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As Ars Technica confirmed in May, two months ahead of its official reveal, Valve is about to re-enter the hardware space with its first portable PC, the Steam Deck. This custom x86 PC resembles an XL version of the Nintendo Switch and will begin shipping to buyers by the end of 2021, starting at $399.
Like other recent Valve hardware efforts, the Steam Deck will run a custom Linux distro by default. Today, we’re going to explore how Valve’s Linux approach will transform by the time Steam Deck launches—and what that will mean for gaming on Linux as a whole.
SteamOS vs. Windows
Although the Steam Deck is capable of running Windows—currently the premiere PC gaming operating system—it won’t ship that way. Like Valve’s earlier Steam Machine effort, the Deck will ship with a custom Linux distribution instead.
Shipping on Linux cuts manufacturing costs for Steam, insulates the company from competition with the Microsoft Store on Windows, and avoids exposing Steam Deck players to the world’s premiere malware ecosystem—which also runs on Windows.
Valve’s custom Linux distribution is called “SteamOS.” In earlier versions (such as those shipped on the Steam Machine), SteamOS was based on Debian Linux. But the Steam Deck’s SteamOS 3.0 is abandoning Debian to rebase on Arch Linux instead.
SteamOS and Debian
When it comes to the features which define a given Linux distribution, Arch and Debian are just about diametrically opposed. Debian aims to provide a relatively generic base and strives for maximal stability via a conservative approach—current stable releases are composed of software which sysadmins tend to describe as “proven” but enthusiasts are more likely to describe as “stale.”
PC Gamer. Yang says that Arch is a better choice given the massive number of updates, changes, and customizations Valve needs to make in order to provide the best gaming experience on the Steam Deck.
Valve promises that the Steam Deck will run “the entire Steam library” at 30+ fps, so that means a lot of customizations indeed. The Steam Library includes thousands of Linux-native versions of games created by both indie and AAA developers—but that only adds up to about 20 to 25 percent of the entire Steam library.
To play Steam titles without a native port, Linux users rely on a compatibility layer called Proton. Proton support gets another 26 percent or so of the Steam library playable at near-native quality on Linux and about 70 percent acceptably playable.
Unfortunately, this isn’t usually as simple as “install Proton, profit.” Perusing compatibility reports on ProtonDB quickly leads a user down a bewildering rabbit hole of various distros, third-party repositories, and even different versions of Proton itself.
Careful readers will probably notice that we’ve called Debian “excellent” and Arch “terrible” for unsupported desktop users—but the Steam Deck isn’t a desktop PC, and we’re bullish about Valve’s choice to rebase on Arch.
To provide “100 percent of the Steam library playable at 30+ fps,” Valve will need to continually provide custom-tuned and custom-integrated versions of the latest software throughout the entire SteamOS stack—and that is very much Arch Linux’s strength.