Comparisons between the Valve Steam Deck and the Nintendo Switch are hard to avoid—but not always helpful. They are very different devices with very different philosophies, and both are great. Here’s a summary of what you need to know.
The biggest difference: parts and performance
The Nintendo Switch and Valve Steam Deck share a lot of similarities, but there are some big differences in terms of overall power and performance. The Switch was released in early 2017 and is powered by an NVIDIA Tegra X1 system-on-chip (SoC) clocked at 1.02GHz, with a total of 4GB of LPDDR4 RAM.
Its NVIDIA Maxwell-based GPU clocks between 307 and 768MHz, depending on whether you’re gaming in portable or docked mode. Built-in storage takes the form of 32 or 64GB of eMMC flash storage, which gives about the same performance as a microSD card slot for expansion (around 95MB/sec, which is why expensive microSD cards won’t improve the Switch’s performance).
In contrast, the Steam Deck came out in early 2022, a full five years later than the Switch. It’s powered by a custom AMD Accelerated Processing Unit (APU) that’s based on the Zen 2 (CPU) and RDNA 2 (GPU) architectures, the same technology that helped build the Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5. The CPU runs between 2.4 and 3, 5 GHz, and the system has access to 16 GB of LPDDR5 RAM.
Valve compared the Steam Deck’s GPU capabilities to those of the Radeon RX 6000 series, which run between 1 and 1.6 GHz. The basic Steam Deck uses similar eMMC flash memory as the Switch, but uses the faster PCI Express 2.0 x1 standard (up to 500MB/sec). The mid and upper tiers use faster NVMe-based SSDs for improved read and write times.
The Steam Deck enjoys higher clock speeds, newer CPU and GPU architecture, a larger pool of RAM, and faster storage options than the Switch. You wouldn’t be wrong on any level to say that the Steam Deck is five years ahead of the Switch in terms of hardware. While there’s a lot more to analyzing the performance of both machines than a simplistic reading of “higher number = better performance,” the difference between the two machines is a generational leap in terms of in-hand performance.
However, one area where Nintendo may have an advantage is the display on the Switch OLED model. Valve opted for a 1280×800 LCD, which uses LED backlighting, which can result in washed-out blacks and a less-than-stellar contrast ratio. In contrast, the OLED Switch features a 1280×720 (720p) self-emissive panel that allows pixels to be turned off completely for even more impressive results.
What you will play: Games
The Switch plays games that were created specifically for the Nintendo system (and some older ones that have been optimized). This includes an arsenal of first-party Nintendo exclusives, including Mario Odyssey, Metroid Dreadand highly regarded The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.
You never will officially look at these games released on another system because that’s not how Nintendo works. The games can be enjoyed using physical cartridges or downloaded from one store, the Nintendo eShop. Thanks to the success of the Switch, there’s an ever-expanding catalog of games to choose from and a huge number of promotions going on at any given time.
In contrast, Steam Deck uses a custom Linux distribution to play Steam releases that are mostly written with Windows in mind. This is possible thanks to a compatibility layer called Proton. The games are further optimized by developers and featured in Valve’s Deck Verified program. Some games run perfectly right from the start, some drag, while others provide an inconsistent experience.
You can try running any Steam game on your Steam Deck, many of which work just as well as on PC. Since Steam Deck runs a modified version of Arch Linux, you can install games from anywhere just like on a regular PC. It is also possible to install different operating systems (such as Windows) and use third-party stores if you can run them.
This freedom extends to standard apps that would never make it into a closed system like the Switch. Think emulators, torrent clients, benchmarking utilities and so on. Since Steam Deck targets Steam releases, you can also take advantage of Valve’s epic winter and summer sales.
Access to Steam provides much greater access to new top titles and new Early Access games, many of which flourish on Valve’s platform. Smaller indie developers have been responsible for some of the biggest hits of the past few years, with titles like Valheim, Vampire Survivorsand Teardown shooting for success while console owners wait for the port to arrive.
In short, the Switch is a closed ecosystem full of Nintendo classics. While performance isn’t always optimal, there’s no guesswork in determining whether a title should be displayed. In contrast, Steam Deck is a system that comes with a lot more unknowns, but a lot more freedom to work things out. Software must be digitally uploaded to a platform that rewards curiosity and tinkering, with less hand-holding along the way.
Two different philosophies: the ecosystem
The difference in approach between Nintendo and Valve is a reflection of what each system represents. The Switch is a portable hybrid console, while the Steam Deck is a fully functional PC in a small package. The freedom given to Steam Deck users to install software, change the operating system and even make repairs themselves.
