It's hard not to compare the Steam Deck to the Nintendo Switch. It's obvious that Valve was gunning for the Nintendo Switch's unrivaled dominance in the portable gaming console market when it first announced and subsequently started sending out the first few batches of the Steam Deck in late February. But, while there are similarities between the Deck and the Switch, they're also very different.
Understanding what makes the Switch different from the Deck is important when deciding which of these two deserves your hard-earned cash.
Is the Steam Deck just a portable PC?
Before anything else, let's talk about the elephant in the room - is the Steam Deck a handheld desktop? In a way, it is. In theory, Valve wants the Deck to run every game that's available on its library, with one of its biggest draws ahead of its launch being The Witcher 3. Since then, Valve has added support for more Steam titles. While some aren't supported at all, that doesn't necessarily mean that the Deck can't run unsupported games, it's just that the experience isn't optimal.
Of course, the more appropriate question is whether the Steam Deck is a viable PC replacement, and it is but with a caveat.
Valve designed the Deck to run SteamOS for its interface and base software. With the right tools, you can plug the Deck into a display monitor, add a mouse and keyboard, and use it as a desktop. Even if you're unfamiliar with SteamOS' Desktop Mode, Valve put in the effort to make the interface familiar enough that it will be easy for the average user to install apps and tinker around with the Deck's settings.
Also, the Deck should support most plug-and-play peripherals. Finally, if you insist, Valve lets users install other operating systems on their Decks like Windows, so Valve's first foray into the gaming console market is a viable alternative.
Unfortunately, Steam Deck's merit as a desktop alternative to a gaming PC just doesn't work. The AMD APU was designed to handle the onboard display, which sports a 1280x800 resolution - a far cry from the industry-standard 1080p resolution.
Using the Steam Desk as an emergency desktop works, but it's not a desktop alternative.
How much more expensive is the Steam Deck compared to the Switch?
A year ago, we quoted a $500 gaming PC build. If you look hard enough, you could get the same specs these days for a lower price, but not by much, and certainly not without making compromises nor the many optimizations that Valve has made for the Steam Deck.
The Deck isn't just a novelty item, it is a full handheld gaming PC that shouldn't be as cheap as its $399 price point. That said, the cheapest Deck is still more expensive than the priciest switch, the Switch OLED, at $350, and nearly double the price of the Switch Lite.
To make matters worse, the Steam Deck's most expensive configuration will set you back $649. For the price, you do get a 512GB speedier SSD storage (versus 64GB) and an anti-glare etched glass though, so it's not like Valve is shortchanging consumers.
For what it's worth, Valve's pocket rocket boosts significantly better hardware and slightly better battery life compared to Nintendo's offering. The Deck outlasts the Switch toe-to-toe by at least an hour, which, admittedly, isn't much. However, since the point here is to play your favorite games on the go, every morsel of battery life counts, and an hour more of playing Witcher 3 on your Deck can make a lot of difference for those with long commutes who'd like to clear their backlogs while going to-and-fro work.
What kind of games can you play on the Steam Deck?
The Steam Deck wins in terms of sheer numbers as it has access to Steam's library of some 50,000 or so games. Not to mention, there are at least a dozen notable games that are not on Steam that you can get via other digital distribution platforms.
The only problem here is if the Deck can run all of them just as well as, let's say, it does Witcher 3, and this isn't the case. Valve's commitment to SteamOS should help make the Deck's native OS more functional. We also can't discount how Valve could work on making Windows run better on the Deck, and this will help the portable desktop get around the long-running issue of games compatibility with Linux-based operating systems.
You could also argue that the Deck benefits the most from the popularity of emulators on desktops. This means that you can slap a bunch of your older GameBoy Advance and DS games onto an SD card and run them on the Steam Deck, Nintendo's efforts to block emulation videos be damned.
Still, the argument all boils down to how well the games work on each console, and Nintendo wins this one by a mile.
The Nintendo Switch will likely end its life cycle with maybe 10,000 games in its library, at most. This number might just be a fraction of what you can play on the Deck, but the main difference is that Nintendo designed every game available on the Switch to run on the device.
In addition, first-party exclusives like Breath of the Wild and Mario Odyssey make the Switch part of how you play the game. Even The Witcher 3 runs relatively well despite the limitations of the Switch's hardware, which speaks a lot to the future of Switch ports like Microsoft's plans to bring Call of Duty to the Switch in the future.
TLDR; you can plug in and download any Switch game without worrying if it will run after installation. You can't say the same for the Steam Deck, as the downside of user freedom is that you'll actually have to spend hours trying to find the best balance between the ideal performance settings and its impact on the battery life.
Should you buy a Steam Deck over a Switch?
If you prefer to game on your PC and would like to enjoy Elden Ring on the go, then, by all means, buy a Steam Deck. Valve intentionally designed the Deck so that you can bring your favorite PC titles with you.
The only question then is, can you get a Steam Deck? Unlike the Switch, the Deck is only available to a handful of people (and scalpers), who successfully pre-ordered one back in 2021. Valve is still struggling to fulfill purchase orders from last year, so the earliest you'll probably be able to get one if you place a reservation today is in half a year, if not longer.
Meanwhile, your local video game retail stores should have plenty of Switch stocks available despite warnings from Nintendo Japan of an impending shortage.
The point is that the Steam Deck should remain an impossible impulse buy for at least another year. If you've got the money to buy either now, you might as well get a Switch OLED and save up for when the Deck will land at local retailers in your area.