Valve answers our burning Steam Deck questions — including a … – The Verge
By Sean Hollister
Nine months ago, I wrote that the Steam Deck wasn’t ready. Many of you clearly disagreed: the handheld gaming PC has been the top-selling item on Steam for 30 of the past 41 weeks.
Being the “early access game console” didn’t keep this affordable, portable gaming computer down. Frankly, it’s my gadget of the year, thanks in no small part to the 90-plus updates Valve has shipped since its debut. But the pace of updates and reliance on Linux can make it a volatile platform, too: Valve itself has occasionally introduced nasty new bugs, and game publishers have occasionally broken compatibility with their own updates.
Before I take a fresh look at the Steam Deck for The Verge, I wanted to know what Valve’s intentions are for its future. To my surprise, Steam Deck designers Lawrence Yang and Pierre-Loup Griffais granted me a wide-ranging interview — revealing not only that they plan to update the software indefinitely but also that they’re still experimenting with hardware, too.
Here’s what we’ve learned.
“I don’t think you should expect that,” says Griffais. “Stable in terms of having a great experience for people? Yeah, absolutely. But I think we are always going to be pushing updates as long as there’s people playing.”
For updates, the team is primarily working off two big lists, says Yang: “things we want to fix, and things we still want to make.”
“The bug list grows as more people get Steam Deck and we get more feedback about things — and the feature list kind of stays the same size because as we add features, we get more features we want to add based on our own experience and what we’re hearing from customers,” he says.
“I struggle to see a point where we’d consider it done.” – Pierre-Loup Griffais
One of the most exciting parts of being a Steam Deck owner is trying those new features — like the horizontal performance overlay that recently rolled out in the Preview ring, letting you keep tabs on frame rate, temperature, battery life, and more using the portion of the screen that goes wasted in any game that runs letterboxed.
But Valve is also aware that it’s shipped some embarrassing bugs even to its Stable ring, the one you’d generally expect to just work, so it’s been getting a little more cautious about what it pushes out. Griffais says the team has been moving to a monthly cadence for Stable updates and suggests things will also improve as more Steam Decks roll out “because it’s only a subset of users that opt into these more advanced update channels.”
It also helps that updates download in the background now. “We’re aiming to make the update process as painless and smooth as possible… you just reboot into them,” says Griffais.
iFixit called battery replacements “the Steam Deck’s Achilles heel.” It’s the one part of the handheld computer that isn’t easy to remove — which is unfortunate when you consider that batteries are the most obvious wear component of any portable computer.
I asked Valve: why all the glue? Doesn’t your L-shaped battery already have a nice L-shaped pocket to keep it secure?
I believe you always need some extra room around the battery to account for possible battery expansion in any design, right? Because of that, you can’t really have the battery-shaped hole where it goes into the case be exactly the same size as the battery, and so for that reason there’s always a risk that if it’s not fastened properly, it will be rattling around or shifting. And because it’s a very heavy component with respect to the rest of the Deck, it would be a very bad experience to have a battery that’s loose in there. In some of our early prototypes we had that issue, and I’ll tell you, it doesn’t feel good at all, when you’re just moving around and trying to use your Deck.
“You don’t want a Steam Deck maraca, and you don’t want a battery possibly touching other important components and jostling them around,” adds Yang.
But Yang also says that Valve’s intent is for everything to be as repairable as possible, admits the glue isn’t ideal, and says the team is already making it easier with new hardware revisions. “We have rolled in a change to the geometry of the adhesive, making the battery easier to loosen,” says Yang. Hopefully, that new shape should make it easier to pry.
Delta or Huaying? That was the question on many a Steam Deck owner’s mind when we came to find that some Steam Decks were shipping with a whinier fan manufactured by Delta Electronics.
It was concerning enough that Valve decided to stop shipping any systems with the Delta fan for a time. “There was a period of time where we were only building Steam Deck with the Huaying fan,” says Yang. Valve made the Huaying fan readily available from iFixit, too, if you want to attempt your own easy repair. Yang confirmed to me that the iFixit fan “does not exhibit that [whine] characteristic.”
But Valve has actually resumed shipping the Delta fan, too, because it now has “an engineered foam solution to reduce fan noise,” Yang tells The Verge. We haven’t tested it yet ourselves, but there’s good reason to believe it’d help: early on, the Reddit community discovered that a few layers of carefully applied electrical tape offered some improvement. So did a software update that changed the fan curve, but I still preferred the Huaying’s whoosh to the Delta’s whine after trying both myself.
As of late October, owners can check which fan they have under Settings > System > Model/Serial Numbers.
While Yang says “most of our efforts are on the software side” now, there are other behind-the-scenes hardware tweaks beyond fans and battery glue. “For example, the Steam and Quick Access button, we looked at improving the feel of those and I think the outcome of that is already rolling out to new units” as of August.
Before the Steam Deck, there were Steam Machines, Valve’s failed attempt to bring your gaming PC into the living room by offering gaming PC manufacturers a controller and early Linux support. Now that the Steam Deck is a success, will it reboot that initiative? Maybe! Valve is still working on making the Deck’s SteamOS 3 available for other manufacturers’ PCs, and it hopes they’ll carry the torch once that’s done.
