Generally speaking, we unbox and review Chromebooks, ChromeOS tablets, Chromeboxes and Chromebases around here. If it runs ChromeOS in any way, shape or form, we’re interested. If it is #madebyGoogle, we’re interested. If it works with a Chromebook, we’re interested. But there are outliers, too, and some of those devices have direct impact on the wider ChromeOS ecosystem. The Steam Deck from Valve is one such device, and there are some good reasons why we’re keenly interested in this handheld gaming machine.
First and foremost, it is just cool
As a tech nerd, there are a few things that really get me excited. What the Steam Deck represents in terms of portable, legit gaming is one of those things. As a husband and father, I don’t have too much time to sit and play games like I sometimes would like to. That’s why I generally stick to things I can play on my phone in small increments here and there: it’s portable, snackable gaming that actually fits into my schedule.
The Steam Deck represents a portable, discrete way to play better games on the go. Not to take anything away from devices like the Nintendo Switch, the Steam Deck is built to handle a different sort of game. With desktop-like internals and all sorts of control options, this thing really feels like you get a gaming laptop in the palms of your hands.
There are thumbsticks, 4 triggers per side, 4 regular buttons, 2 clickable trackpads, a directional pad, a gyroscope and touchscreen all built into this thing. For people like me who game on a phone a lot, the trackpads feel very natural mixed with the tactile buttons. For console gamers, the thumbsticks and triggers make sense. For mouse and keyboard people, the combo of trackpads and gyro make for a great experience, too. It really feels like the kitchen sink of controller options.
The screen is bright and high-enough resolution for the size (7-inches at 1280×800) and the speakers sound pretty nice as well. Overall, in the limited time I’ve had with it so far, the concept of this device is so interesting and compelling. I feel like I could spend a bit of time with it and get very, very good at all sorts of games with the utilities that exist right out of the box.
I remember the days of Nintendo’s Gameboy and Sega’s Gamegear and the dream of powerful gaming in a smaller, more-lightweight package. Those devices served their purposes well, but if I were to give the Steam Deck to my childhood self, I’d be absolutely head-over-heels. As a device – a piece of tech – the Steam Deck is aspirational and inspired. It’s not perfect, but it pushes into a new realm for mobile gaming like nothing before it ever has.
A beacon of light for Chromebooks
But the ‘cool factor’ is only part of the story with this device. Sure, it hits me in my tech nerd feels and accomplishes something I dreamed about as a kid, but that’s not the main reason we saw fit to buy and unbox this thing. To be frank, the more compelling reason I had for getting my hands on the Steam Deck had far more to do with Steam on ChromeOS and what could be possible in the future.
You see, the container Google is finishing up on that brings Steam to ChromeOS is built on the same Arch Linux that we have on the Steam Deck. And that’s to say nothing of the Proton compatibility layer that both are using to allow for Linux to run and execute Windows games. Proton has been in the works for years at this point, and Steam Deck is Valve’s way of saying it is ready for prime time.
We’ve talked about it before, but Proton is really the secret sauce to this whole equation both for Steam Deck and for ChromeOS. Having a rock-solid compatibility layer is essential for Linux-based gaming as only a small fraction of Steam’s massive library is technically Linux compatible. Even if you had the Steam Deck and Steam on ChromeOS running perfectly, if you don’t have a way to load up Windows-based games, you don’t really have an audience.
Thankfully, Proton is working quite well. It isn’t yet a 100% solution, but it is very, very good in our early testing. Bigger games like Apex Legends run perfectly smooth and you’d never in a million years suspect that there’s any way the game isn’t running natively. The Steam Deck has nice internals, but the CPU/GPU combo isn’t exactly blowing the doors off, so seeing games run this well via Proton is very, very exciting for the future of Steam Games on ChromeOS.
With the same flavor of Linux underpinning the whole thing, it stands to reason that more-powerful devices with 12th-gen Intel chips and the more-powerful Iris Xe graphics on board could make for some fantastic gaming experiences as Steam on ChromeOS gets ironed out over the coming months. Steam Deck is a shining example of what could be possible in the very near future for Chromebooks running native games, and I’d wager that should make many ChromeOS users very excited for what it to come.