Steam Deck: How SteamOS bridges the gap between console and PC

Valves newly announced Steam Deck has the tricky task of merging two very different worlds. It has the heart of a full-blown PC, but the form factor of a handheld console, mostly controlled by a gamepad. The glue trying to hold these together nicely is the deck’s new version of SteamOS, a Linux-based operating system that bridges the void with a sleek, accessible user interface for those who just want a hassle-free gaming device while the door is open Everything that can be imagined beyond that remains fairly open.

I got to play the Steam Deck and talk to some of the people at Valve who do it, and one thing that stood out on their minds was the software and the operating system. The deck needs to be something specific and wide at the same time, and it also needs to work smoothly on a 50-inch television, desktop computer monitor, and (perhaps most importantly) on the go. To that end, Valve told me that developing an operating system that could be both fast and flexible was paramount.

Close-up of Valve’s Steam Deck

“We really started with this idea, we know that people will take this device to different places, they will probably play with it in different ways,” Valve designer Tucker Spofford told me. “You’re going to have shorter game sessions and really want to get into the action quickly, so it was super important to us that you find a game right away – and those are games in your library, but also games you might want to know, things who are new to the store. “

To that end, the UI here is brand new for the deck. This isn’t Valve’s first attempt at making PC games more accessible on controllers, as Steam Link and Steam Big Picture modes offer a similar console-like interface when playing away from your desktop. But while Big Picture Mode certainly makes navigating your library easier from the couch, it has gotten a little dated and clunky since it was first introduced almost a decade ago. It hasn’t changed much visually at all, and it turns out Valve has been working on it behind the scenes as well.

All of Steam’s features are here, from workshop mods to remote streaming.

Spofford told me that “the main thing to understand is the operating system of” [the Steam Deck] it’s just Steam. ”It got a facelift to work better with a controller like Big Picture, but unlike Big Picture, it’s not a branched product when it comes to Valve’s backend; It’s the same Steam with a different look. That said, where Big Picture Mode didn’t get all of the recent improvements from Steam because development couldn’t necessarily be easily split between the two versions, the Steam Deck can of course inherit everything – and the features Valve is developing for the deck, will also go in return for improving Steam.

This saves Valve time and effort during development, and it could be easier for the Steam team to justify the work put into certain improvements or changes when those hours are doubling the workload. Big Picture mode is still completely fine for what it needs to do, but I was impressed with how much more accessible the Steam Deck UI was compared to that. It’s easier to search for specific games, navigate more generally, and is much closer to a modern console UI than its predecessor.

Everything you’d expect from Steam is already here, too. The Steam Workshop remembers the mods that you have installed, the Steam Cloud keeps your game saves synchronized, Steam achievements are tracked via your profile as usual, Steam’s extensive controller customization (even in games without official controller support) is fully accessible Whether you’re playing handheld or docked, Steam Remote Play lets you stream games from another computer to the deck or vice versa, and so on and so on. Valve has been building the desktop version of Steam for nearly two decades, and the deck can take advantage of all of this right away.

But while all of these features were already available on a regular computer, Valve has also worked hard to give the Steam Deck one of the signature features that console gamers can count on and that PC gamers have so far only envied: suspending games . Just like with a Switch, you can simply pause the game you’re playing indefinitely without having to save, exit, and later restart. While many might take this for granted, Valve tells me that in the PC gaming space it wasn’t exactly an easy one to solve.

“This feature arose from our earliest discussions with AMD [the developer of the Steam Deck’s APU], also with Steam developers in-house, “said Valve designer Greg Coomer, explaining that it wasn’t necessarily the hardest part they had to figure out, but that” it was more about making sure we got the meaning of. didn’t lose sight of that feature. ”For the team, it was something that was at the core of using the Steam Deck, which resulted in an operating system being fast and flexible, making it a priority that couldn’t be dropped .

Valve even told us that the team is looking for ways to possibly pause a game on the deck and then resume it in the same location on a desktop PC, even though that wasn’t part of the device under development that we tried . But that’s part of the beauty of the Deck OS, just being Steam: improvements made here can also be more easily brought back to the desktop experience, with Valve letting me know that some of the changes they made to the Deck were on the desktop version before the handheld even hits the market in December.

But for the folks who aren’t interested in this PC cross-pollination, Valve wants to make sure the deck can also exist as a self-contained ecosystem – another important aspect is bringing the library, store, and social functions together in one attractive package. “One of the features we’ve been trying to figure out how to bring it to the Steam platform for a long time is the home screen that you see in Steam on Deck,” explained Spofford. “We believe that hopefully many users will find it very valuable to be able to just get back into the game they are playing, but also to be able to see what their friends are doing, see what’s new in the store there. what’s new in your library, you can get recommendations on the games you want to play next. All of these things are integrated into this start screen. ”

Deck users don’t have to worry about drivers, but the flexibility to customize is also there.

Similarly, deck owners don’t have to worry about what some consider to be the more intimidating side of a PC, like updating drivers. Valve plans to update SteamOS and the deck’s device software after launch and can simply push these out as simple patches not dissimilar to a console if necessary. While I would argue that driver updates haven’t really been a hassle in the last few years of PC gaming, they at least set a very real mental wall for those who just want something that works without fumbling, and that’s nice about the deck aims to provide that experience.

For those who want to go far, of course far Aside from its sophisticated environment, the Steam Deck has a full Linux desktop that you can also treat like a regular computer – one that will look and feel surprisingly familiar to anyone who already uses Windows. From there, you can mess anything you want and install anything that works with the Valve Linux compatibility layer called Proton, including non-Steam games or third-party storefronts. (You can look it up ProtonDB to see a community-driven list of what’s already working on Proton, although Valve has made it clear that their entire Steam library will be available on the deck and, in certain cases, will work directly with developers.) You could even use your Steam- Erase the deck completely, wipe and install Windows if you like – creating a “walled garden” that disregards the openness of the PC platform is the opposite of what Valve tells me to be.

That is in stark contrast to the way consoles work in general, and that lack of limitation is probably the biggest way that SteamOS (along with the design of the device itself), at its core, really stands out as a gaming PC. And while I’m glad it keeps that customizable heart for those who are looking for it, I appreciate Valve also went the extra mile to create a sleek and modern console-style UI for those who aren’t. The Steam Deck tries to live in two different worlds at the same time, but what I’ve seen so far makes me think that it can actually do this pretty well.

If you haven’t seen it before, you can have ours practical impressions To learn what the Steam deck looks like when you exit the UI and actually jump into a game, check out ours FAQ full of big questions answered by Valve, and hear why Gabe Newell thinks the price is crucial to his success. We’ll also learn a lot more about the deck by July.

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