“Once it’s widely available, not only are we excited to see other manufacturers making their own handheld PC gaming devices, we’re excited to see people make their own SteamOS machines which could include small PCs that they put next to their TV,” says Yang.
Griffais says that Valve is already testing additional concepts in the living room, too, but cautions that “things are very busy with the Deck right now and we can’t be everywhere at once.”
“We’re doing our own experiments, but would also love to work with third-parties to see what they would have to bring to the table as well,” he says. Yang adds that the Steam Deck dock might already be “the missing link” for those seeking a living room game console. And, he points out, the work that Valve put into UI scaling and third-party game controller support should be transferable to anyone else’s Steam Box as well.
The Steam Deck launched with the most powerful GPU ever in a handheld PC, but that won’t be true for long: several companies are sticking AMD’s 6800U laptop chip into their machines for notably more performance. But that doesn’t phase Valve, partly because the team thinks its custom Aerith SoC is way more power efficient.
“The performance level you get between 8 and 12 watts, which is kind of the sweet spot in terms of efficiency… I don’t think you’ll see off-the-shelf offerings based on mainline notebook product lines significantly outperforming that in maybe a few generations,” says Griffais.
For example, ETA Prime recently showed that the upcoming Aya Neo 2, which houses a 6800U, is notably more powerful in an apples-to-apples test. But it also easily drew 40W of total system power compared to the Steam Deck’s 29W or so. That’d be enough to drain the Steam Deck’s battery in a single hour, though Aya’s pricey handheld does include a larger battery than Valve’s.
The other reason Valve doesn’t see them as competition, though, is because they could easily be partners, too. “We actually want to work with them to make sure that, if they want to use SteamOS or offer a SteamOS based alternative, that can be done,” says Yang.
Valve has repeatedly confirmed that the Steam Deck is a “multi-generational product” and new versions are on the way. What will they include? When I asked Yang and Griffais for the pain points they wanted to address in a sequel, they had nearly identical answers: screen and battery life.
What about performance? Like Nintendo — which has repeatedly chosen not to increase the performance of the Nintendo Switch despite having the technology to make a so-called “Switch Pro” — Valve is similarly weighing whether to keep the handheld’s performance consistent for now.
“Right now the fact that all the Steam Decks can play the same games and that we have one target for users to understand what kind of performance level to expect when you’re playing and for developers to understand what to target… there’s a lot of value in having that one spec,” says Griffais.
“I think we’ll opt to keep the one performance level for a little bit longer, and only look at changing the performance level when there is a significant gain to be had,” he adds.
“Yeah, we want to make it happen,” says Yang when I ask about a successor to the cult classic gamepad Valve discontinued in 2019. “It’s just a question of how and when.”
“I think it’s likely that we’ll explore that because it’s something we wanted as well. Right now, we’re focusing on the Deck, so it’s a little bit of the same thing as the microconsole question: it’s definitely something where we’d be excited to work with a third-party or explore ourselves,” he says.
Shortly after its February launch, Valve added an app switcher so you can open two apps at a time, but there’s still no easy way to balance their audio — say, by turning down your game volume so you can hear friends in Discord or leveling your Spotify music so it blends — rather than interferes — with your game.
“We have been developing the technology needed to do that,” says Griffais, adding that the company needed to tweak components of the Linux audio stack to make it work. “You can control the audio volume and duck the volume of certain applications without affecting the whole system, and we’ll be rolling that out to Deck at some point.” Griffais says the next step is to figure out the right UI.
While you can pair Bluetooth headphones to the Steam Deck, it’s not always a great gaming experience. The Deck doesn’t support their microphones, and Valve defaults to a high-quality (rather than low-latency) codec that can introduce a lot of delay.
But Valve says it’ll eventually let you choose your Bluetooth profile and codec in gaming mode and is at least looking into Bluetooth mics as well.
“Bluetooth profile / codec selection work is ongoing for the game-mode side of things – that said, you can currently change this setting in desktop mode and it will carry over,” writes Yang. “We are still looking at Bluetooth microphone support, but due to certification, quality, device switching issues, we still recommend using either a wired microphone or the built-in microphone.”
If you put your Steam Deck to sleep, you should be able to pick up where you left off on your desktop PC and vice versa. But usually, you can’t.
“Ultimately it’s going to be up to developers to figure out if and when they want to add that functionality,” says Griffais when I ask when we can expect games to embrace the new Dynamic Cloud Sync feature that automatically syncs your cloud save before the Deck goes down for a nap.
“It’s not something we’re aggressively pushing for,” he adds. “We’re not making it part of the Deck Verified program, for example, and we have no plans to change that at the moment.”
One of the wonderful things about the Steam Deck — and the old Steam Controller — is that you can easily download entire custom control schemes that make PC games feel at home on a gamepad. The community has been eager for Valve to offer a similar way to share per-game graphical settings, too, particularly after Famitsu published an interview that suggested Valve was considering the idea.
