The Steam Deck Might Make You Want to Try Linux

A shot in the arm for Linux on the desktop

Key Takeaways

  • Valve’s popular Steam Deck handheld gaming console is a full-fledged Linux PC.
  • Experts believe Valve made smart design decisions to encourage users to fiddle with the underlying Linux distribution.
  • The improved state of Linux gaming might even help bring new users to Linux.
Person playing Hollow Knight on their Steam Deck while outside

Valve

Valve's Steam Deck isn't just a wonderful handheld gaming PC, it's also a very capable and affordable Linux computer that some suggest could actually boost Linux desktop usage numbers.

The Steam Deck ships with a KDE desktop that users can access easily thanks to its Desktop mode. In fact, many users have docked it to a monitor and external peripherals to use it for their regular desktop computing tasks. That has led some aficionados to believe the Deck can go a step further, potentially helping people shed apprehensions about Linux as a desktop operating system.

"It's possible with more gamers becoming aware of Steam Deck being Linux powered," Michael Larabel, founder and principal author of computer hardware website, Phoronix, told Lifewire in email. "Some enthusiasts/gamers may decide as well to give Linux a try, or second try, as a result of Valve's [support]."

Ten-Hut, Linux on Deck

Valve has made sure not to obfuscate the Deck's Linux internals and encourages users to mod their device, both in terms of hardware and software. The device can boot multiple operating systems, and Valve has no qualms about users installing other Linux distributions, and even Windows, on their devices.

Pointing out that while it's already possible to run Ubuntu and other Linux distributions on the device, Larabel believes there will soon be new Linux spins optimized for the Steam Deck.

"I've no doubt people will try all sorts of distributions on their Steam Deck once all the drivers are properly in place in the upstream Linux Kernel," Liam Dawe, owner of GamingOnLinux, told Lifewire over email.

Dawe has been using his docked Deck for all kinds of tasks and noted that "it works very well" for all kinds of workloads and desktop use cases.

However, Larabel believes the KDE Plasma desktop experience currently available on the Deck, while nice and functional, could be improved. He suggests functionalities like switching between apps, touch handling, and more will be improved to make the desktop experience on the Deck even more compelling.

"When that desktop experience is better refined, it may make for some interesting use-cases around convergence and driving an external display for the Steam Deck and engaging in more desktop-type workflows," opined Larabel.

Pied Piper

Dawe believes refinements to the open source software on the Deck will help improve the overall Linux desktop experience as well.  

"With the Steam Deck using KDE Plasma for desktop mode, we've already seen Plasma work on lots of improvements for everyone that will benefit all desktop users too," said Dawe.

The improved Linux desktop experience on the Deck will surely encourage more Linux users to use the console as a dockable computer. But Dawe believes the device, which will also be the first Linux PC for many users, can actually encourage people to try Linux on their full-fledged desktops "once people realize how easy it can be."

Some enthusiasts/gamers may decide as well to give Linux a try, or second try...

He credits the use of Flatpak packages, a relatively new package management format that ships apps as easily installable all-in-one packages, as a smart choice. Using flatpaks, users can install additional applications in the Decks' Desktop Mode in a couple of clicks, helping eliminate one of the major stigmas of using Linux on the desktop.

"Thankfully, Steam Deck has a readonly filesystem too, so people cannot just break it unless they actively choose to enable developer mode to make changes to their filesystem," Dawe pointed out. 

Steam Deck in a docking station

Valve

Using a readonly filesystem is a smart design decision that makes the Deck more resilient against accidental breakages, explains YouTuber Gardiner Bryant. This encourages people to play around with the underlying Linux OS on the Deck without worrying about making accidental gotchas, further warming them to Linux as an everyday OS.

However, being a realist, Larabel thinks that while Steam Deck's popularity will surely have a knock-on effect on Linux adoption numbers, it will not lead to a significant influx of new Linux users. 

"Especially now with Steam Play, the Linux gaming experience is much better than years ago," noted Larabel. "[However] there [are] obstacles around Adobe software and other desktop software availability on Linux that will block some users from switching."

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