It seems like every gamer is interested in the Steam Deck handheld gaming PC, but Valve simply can’t make enough devices to satisfy demand. Long waiting lists are the norm for Steam Deck, but clones could soon ease the strain.
Remember Steam Machines?
Before we explain why it’s likely that Steam Deck clones are coming, we need a short history lesson. In 2015, Valve released its Steam Machine platform. These devices were pre-built PCs that looked like consoles and ran an early version of SteamOS.
While Steam Machines were not a success for various reasons, they tell us a lot about Valve’s way of thinking. Valve did not make their own Steam Machine but instead published a set of specifications that third-party manufacturers had to comply with to use the Steam Machine name. Valve wasn’t interested in making hardware but in getting Steam into more living rooms, expanding beyond the typical PC gamer space.
SteamOS, Valve’s custom Linux-based operating system for Steam Machines, certainly wasn’t ready at the time. Ultimately the idea of Steam Machines didn’t catch on, but the Steam Deck follows essentially the same business model and philosophy. The key difference here is that Valve has kick-started the market by releasing an actual product that gamers can buy.
The Steam Deck Is a Reference Model
One way to look at the Steam Deck is as a reference model. It’s an example of what the standard Steam Deck experience should be. From its physical ergonomics to the GPU and CPU architecture and performance, the Steam Deck sets a certain standard at a certain price point.
Valve has done all the hard research and development work; other manufacturers simply have to use the Steam Deck as a jumping-off point. Valve has even released the Steam Deck’s CAD files under a Creative Commons license, while the details of the AMD CPU and GPU used in the Deck are open to anyone.
SteamOS Is an Open Platform
What makes the Steam Deck special isn’t just its hardware and design; it’s the SteamOS software. Valve has invested significant time and money into making Windows games work under Linux through Proton. This work remains open-source and benefits all Linux gamers. SteamOS is available for anyone to download and install under the “Build Your Own Steam Machine” banner.
This means that nothing stands in the way of third-party companies releasing their own Steam Deck clone, which runs the same software as a Steam Deck. These clones could have specifications higher or lower than the Steam Deck, change any other aspect of it, or copy it exactly. Anything’s possible, and from Valve’s point of view every SteamOS device sold is a positive development for their bottom line.
Other Handheld Gaming PCs Aren’t Great
The Steam Deck is far from the first handheld PC marketed to gamers. The GPD Win series of computers and the Aya Neo are good examples of these devices. While most of them are quite impressive, they tend to have several common problems.
The first is that these devices are meant to run Windows, which lacks the optimizations of SteamOS that make it much less resource-hungry and less stuffed with non-gaming apps and features. These devices also use off-the-shelf hardware not meant for gaming but instead designed for use in ultrabooks. They are also significantly more expensive than a Steam Deck, in some cases more than double the price, while being unable to offer the same quality of gaming experience. Not to mention that the price of a Windows license is part of that price tag!
We expect that existing players in the handheld gaming PC market will want a slice of the Steam Deck pie, and they already have an established hardware manufacturing capacity. It’s also a tempting opportunity for hardware makers outside the massive gaming market to enter without significant R&D work or software development.
The Market Has Spoken
Valve is no stranger to trying new ideas with hardware, even if they end up with a flop. For most companies, something like the Steam Deck would be a risky gamble, but for Valve, it’s the type of side-project where the potential benefits far outweigh the risks.
For third-party players who might be in a position to bring Steam Deck clones to the market, Valve has provided hard data that there is both hype and demand for the product. It’s almost certain that any competent Steam Deck clone would have no problems selling to the market segment that Valve cannot supply. With more competition in this new product category, we can only see good things for handheld gaming enthusiasts as competition drives down prices and encourages innovation.