Well, Valve considered it, but Griffais says it’s “a massive undertaking that I don’t think we’re really looking into seriously right now.” What it might do first — or instead — is let Steam Deck owners share their per-game power profiles, including screen refresh rate, the frame limiter, the GPU clock, and the wattage of the chip. Those profiles are something you can save locally on your Deck as of an update earlier this year, and he says it would “be pretty doable for us to expand that further and make it so you can share the configurations with the community.”
Valve does let games detect that they’re running on Deck and surface their own graphical presets for the handheld.
I destroyed three microSD cards early on while testing the Steam Deck, but that probably won’t happen to you: Valve says it fixed the vast majority of issues back in May when it changed how it formatted flash storage.
When I point out that I’ve still seen a few Redditors complaining, Yang expands: “We’re still on the lookout, we’re keeping track of it, we’re trying to have people send microSD cards if they have the issue… but the reports we’re getting by and large are just looking like end of life,” he says, referring to how flash storage can wear out if it gets overwritten too many times.
Valve now runs a quick format rather than a full format when you start using an SD card to store games, and it says the issues “mostly disappeared” with that one change. And while I’ve still seen some Redditors complain, Yang says the team genuinely wants to hear from people with busted cards “to make sure that we can address the problem completely.”
Valve says it’s “safest” to shut down the console before swapping SD cards but that they should also be hot-swappable if they’re not in use. “If you’re not doing anything like running games off of it, or writing bits to it like downloading updates, it’s fine to pull it out and swap it in,” says Yang.
Some publishers have been asking Valve whether it would be willing to host touch-only games they’d never bothered to put on PC, says Griffais. “They asked us, is this something you’d be okay having on Steam? Can we just push that?” He says Valve is absolutely interested, as long as it’d be clear to Steam shoppers that they’d be getting a touchscreen-only experience. “I think we’d have to work a little bit on the store and the messaging around that.”
We’ve seen it with Elden Ring, Red Dead Redemption 2, Halo Infinite, and more: Valve is actively working to fix specific games for the Steam Deck itself. Griffais and Yang tell me that Valve spent years developing its own Vulkan graphics drivers, shader compilers, DX11 and DX12 implementations, and OS code in-house, and that means it doesn’t have to farm out fixes to the game publishers.
“That’s why you’ve been able to see things like the Elden Ring performance fix where the other platforms were still trying to make sense of it,” says Yang, referencing how Valve was the first to patch out an unusual form of stutter. Just yesterday, Valve released a hotfix for The Witcher 3’s next-gen update, too.
“To some extent, we’re always looking at a specific game for one reason or another,” says Griffais. He says Valve spent six months on Halo Infinite, too — “We basically had to invent new Vulkan features for that game to get supported” — and thinks the team may be able to improve Forza Horizon 5 as well, potentially reducing the rubberband-like stutter that players have been reporting.
If an online multiplayer game doesn’t work on the Steam Deck, there’s typically one simple reason — the game’s anti-cheat system stops it in its tracks. While Valve has worked things out with the biggest anti-cheat providers, Destiny 2 and Fortnite are still snubbing the Deck altogether.
But that doesn’t mean Valve isn’t making progress — Griffais and Yang say it’s still actively working on support for Halo: The Master Chief Collection and Fall Guys, as just two examples. It expects them to both eventually be playable on the Steam Deck — though it may need some last tweaks from Epic. That’s because Epic owns Easy Anti-Cheat, which The Master Chief Collection uses, and it also owns Mediatonic, the developer of Fall Guys.
Apex Legends and 7 Days to Die were also enabled months ago — two examples of popular games that were missing from the Steam Deck at launch.
How many people built the Steam Deck? Well, Valve isn’t a typical company, and the Steam Deck apparently wasn’t a traditional project, even for Valve. While Valve’s own 20–30 person hardware team spent two years designing the actual gadget in-house, and it pulled in other parts of the company, too, Griffais says the company is also directly paying more than 100 open-source developers to work on the Proton compatibility layer, the Mesa graphics driver, and Vulkan, among other tasks like Steam for Linux and Chromebooks.
“There’s a larger strategy effort to coordinate all these products and set up kind of an overall architecture, to make sure they can help PC gaming technology thrive in a Linux-based environment that is not really the target platform for all those games,” he says.
Has Valve shipped a million units yet like this KDE developer claimed? It seems extra likely when you consider that the cake is apparently not a lie:
(Zoom in and you’ll see “1 million!” printed atop the cake; two ex-Valve developers mentioned it on social media.)
But Yang tells me the company’s not sharing numbers as a general rule — and I imagine any number would pale in comparison to, say, the Nintendo Switch, which has sold 114 million units as of September 2022. For now, Yang would only confirm “hundreds of thousands” of sales as of August, not counting any additional $5 reservations that were still in the queue.
It wasn’t until October that the company caught up with those reservations and put the system on general sale. “Hundreds of thousands” also wouldn’t include any sales in Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, where Valve has only just begun taking deposits for the console. Nintendo sells nearly as many handhelds in Japan alone as it does across the entirety of Europe, so it’ll be interesting to see if Valve’s system makes a splash there.
In the US, the Steam Deck is currently shipping within two weeks. It’ll begin shipping to those four regions in Asia starting December 17th.
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