What Is a Steam Deck and How Is It Different From Nintendo Switch?

The Nintendo Switch has had the handheld gaming market all to itself for years since Sony decided that there would be no successor to the Vita. Now, Valve Corporation has announced their handheld system, the Steam Deck. 

You may have heard rumors that the Steam Deck is a “Switch killer” on social media and in tech circles, but is the Steam Deck similar to the Nintendo Switch? What distinguishes them?

Nintendo Switch

Why Are We Comparing the Steam Deck and Switch?

It’s easy to see why these two technologies are being discussed together. There are several areas where there is a lot of overlap:

  • The physical arrangement of both gadgets is comparable.
  • Both the Switch and the Steam Deck have similar price ranges.
  • Both allow handheld play of games that were previously only available on a console or PC.
Comparing the Steam Deck and Switch

In other words, the functions of the Switch and the Steam Deck are similar. On both systems, you can play many of the same games. Anyone looking for a handheld gaming device will have to choose between these two options once the Switch Deck is released.

The parallels between the Switch and the Steam Deck end there, because the details behind the hood couldn’t be more dissimilar once we look past their surface appearance.

The Steam Deck is a computer.

That’s right, you read that correctly. While it may appear to be a handheld console, it is actually a computer. It has the same basic hardware as a computer and runs the same software as a computer.

The Steam Deck Is a PC

The games you’ll play on a Steam Deck are the same titles you’d play on a gaming laptop or desktop. The Steam Deck, like any other PC, is an open platform. This means you can put any software you want on it without having to “jailbreak” it. This distinguishes it from the Switch and other consoles, which are typically locked down and can only run software approved by the console manufacturer.

Steam Deck Hardware Is Closer to PlayStation or Xbox Than Switch

There are numerous ARM CPU cores in the Nintendo Switch that are identical to those found in smartphones and tablets. There are four AMD Ryzen CPU cores and an AMD RDNA 2 GPU within the Steam Deck. That could seem similar if you’re familiar with the latest Xbox and PlayStation systems. Yes, the Steam Deck uses hardware that is similar to that seen in today’s consoles.

That is, however, a similarity in kind rather than amount. In comparison to the huge, power-hungry processors found in a PlayStation 5 or Xbox Series X system, the Steam Deck’s CPU and GPU are significantly reduced. They just happen to have the same DNA.

Check to see ARM vs. Intel Processors: What’s the Difference? for more information on the differences between ARM-based and x86-based CPUs. Which Is The Most Effective?

The Steam Deck Is Much More Powerful Than Switch

Until now, the Switch’s Nvidia-based system-on-a-chip (SoC) was the most powerful hardware within a handheld gaming device, at least for its price. However, when compared to systems like the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, it pales in comparison.

While comparing consoles is never simple, the Switch’s performance is closer to that of the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 than the PlayStation 4 or Xbox One. It’s a considerable improvement over previous platforms, but Switch games are effectively a half-generation above previous consoles in handheld form.

The Steam Deck Is Much More Powerful Than Switch Nintendo Switch

According to Steam Deck’s paper specifications, it has the graphics power to compete with a base model PlayStation 4, but a CPU that is significantly more powerful than Sony’s previous-generation mainstream platform.

So, think of the Deck as a CPU-enhanced PS4 that you can hold in your hands. Given the significant gap between the Switch and the PS4, it’s a significant upgrade over Nintendo’s device.

Most Steam Deck Games Are Not Native

The Steam Deck is a Linux-based device. It runs SteamOS, which is a customized version of Linux. However, the majority of the games available on Steam are designed for Microsoft Windows. So, how is the Steam Deck going to be able to play them?

The solution is that Valve has implemented Proton, a unique piece of software. Proton is a program that converts Windows’ “language” to Linux’s. Because Proton acts as a translator, a Windows game can speak its own language, and Linux can respond.

Most Steam Deck Games Are Not Native Nintendo Switch

This differs from emulation, in which the whole hardware of a system is recreated in order to run games built for that console. Emulation consumes a lot of electricity, whereas proton does not. In many games, there are no discernible performance differences.

Even so, this paints a different picture than Switch. Switch games are designed specifically for the Switch. Developers create or port games to make use of every ounce of performance the Switch has to offer. For the Steam Deck, there are no such considerations.

The Steam Deck Has a Unique Control Scheme

The Steam Deck features a lot more buttons and control surfaces than a Switch or any other traditional console controller. This is because the Steam Deck is designed to allow you to play games that are gamepad compatible as well as those that require a mouse and keyboard. Valve has included pressure-sensitive touchpads, touch-aware thumbsticks, and additional rear paddles in an attempt to suit every potential PC control scheme.

The Steam Deck Has a Unique Control Scheme Nintendo Switch

Any PC game built to function with a gamepad should work OK, although, like with their now-defunct Steam Controller, the quality of mouse-driven games on the go will likely vary from title to title.

For Better or Worse, the Steam Deck User Experience Will Be Different

The user experience is likely to be the most significant distinction between the Switch and the Steam Deck. The Nintendo Switch is a full-fledged system. Simply download a game or insert a game cartridge, and you’re ready to play in seconds. There is nothing else you can do.

You’ll have to do more legwork on the Steam Deck. With each game you install, you’ll need to adjust the settings to fit your preferences and the Steam Deck’s capabilities. We anticipate Valve, the Steam community, or both providing instructions on how to optimize certain titles for maximum performance, but there is no assurance.

While what we’ve seen of Steam Deck’s bespoke software interface appears promising, the PC platform’s inherent flexibility comes with more steps between purchasing and playing a game than consoles.

Whether you should trade in your Switch for a Steam Deck when the time comes is mostly dependent on your mobile gaming demands and expectations. As long as you don’t take their superficial similarities at face value, there is no right or wrong choice.

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