Following rumors and speculation, Valve is once again dipping its toes into the hardware market. But instead of a virtual reality headset or a controller, Valve is releasing Steam Deck — a handheld gaming PC starting at $399.
At first glance, the design bears some resemblance to the Nintendo Switch, a handheld home gaming console that currently has a third model refresh on the way. Yet despite sharing a similar concept – a handheld device that also allows you to connect to a TV or monitor – the two devices have drastic differences on both the inside and outside.
To get a better understanding of what you can expect from both of these gadgets, and maybe figure out for some which device is the better investment for you, let’s take a look at the specs and go over some standout differences between the current flagship Switch model and the Steam Deck:
Screen and Resolution
Let’s get the obvious out of the way: when in handheld mode, both the Steam Deck and Switch have touchscreens that do not produce a 1080p resolution. The Switch Deck features an 800p touchscreen, while the Nintendo Switch includes a 720p display. The resolutions for both consoles increase when connected to their individual docks using a USB-C. Both docks also include a LAN port that enables you to establish a wired internet connection (although this is only present on the newest version of the Switch dock).
The Steam Deck will have an official docking station, but it will not be included with the handheld and it will not be available at launch. However, there is some flexibility, as you can use any standard USB-C hub to connect the Steam Deck to a TV or monitor to mimic more of a traditional gaming PC or laptop.
The Nintendo Switch has an official docking station included with every new unit purchased, but you can also purchase the docking station separately, and there are plenty of third-party docking stations that are more portable and more affordable than Nintendo’s offering – though with the caveat that some of these docks can brick Switch consoles. There’s also been an issue with the original Switch docking station, which can cause the console to receive scratches on the corner of the screen.
But when both are docked to a compatible docking station, the resolution does increase. Valve’s handheld can theoretically produce up to 8K resolutions at 60Hz or 4K at up to 120Hz. In comparison, the Nintendo Switch produces up to 1080p at 60Hz.
Let’s compare the screens on the flagship models for both the Steam Deck and the Nintendo Switch: all the Steam Deck models include an LCD screen, but the flagship $649 model includes a “premium” anti-glare-etched glass, meaning players can focus on what’s being displayed on the screen and not what is reflecting off the screen like say, a fingerprint.
The Switch OLED, for its part, strays away from the other two Switch models, replacing the LCD with an OLED display, meaning it will have better contrast, deeper blacks, and increased brightness than its predecessors.
The Steam Deck is simple: it is an affordable gaming PC in an age where building or upgrading PC parts is quite expensive due to expensive modern GPUs, a problem exacerbated by the ongoing global chip shortage. It runs a modified version of SteamOS that is built on Proton, a version of Linux that is capable of running Windows and Linux apps and games – but as we mentioned in our hands-on, you can do a fresh installation of Windows if that’s your preference. In contrast, the Nintendo Switch has a custom operating system used exclusively for the console, with no customizability offered.
There are three configurations available for the Steam Deck; each offers different storage solutions, but all other internal components remain the same. The entry-level $399 model gets you 64GB of Embedded MultiMediaCard [eMMC] storage, while the other two include Non-Volatile Memory Express [NVMe] storage: one priced at $529 with 246GB and the flagship, which includes 512GB. With that in mind, there is a possibility that load times and game installations will likely be slower on the entry-level model, but Valve claims performance for all three models will not be impacted, no matter which configuration you chose to buy.
The standard Nintendo Switch and Switch Lite models include 32GB of eMMC internal storage and the OLED model includes 64GB of internal eMMC storage, just like the entry-level Steam Deck. With no other internal storage configurations beyond 64GB currently available on Nintendo’s console.
The Steam Deck and Switch each also support MicroSD cards for additional storage. This is especially welcome on the base Steam Deck model, which is otherwise stuck supporting PC games with just 64GB of memory.
Size and Weight
While we can’t yet do a direct size comparison, the dimensions for both tell us what we need to know: The Steam Deck is noticeably bigger and wider than the Switch, with its length 2.2 inches longer than the OLED model and standing 0.2 inches taller than the upcoming hardware refresh. The Steam Deck has thicker bezels than most electronics in 2021, including the OLED, and the Steam Deck has a bigger outside frame compared to the newest Switch model.
At 1.47 pounds, the Steam Deck weighs more than the Nintendo Switch, with the Switch OLED model weighing 0.93 pounds with Joy-Cons attached to the display. While 1.47lbs is not extremely heavy, it is noticeably heavier than any Nintendo Switch model, and hand fatigue could be a bigger issue for Steam Deck owners.
Taking a closer look at the parts found inside the Steam Deck, it is much more capable than the Switch. Firstly, the CPU is an AMD APU with four cores and eight threads; it uses the Zen 2 architecture (which the Xbox Series X/S and PS5 use), in addition to Ryzen 3000 desktop computer processors. The Steam Deck also includes the same graphical architecture as the ninth-generation gaming consoles, powered by an AMD RDNA 2, meaning it will support hardware-based ray tracing.
