Valve Steam Deck's Success Could Depend on its Software

There’s reason for optimism, but Proton is the wildcard

Key Takeaways

  • Steam Deck should play most games on Steam at 30 frames per second at a low to medium detail preset.
  • Less demanding titles like Counter-Strike and Ori and the Will of the Wisps should reach 60 FPS.
  • Proton, which lets players enjoy Windows games on Steam Deck’s Linux-based operating system, is a wild card.
Valve's Steam Deck handheld gaming console

Valve

Valve’s Steam Deck can play your entire Steam library, including graphically demanding games like Control and Doom Eternal, on the go.

That’s the pitch, at least. Cramming PC hardware in a device slightly larger than the Nintendo Switch isn’t easy. Thermal throttling and battery performance could dampen expectations. Still, there’s reason to hope the Steam Deck will overcome its obstacles and conquer your Steam library.

"It is very easy to expect any sort of console-like big game will at least get 30 frames per second at decent settings on its 720p screen," Alex, the Low Spec Gamer, a YouTube creator who focuses on entry-level gaming hardware, said in a Zoom interview.

Can Steam Deck Run Modern Games? 

Steam Deck isn’t the first handheld gaming PC. Razer took a stab at the idea with the Edge gaming tablet in 2013, though it was quickly discontinued. Today, the idea is kept alive by smaller companies like GPD and Aya.

Their efforts hint at how Steam Deck will perform. Alex, who reviewed the Aya Neo on his YouTube channel, told me it can play Ori and the Will of the Wisps and Yakuza 0 at 60 frames per second. More demanding titles like Persona 5 Strikers and Assassin’s Creed Valhalla run at 30 frames per second. 

That’s already an acceptable experience for portable gaming, and the Steam Deck is all but certain to outperform Aya’s Neo. Valve’s handheld will have AMD’s latest RDNA 2.0 graphics architecture, a big upgrade from the Vega graphics architecture found in the Aya Neo. Other gaming handhelds, like the GPD Win 3 and OneXPlayer, rely on Intel’s Xe integrated graphics. 

"If the new [graphics] architecture can squeeze more out of its 15 watts, as AMD has promised it can do, then that could mean hopefully 30% to 40% better performance," said Alex. "Compared to anything else currently in the market, in the space of handhelds, it should definitely be, on paper, the strongest handheld."

The Steam Deck should handle current games at its native resolution of 1,280 x 800 with low to medium detail settings. Older and less-demanding titles will exceed 60 frames per second. But what about new, graphically advanced games that target the Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5? 

It’s likely these new releases will force players to lower visual settings to the bare minimum. However, that doesn’t mean Steam Deck owners will be unhappy. 

"The Nintendo Switch has proven to me that there’s a higher number of people who are willing to play a game portability," said Alex. "Even if that means making sacrifices visually." 

Proton Is The Wild Card 

The Steam Deck’s specifications are up to the task, but there is an issue that could complicate performance. It won’t ship with Windows and will instead use SteamOS, Valve’s Linux-based operating system. 

Windows games will be playable through a compatibility layer called Proton that translates native Windows programs to code a Linux-based OS can handle. Steam Deck will put Proton in front of a mainstream PC gaming audience for the first time.

Fans of Proton maintain a compatibility database called ProtonDB. The good news is that 75% of Steam’s 100 most popular games are reported as playable. The bad news is that ProtonDB’s list of "borked"—or unplayable—games includes hits like Apex Legends and Destiny 2

ProtonDB breakdown of how many games it supports

Proton

ProtonDB also lists many games as "playable with tweaks." Alex told me tweaks can include using a specific version of Proton, changing a configuration file in Proton, or modifying game files. 

It’s unclear how Proton will perform. Games that run poorly under Proton could play at a lower framerate than less capable handheld gaming PCs that run Windows. 

Gamers have the option to sidestep Proton by installing Windows to the Steam Deck, though. Valve hasn’t revealed how this will work, but it likely won’t differ from a laptop PC. But this isn’t free; Windows 10 Home is priced at $139.99.

Paying for a Windows license won’t be an option for everyone and, for some, it may defeat the point of buying a handheld that runs SteamOS. Valve’s hardware is up to task, but it’s the software that will ultimately make or break its performance.

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