scheme
You may have noticed that the Steam Deck has a lot more buttons and control surfaces than the Switch or any standard console controller. This is because the Steam Deck allows you to play games that are compatible with a gamepad, as well as games designed for use with a mouse and keyboard. Valve is trying to accommodate every possible PC control scheme, including pressure sensitive touchpads, touch sticks, and optional rear switches.
Any PC game designed to work with a gamepad shouldn’t be an issue, but as with their now discontinued Steam Controller, how well mouse-controlled games perform on the go will likely vary from game to game.
For Better or Worse, the Steam Deck User Experience Will Be Different
The most significant difference between Switch and Steam Deck will likely be usability. Switch is a real console. All you have to do is download the game or insert the game cartridge and you are playing in seconds. You have nothing else to do.
The Steam Deck has more work to do. With each game you install, you’ll have to tweak its settings according to your preferences and the capabilities of the Steam Deck itself. We expect Valve, the Steam community, or both, to provide guidance on how to tune specific games for optimal play, but there are no guarantees.
While what we’ve seen in the Steam Deck UI looks promising, the inherent freedom of the PC platform involves more steps between buying a game and starting a game when compared to consoles.
Whether that means you should consider trading your Switch for a Steam Deck when the time is right depends largely on your needs and expectations for handheld gaming. There is no right or wrong choice unless you take their physical resemblance at face value.
What Is a Steam Deck and How Is It Different From Nintendo Switch?
What Is a Steam Deck and How Is It Different From Nintendo Switch?
Steam deck vs nintendo switch