Steam Deck: How SteamOS Bridges the Gap Between Console and PC | IGN

Valve’s 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 primarily navigated by gamepad. The glue attempting to hold those together nicely is the Deck’s new version of SteamOS, a Linux-based OS that bridges the gap with a slim, accessible UI for those who just want a hassle-free gaming device while leaving the door open for pretty much anything you can imagine beyond that.

I got to play the Steam Deck and talk to some of the people at Valve who are making it, and one thing clearly at the top of their minds was the software and OS. The Deck needs to be something specific and something broad at the same time, and it also needs to work on a 50-inch TV, a desktop computer monitor, and (perhaps most importantly) on the go without a hitch. To that end, Valve tells me making an OS that could be both fast and flexible was paramount.

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“We really started from this idea of like, we know that people are going to be taking this device different places, they’re probably going to be playing with it in different ways,” Valve designer Tucker Spofford told me. “They’re going to have shorter game sessions and want to really get into the action quickly, so it was super important for us that you can find a game immediately – and that’s games in your library, but also games that you might want to know about, things that are new to the store.”

To that end, the UI here is all brand new for the Deck. This isn’t Valve’s first attempt to make PC gaming more accessible on controllers, with the Steam Link and Steam Big Picture mode providing a similarly console-esque interface when playing away from your desktop. But while Big Picture mode certainly makes navigating your library easier from the couch, it’s become somewhat dated and clunky since its introduction nearly a decade ago. It hasn’t changed visually pretty much at all, and it turns out that clunky feeling may have also been shared by Valve while working on it behind the scenes as well.

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

That saves Valve time and effort during development, and it means it could be easier for the Steam team to justify the work spent on certain improvements or changes if those hours are doing double duty. Big Picture Mode is still completely serviceable for what it needs to do, but I was struck by just how much more approachable the Steam Deck UI felt to use by comparison. It’s easier to both search out specific games and navigate more generally, and is far closer in polish to a modern console UI than its predecessor.

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Everything you’d expect from Steam is already here too. The Steam Workshop will remember the mods you have installed, the Steam Cloud will keep your saves synced, Steam Achievements are tracked across 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 will let you stream games from another computer to the Deck or vice versa, and so on and so forth. Valve has been building up the desktop version of Steam for almost two decades now, and the Deck gets to reap the benefits of all that right away.

But while all those features were already available on a regular computer, Valve has also worked hard to give the Steam Deck one of the signature features console players have learned to rely on and PC gamers have previously only envied: suspending games. Just like with a Switch, you can simply suspend the game you are playing indefinitely without having to save, quit, and relaunch later. While many might take that for granted, Valve tells me it wasn’t necessarily an easy problem to solve in the PC gaming space.

“That feature came up from the earliest conversations with AMD [the developer of the Steam Deck’s APU], also with Steam developers internally,” Valve designer Greg Coomer said, explaining that it wasn’t necessarily the hardest thing they had to figure out, but that “it was more just making sure that we didn’t lose sight of the importance of that feature.” To the team, it was something that was core to how people would use the Steam Deck, feeding back into wanting an OS that was fast and flexible, making it a priority that couldn’t be dropped. 

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Valve even told us that the team is looking into ways to potentially let you suspend a game on the Deck and then pick it up in the same spot on a desktop PC, though that wasn’t part of the in-development device we tried out. But that’s part of the beauty of the Deck’s OS simply being Steam: improvements made here can more easily be brought back to the desktop experience as well, with Valve telling me that some of the changes they’ve made for the Deck will arrive on the desktop version before its handheld even launches in December.

But for the people not interested in that PC cross pollination, Valve wants to make sure the Deck can stand as a self-contained ecosystem as well – another important aspect of which is merging the library, store, and social features into one attractive package. “One of the features that we’ve been trying to figure out how to bring to the Steam platform for a long time is the home screen that you see in Steam on Deck,” Spofford explained. “We think a lot of users will hopefully find that super valuable, to be able to just jump right back into the game that they’re playing, but also be able to see what their friends are doing, see what’s new in the store, what’s new in your library, be able to get recommendations of what games they might want to play next. All those things are built into that home screen.” 

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Similarly, Deck owners won’t have to worry about what some would consider 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 those out when desired as easy patches not dissimilar to a console. While I maintain that driver updates haven’t actually been much of a hassle in the recent years of PC gaming, they do at least represent a very real mental wall for those who just want a thing that works without any fiddling, and it’s nice that the Deck aims to provide that experience.

Of course, for those who want to go far far beyond its polished environment, the Steam Deck has a full Linux desktop you can treat as a regular computer as well – one that will look and feel surprisingly familiar to anyone who uses Windows already. From there, you could mess with it all you want and install anything that works with the Linux compatibility layer Valve made called Proton, including non-Steam games or third-party storefronts. (You can check ProtonDB to see a community-driven list of what works on Proton already, though Valve has clearly stated that your entire Steam library will be available on the Deck, and it’s working with developers directly in certain cases.) You could even wipe your Steam Deck entirely and install windows if you’d prefer – creating a “walled garden” that disregards the openness of the PC platform is the opposite of what Valve tells me it wants to do.

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That stands in stark contrast with the way consoles generally operate, and that lack of restriction is probably the biggest way SteamOS (along with the design of the device itself) truly distinguishes itself as a gaming PC at its core. And while I’m glad it maintains that customizable heart for those looking for it, I appreciate that Valve has also gone the extra mile to make a sleek and modern console-style UI for those who aren’t. The Steam Deck is trying to live in two different worlds at once, but what I’ve seen so far makes me think it might actually be able to do so pretty well.

If you haven’t already seen it, you can check out our hands-on impressions to learn what the Steam Deck is like when you leave the UI and actually get into a game, see our FAQ full of big questions answered by Valve, and hear why Gabe Newell thinks the price is critical to its success. We’ll also have plenty more about the Deck coming through July.

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