So far, Valve's Steam Deck has been positioned as a 'high-end' portable gaming device, with Valve boss Gabe Newell saying they're targeting a different kind of audience to prospective Nintendo Switch players. But with the base Steam Deck model starting at £349 / $399 and the option to connect it up to a monitor using a dock accessory, part of me wonders whether Valve also see the Deck as a potential first-time PC for people as well. It's a good price for a budget PC, and you'd be hard-pushed to find or build a similar system yourself from traditional PC builders.
So I put the question to Steam Deck designers Greg Coomer and Lawrence Yang when I spoke to them last week, and while they don't think people will buy it as their first PC, they do expect it will be a good upgrade option for existing PC players looking for a new rig.
"We don't have a strong prediction that a bunch of people are going to choose it as their first PC, but as a lot of people choose to upgrade their existing PCs, we feel fairly confident that Steam Deck will be a choice that they make," Coomer tells me.
Yang agrees. "Yes, I definitely think it's a viable choice. You can do everything you'd do on a PC with it, and it's just a little PC that you can plug stuff into."
Admittedly, we don't know how much the dock is going to cost on top of the Steam Deck yet, as it's currently set to arrive later on after the Steam Deck launches at the end of the year. As such, it's possible the whole package could end up being less budget-friendly than initially expected, but Yang says you don't technically need the dock to start using the Deck like a traditional PC.
"It's not the dock specifically that lets it output at a higher resolution," he says. "You can plug any HDMI to USB-C adapter into this and it can output at 4K."
"That's right," Coomer adds. "Any device that can convert directly from this unit will output and display at a higher resolution. It delivers both DisplayPort and HDMI, and the resolution goes quite a bit higher [than the Deck's native screen resolution of 1280x800]."
How games will actually run at 1920x1080 or above remains to be seen, however. The Steam Deck only has one of AMD's APUs under the hood rather than a discrete graphics solution like you'd have in a more traditional PC setup, so it may struggle to play the very latest games at a good frame rate at higher resolutions. This is partly why I was so surprised that Coomer and Yang said they expect the Steam Deck to appeal to would-be upgraders, rather than first-time PC buyers.
"It definitely depends on the game once you go to a really high resolution," Coomer tells me. "It's like any other PC in that way where if you push it hard in that direction, there are many games that would start to go way below our target frame rate of even 30fps."
"And just like any other PC and other PC games, you can tweak settings," says Yang. "If you want to output to a 4K monitor and lower the textures, it will probably run fine."
It's going to be interesting to see exactly how well the Steam Deck performs when connected to an external monitor. So far, other hands-on reports have all been pretty positive, but there's a part of me that remains skeptical about just how attractive it's going to be to those expecting a truly 'high-end' PC gaming experience. Personally, I'm looking forward to using the Steam Deck to play all those visual novels and smaller games I've got in my library that I don't really want to sit up at a desk for, but I'm also keen to see exactly what its outer limits are, too. We'll find out for sure when the first wave of Steam Decks arrive at the end of this year.