By Marc Cieslak, BBC Technology Correspondent
& Tom Gerken, BBC News

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WATCH: Marc Cieslak hands-on with the Steam Deck

Valve’s new handheld PC, the Steam Deck, has officially been released – but only to a select few people.

The hardware was originally slated for release in December 2021, but was pushed back due to supply chain issues.

Despite the hardware having been released, many orders are only available “after Q2 2022”.

When asked if it would be able to fulfil these pre-orders, Valve president Gabe Newell pointed to unexpected high demand.

“The shortages are not due to supply shock, they’re due to a demand shock,” he said.

“It’s just this huge uptake in silicon consumption that caught everybody more or less flat-footed.”

On Friday, Valve started contacting people who pre-ordered Steam Decks on a first-come, first-served basis.

Customers have three days from receipt of the email from Valve to complete their purchase or lose their spot in the queue.

It is unclear when customers will receive their hardware, but Valve said it will begin shipping on 28 February.

The base version of the Steam Deck costs £349 and comes with 64GB flash storage, while the top-end version costs £569 and has 512GB of faster internal storage.

Image source, Valve

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There are three variants of the handheld available, though the only hardware difference between them is the storage

A big library of games

One of the clear selling points of the Steam Deck is its vast library of more than 62,000 games, with many titles playable in some form or another.

Greg Coomer, a designer at Valve, said this library was at the heart of the product’s inception.

“Our goal was to bring all the games on Steam to a handheld form factor, to be able to play even the triple A games in the library,” he said.

Unlike buying a new console, players who have accrued hundreds of PC games over their life will find many of them are immediately playable on the Steam Deck.

One section on the home screen will show you just how many of the games you own are considered to be “Great on Deck”, meaning the games fully support the hardware.

But this is not foolproof, as we experienced severe stuttering and slowdown in one of the selected games, the 2011 title Sonic Generations.

Meanwhile, many older titles are playable with issues. For example, Persona 4 Golden runs well on the handheld – as you would expect of a game originally released on PlayStation 2 and remastered for Sony’s handheld PlayStation Vita. However, it currently does not play audio during cut scenes, and has extended black screen delays exiting battles.

Despite having limited internal storage space, all versions of the Steam Deck are expandable by a MicroSD card. Mr Coomer said the hardware would not only support a 1TB MicroSD card, but he believed it would support any size that exists.

The Internals

A feature of the handheld is its battery life. Valve says it can hold charge for up to eight hours depending on use, although we were unable to find a game which ran for this length of time on default settings.

The battery time varies from game to game, with hit title Grand Theft Auto V lasting just under five hours with default graphics settings.

How a selection of games fared with battery life on default settings:

  • Control (2019) – three hours
  • Skyrim: Special Edition (2011, Special Edition released 2016) – four hours
  • Sims 4 (2014) – four hours
  • Persona 4: Golden (2012, PC version released 2020) – six hours
  • Fallout: New Vegas (2010) – six hours

According to Mr Coomer, parts of the Steam Deck – such as the battery – are “technically upgradeable”, while other parts are replaceable if players have an issue.

“But there’s a limit,” he said. “For example, it’s really hard to get the battery out if you need to replace that.

“You can upgrade parts, you can swap parts. Some parts are easier to swap than others. Mostly we don’t recommend that anyone do that themselves at home if they’re not already a pro at doing those kinds of things.”

Valve has said in the past it is “technically possible” the Steam Deck will support an external VR headset, but it is not optimised for it. And Mr Coomer would not elaborate on which VR games would run on the device.

“We have tried it out only just to vet whether some of the peripherals will light up,” he said. “We knew from the outset that we’re not going to have a fantastic experience with VR games running on Deck today.”

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WATCH: Marc Cieslak puts Half-Life: Alyx through its paces

The Future

Valve has released several products in the hardware realm in the past, such as its 2015 Steam Machines.

The prebuilt gaming PCs were intended to compete with home consoles such as the Xbox and PlayStation, but were quietly removed from the Steam store in 2018, and are no longer available for sale.

It also released the Steam Controller and Steam Link, which Mr Newell points out are still supported despite being discontinued.

“All of those things have continued to be the building blocks for what we’re doing with Deck,” he said. “I think Deck is going to be an enormously popular product.

“We’d expect customers to be excited their Steam library is going to work on their desktop, even if they stop using their Deck. That’s a big advantage.”

He called the Steam Deck “the first stage of the next generation”.

“I’m playing Final Fantasy XIV on my Deck,” he said. “That’s something that traditionally would have been absurd.

“You’re not going to play that on your phone, right? It would be impossible that you throw away everything that makes it a fun game in order to get it to run in that kind of environment.”

And he said Valve isn’t too concerned about big sales figures, comparing the hardware to its 2020 VR release Half-Life: Alyx.

“Was Alyx a huge financial success? No,” he said. “Because the number of devices where you can play it is a vast subset of the number of PC titles.

“Does that mean in any way, shape, or form that we’re disappointed with Alyx? Not at all, because we’re in this for the long haul.

“Our view is, narrowly viewing everything in terms of strict unit volumes precludes a lot of interesting choices.”

The Steam Deck seems destined to be compared to the wildly popular Nintendo Switch, which has surpassed 100 million sales worldwide.

But from a consumer’s point of view, the handheld PC does offer something dramatically different – every single game that can be purchased on the Steam Deck remains in your Steam library to be played in the future long after the hardware no longer functions.

So perhaps the most intriguing thing about the Steam Deck that separates it from other consoles is not just that it already has a vast library – it’s that its library will live on.