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(Valve Photos)

Out of nowhere on Thursday morning, Valve officially announced its portable gaming PC, the Steam Deck, for release this December.

The existence of the new machine was leaked back in May, under the project’s working title of the “SteamPal.” The Steam Deck is effectively an all-in-one gaming PC that fits in your lap, with gamepad controls built into the unit on either side of a 7-inch, 60hz LCD touchscreen.

The system will reportedly become available for reservations on July 16. Valve plans to start shipping out units on a first-come, first-serve basis in December, at a starting price point of $399.

The Steam Deck recalls the popular Nintendo Switch in appearance and form factor. There are several projects in the works at the moment that attempt to pack a gaming PC’s power and library into a portable, Switch-like format, many of which are crowdfunded. It seems here like Valve has beaten most of them to the punch.

Three initial reactions, on my end:

  • $399 for this seems crazily inexpensive, particularly by comparison with the Valve’s VR headset Index.
  • Why does the Steam Deck look so much like the original Game Gear? Could I get a custom version from Valve that looks more like the original Game Gear?
  • What dark wizardry is at work here that Valve is even thinking about releasing a new gaming PC in an age of international chip shortages? Will anyone actually be able to get one of these things?

Internally, the Steam Deck runs on a new version of SteamOS, the Linux-based operating system that Valve used to run for its Steam Machine project. It also features a compatibility layer called Proton that reportedly lets users run all the games in their Steam libraries without developers needing to do any extra work for the port.

Out of the box, the Steam Deck features a custom AMD APU with a Zen 2 2.4-3.5 Ghz CPU, 16GB of RAM, and a MicroSD card slot for expanded storage. Valve’s official specs for the unit claim it’ll last for two to eight hours of gameplay on a full charge.

The $399 price point is for a model with a standard 64 GB hard drive. An intermediate model with a 256 GB SSD will be available for $529, while power users can invest in a Steam Deck with a 512 GB high-speed SSD for $649.

The Deck’s got most of the control schemes packed into the unit that you could want, with four face buttons, four assignable buttons built into the grips, and L & R bumpers and triggers. The two thumbsticks both feature capacitive touch, just like the sticks on the controllers for Valve’s Index.

Other bells and whistles include a headphone jack, two square trackpads on the front of the unit below the sticks, Bluetooth compatibility, and a built-in microphone. It’s charged via a standard USB-C port on the bottom of the unit.

Valve has also established in consumer interviews today that, to summarize broadly, it doesn’t care what you do with the Steam Deck once you have it. In theory, tinkerers could wipe its system as soon as they get it and install another operating system, such as Windows; there will be no particular lockdowns in place to prevent that from happening. In a weird way, this puts the Deck in a position to be the natural successor to Sony’s notoriously homebrew-friendly Vita handheld.

The official dock for the Deck is planned to be sold separately. It provides a vertical stand for the unit, as well as a DisplayPort 1.4, an HDMI 2.0 port, an Ethernet jack, one USB 3.1 port, and 2 USB 2.0 ports.

Valve’s stock photos of the Deck make a point of showing two modern arcade sticks being used in conjunction with the Deck’s dock, including a notoriously finicky HitBox controller. This is a very inside baseball sort of thing to show — you have to be pretty seriously into fighting games to even know what a HitBox is — which suggests Valve has gone out of its way to make the Deck compatible with obscure peripherals.

It sounds like there’s a lot crammed into the unit, and there is, but it’s also useful to remember that the Steam Deck is actually pretty big. It’s 11.7″ x 4.6″ x 1.9″ (298mm x 117mm x49mm), so it’s more like plugging a particularly beefy tablet into a controller than an old-school portable console.

Simply building a handheld gaming PC isn’t new, or even particularly unusual. It’s a surprisingly hot market in China, for example, but many of them are simply that: a handheld PC with a built-in controller. As such, most of them are priced like they’re a PC. A GDP Win3, for example, is priced to move at $1,140.

Valve is approaching the Steam Deck with a price point that’s closer to the “razor and blades” model of a modern gaming console, where it’ll take a bath on per-unit sales (the “razor”) on the assumption it’ll make its money back from purchases on Steam (the “blades”). It’s probably not a market by itself–I can’t imagine you’ll see many new users who adopt PC gaming or Steam because they splurged on a Steam Deck–but it does extend Steam’s already significant footprint in the PC gaming market.

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