Valve showed this in a video released a few months before the launch of Steam Deck in which they state that “you have the right to open it and do what you want”, but also “we at Valve really do not recommend that you ever open it.” The Valve staff continued warn that an SSD upgrade could significantly shorten the life of the unit due to heat output.
Hello, please don’t do that. The IC of the charger gets very hot and the nearby thermal pads should not be moved. Additionally, most 2242m2 drives draw more power and heat up than what the Deck is designed for. This mod may seem like it works, but it will significantly shorten the life of your Deck. https://t.co/Kmup7Zov13
— Lawrence Yang (@lawrenceyang) June 25, 2022
By comparison, your Nintendo Switch warranty is void as soon as you open the case. If you’ve suffered from terrible Joy-Con drift, you may be able to claim an extended warranty, but in some countries Nintendo may charge you for the privilege of a repair. Fortunately, you can still make changes to the Switch experience with accessories like the Fixture S1 controller clip and portable dock.
Steam Deck online play was a little difficult due to Proton interfering with anti-cheat technologies, but where there is online play, it’s a simple case of jumping in. On Switch, online play requires a Nintendo Switch Online subscription (as is the case on competing Xbox and PlayStation platforms).
Voice chat has been moved to the Nintendo Switch Online app for iPhone and Android, further complicating things. Luckily, with a Nintendo Switch Online subscription you get a few extras like access to NES and SNES games, cloud backups, and the ability to earn more Nintendo Points.
Ergonomics and anchored gameplay: a hybrid experience
The Steam Deck is portable, but it’s a chunky piece of kit. Valve’s handheld is much thicker and wider than the Nintendo Switch, making the Nintendo handheld feel much more portable in comparison. It’s still much smaller and lighter than packing a laptop or even a tablet, but if size is an important decision for you, the Switch might be the better choice.
However, because the Switch is so thin and compact, it suffers in terms of ergonomics. The Steam Deck has a much thicker and more comfortable grip that more closely mimics a modern console controller. If you have particularly large hands, the Switch can be cramped and imprecise. Luckily, you can swap out the Joy-Con controllers for something like the Hori Split Pad Pro to solve this.
The Steam Deck uses larger full-size analog sticks, but is better suited to more traditional PC experiences thanks to its capacitive touchpads that are ideal for pointer control. Both machines support touchscreen and gyroscopic input, and the Steam Deck uses capacitive analog sticks that detect when your thumbs are resting on them.
Both consoles can be connected and used in what Nintendo calls “TV” mode with an external wireless controller. Only the Switch comes with a port in the box (assuming you opt for the standard or OLED model rather than the Lite which is limited to handheld gaming).
Nintendo’s docked experience is a one-for-one mirror of what you see in portable mode, with a few improvements. Since the Switch has access to more power, you’ll get higher resolution graphics up to 1080p. Developers can further customize the experience to improve the level of detail, draw distance and anti-aliasing.
It’s early days for the docked Steam Deck experience at the time of writing. You can buy Valve’s official port, or you can grab a third-party USB-C hub like Satechi’s Multi-Port Adapter (just make sure whatever you buy has HDMI 2.0 for 4K at 60Hz playback). According to early reports, the docked Steam Deck experience still leaves a lot to be desired.
Satechi slim aluminum USB-C docking station
Digital Foundry noticed mixed results in the merge with many gamepad functions (like rumble) not working. You’ll have to tweak and fiddle with the graphics settings to get things playing nicely, and the operating system exhibits many bugs that spoil the overall experience. Hopefully, when Valve works on the software side of things, the Steam Deck will not only be a great handheld, but a competent hybrid console as well.
Take My Money: Price and Availability
At the time of writing in mid-2022, the biggest hurdle you’ll run into in terms of purchasing a Steam Deck is availability. The entry-level console starts at $399 for the 64GB eMMC version, with $529 for 256GB of NVMe storage or $649 for the top-of-the-line 512GB of NVMe storage and enhanced anti-glare glass on the screen. The console is also sold out, with Valve taking pre-orders on the Steam storefront.
By comparison, you can pay $299 and get a Nintendo Switch right away. You can even throw an extra $50 into the pot and grab a Nintendo Switch OLED model for $349. There are also used consoles available for sale on eBay or Facebook Marketplace.
Valve has “more than doubled” production of the Steam Deck in June 2022, which should see the console get into more hands and launch in more territories in the coming months.
Why not both?
You can buy both a Steam Deck and a Nintendo Switch for less than the cost of a decent graphics card, and if you’re a handheld gaming enthusiast, there’s probably room for both platforms in your life.
The performance on the Switch won’t blow your mind, but neither will the Steam Deck if you compare it to a modern PC or a high-end console. At the end of the day, the Steam Deck isn’t replacing the Switch, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
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