No, Valve, You Don't Need to Revolutionize PC Gaming

Let history be your guide

Key Takeaways

  • Valve is supposedly working on a new handheld PC console that will let you play your favorite PC games on the go.
  • Early code found in a Steam update points towards the device being codenamed the “SteamPal.”
  • With Valve’s previous hardware history, there isn’t much confidence that this new console will turn out any different from the Steam Machines of the past.
The view from behind someone playing video games on a computer monitor while wearing headphones.

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Valve reportedly is building a handheld PC gaming system to take on the Nintendo Switch, but do we really need another attempt at revolutionizing PC gaming? Probably not.

Reports are once again swirling that Valve is dipping its toe into the hardware game. According to ArsTechnica, the PC gaming giant is currently working on a handheld PC console codenamed "SteamPal." This isn’t the first time that the company has tried its hand at making hardware, and it has seen some success with the Valve Index in the VR realm, but pretty much every other attempt at making hardware has flopped in some way.

"There's also the biggest factor in all of this: A Steam portable wouldn't be competing against the Nintendo DS or 3DS," Rex Freiberger, a tech expert and CEO of Gadget Review, told Lifewire in an email. 

"It would be competing against the Nintendo Switch, which is one of Nintendo's most accessible and most profitable consoles of all time. The innovative design has offered something for everyone, and I just don't think Steam can take any angle that's going to win a significant market share."

Filling a Gap That Doesn’t Exist

The idea behind these handheld gaming PCs seems to be an attempt to fill in a gap that currently only the Nintendo Switch fits within. The Switch, which has seen almost unparalleled success since its release in 2017, is the second best-selling console in US history. As such, it seems to have ignited this idea that we need more handheld gaming systems.

The Alienware Steam Machine

Alienware

The problem is, that isn’t exactly the case. While handheld gaming has its perks and has seen success, there’s much more to the picture than simply shipping a console capable of playing games on the go. Part of the Nintendo magic is the content that it offers. Games like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Mario Odyssey, and Animal Crossing: New Horizons have helped spur the success of the Nintendo handheld, something that a PC-based portable console won’t have going for it.

Of course, Valve isn’t the first to take a swing at making a handheld gaming PC. We’ve already seen concepts of a similar type of device from Alienware, and several manufacturers like One-Netbook and GPD have started shipping handheld PCs made with gaming in mind. What’s notable about Valve stepping in, though, is the company’s storied history with trying to break into developing hardware designed to change how we play PC games.

Learning From the Past

Of course, the most confusing part of all of this is why Valve keeps finding itself back in the hardware game, especially when you start to look at what it has done in the past. This isn’t the first time that Valve has tried to revolutionize how we play video games from the PC.

"A Steam portable wouldn't be competing against the Nintendo DS or 3DS. It would be competing against the Nintendo Switch..."

Back in 2013, Valve announced Steam Machines, pre-made computers that used SteamOS, a Linux-based operating system, to deliver PC gaming to your living room. The devices never took off—mostly because they offered disappointing specs and just weren’t that appealing to mainstream PC gamers—and Valve eventually removed them from Steam.

A few years later, in 2015, Steam released the Steam Link, a small device that could connect to your home network and stream your PC games to a TV. It was also available as an app on mobile phones, but much like the Steam Machines, Steam Link never really took off. I remember purchasing one because I was genuinely excited about the possibility of being able to play my PC games outside of my room, but the connection was spotty at best, and the quality was a nightmare.

"Steam Link was a failure," Freiberger explained. "There's really no other way to put it. It lacked real innovation and had no place in the market. I believe a handheld console would be the same way."

Steam Machines and Steam Link aren’t something you hear much about these days. SteamOS, the operating system that Steam designed just for playing games, hasn’t received an update since July 2020. If Valve really wants consumers to buy into this new portable PC console, it needs to instill a bit more confidence in the players it is trying to cater to.

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