Since the Steam Deck is first and foremost a portable device, it does not use desktop memory. Instead, it has 16GB of LPDDR, which consumes less power and is aimed at mobile computing devices, such as laptops, tablets, or even mobile phones.
It is important to note that some of the hardware in the Steam Deck more closely resembles the PS4 and Xbox One than the Series X/S and PS5 – especially when you consider that the SSDs in the two more expensive models use NVMe Gen 3 SSDs instead of the Gen 4 found in new-gen gaming hardware.
Using AMD architecture also means that the Steam Deck supports FidelityFX Super Resolution, AMD’s open-source supersampling technology. This allows it to offer four different settings that prioritize either performance or visual fidelity.
Since 2017, the Nintendo Switch’s specs have remained the same, including the upcoming Switch OLED, all of which have the Nvidia Tegra X1 mobile chipset. The custom Tegra processor is ARM-based while the graphics use the Maxwell architecture, which was used most notably in Nvidia desktop GPUs such as the GeForce 900 cards. Looking closely at the CPU and GPU the Switch uses, it is clear that the Switch is not the biggest graphical powerhouse, and that’s shown clearly in AAA games ported to the console.
There have also been instances where Switch ports do not always launch alongside other versions of the game, such as Doom Eternal. Even some of the biggest games of the last few years like Control and Hitman 3, while playable on Switch, cannot run natively on the console and instead are streamed through the cloud to accommodate the hardware limitations.
Included with every Nintendo Switch is a pair of Joy-Con controllers. These come with some benefits – for one thing, they can be detached and used as a bonded pair or as two singular controllers. When detached and played in handheld mode you can also prop the kickstand back and play without having the controller and the display tethered together. However, Joy-Con drift has been an issue since launch, a widespread problem that Nintendo has yet to directly address. The Nintendo Switch does support other controllers, such as its own Pro Controller, the GameCube controller, as well as several wired and wireless third-party controllers.
In terms of built-in controller hardware, the Steam Deck has a lot more going on. While it doesn’t have detachable controllers or a kickstand – making it a bit more limited in how to enjoy your handheld gaming – there is a lot more freedom given to owners in terms of how to make your game experience feel catered to you. Alongside traditional dual thumbsticks, the Steam Deck has two trackpads that promise a more mouse-like experience. There are even four rear buttons — akin to something like the SCUF or Xbox Elite controllers. These paddles can be remapped to add a more personal touch to handheld control schemes. The Steam Deck also supports external controllers, including the Xbox Series X/S controller, the DualSense, and even the Switch Pro controller. It also has Bluetooth so it can connect to any Bluetooth controller wirelessly or through a USB cable.
Both consoles support online play: the Switch requires a subscription to Nintendo Switch Online, which can cost anywhere between $4 a month to $60 for a full year. This has additional incentives such as cloud saves and access to NES and SNES games and promotional offers. While pricing is affordable, the cloud save supported games leaves a lot to be desired, as only 130 games in the Nintendo Switch library support the feature.
Even if you do not buy a Switch Online subscription, there is still local multiplayer. The Switch can connect to other consoles to offer a LAN party-esque experience. You can also pair multiple controllers and Joy-Cons with a single Switch, which supports up to eight Joy-Con controllers.
As you’d expect, the Steam Deck offers similar support. It has built-in Wi-Fi, meaning you can play online or local multiplayer and it does not include an online subscription to play games online. Some games like Final Fantasy XIV or World of Warcraft do require online subscriptions to play, but generally most games the Steam Deck can support are free to play online.
The Switch has better battery life than the Steam Deck, ranging anywhere between 4.5-9 hours on a single charge compared to the Steam Deck’s 2-8 hours. Nintendo says that the base Switch and OLED models can last approximately 5.5 hours on a single charge, while the Lite can last 4 hours playing the same game. Valve says that you can expect 4 hours of Portal 2 running at a resolution of 720p at 60FPS. Of course, with Steam Deck supporting a huge variety of games across the entire Steam library, battery life will vary wildly. It’s important to note that both consoles use completely different batteries — the Steam Deck uses a 40Whr Lithium-Ion battery while the Switch uses a 4310mAh Lithium-Ion battery.
The Steam Deck is slated to launch sometime in December. You can check out more information on the Steam Deck, such as Gabe Newell elaborating on the pricing for the Steam Deck, our hands-on preview with the handheld, as well as a FAQ with the developers. If you would like to know more about the Steam Deck, check back for the rest of the month.
Taylor is the Associate Tech Editor at IGN. You can follow her on Twitter @TayNixster.