(Illustration by Rafael Henrique/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)Valve is reportedly working on a new device that would bring PC gaming to portable hardware running Linux. While a number of specifics are still unknown, there does appear to be a handheld gaming initiative underway at Valve, Ars Technica reports. The new device has shown up in Valve’s Steam code as the “SteamPal” as first spotted by Pavel Djundik of SteamDB.
Valve’s “Neptune” controller shows up in latest Steam client beta again.
It’s named “SteamPal” (NeptuneName) and it has a “SteamPal Games” (GameList_View_NeptuneGames)
— Pavel Djundik (@thexpaw) May 25, 2021
According to Ars’ sources, the SteamPal will be a Switch-like device in that it’s a handheld that runs PC games. Nvidia is said to be out of the running as a silicon partner, which really only leaves two players: Intel and AMD.
AMD, of course, already provides silicon for the Xbox and PlayStation 5. That’s an obvious reason to suspect it as Valve’s partner for an initiative like this. Then again, AMD’s representation in console gaming might be part of why Intel would want to snap up a partnership like this for itself. As for which company would make a better partner, that’s going to depend at least in part on what kind of price point Valve is trying to hit and what sort of battery life and performance it wants to offer.
There are several Indiegogo campaigns for handheld PC gaming devices that fall under the broad category of “Switch-like,” but no portable PC concept has ever taken off. According to Sam Machkovech at Ars, at least one of the prototypes is quite wide compared with the Nintendo Switch. The extra width reportedly allows for a number of control options, including an array of gamepad buttons and triggers, a pair of joysticks, and at least one thumb-sized touchpad.
Will Valve Deliver?
Valve doesn’t have the best reputation when it comes to delivering on its ecosystem promises. A handful of Steam Machines were released in partnership with OEMs, but SteamOS — Valve’s promised, vaunted effort to make Linux a first-class gaming operating system — withered on the vine. Steam does continue to support Linux, but its efforts to build its own product ecosystems have not been tremendously successful.
The success of the Valve Index offers a more recent reason to think Valve can handle this kind of launch, though much depends on the kind of product Valve is building in the first place. Is a “SteamPal” a device that streams games, downloads them, or offers both options with a preference for streaming if the game exceeds SteamPal’s specs? It’s said to be able to dock with monitors via USB-C, but there’s no word yet on storage options, expandability, or ports.
Machkovech writes that he can “confirm the device”, but that Valve could change gears at a moment’s notice, or opt not to release the product at all. This last option is, of course, not news to anyone who has ever hoped Valve would release a third iteration in one of its franchises.
It’s hard to know what to think of this announcement, because there’s so much room left under the auspices of “Switch-like,” and there’s not necessarily an x86 CPU anyone would pick as a great target for a mobile handheld. Chips like Lakefield, which would do relatively well on power consumption, don’t have the performance. Chips like the Ryzen 5 5500U, which has seven integrated Vega cores and could probably manage something reasonable at 720p, aren’t going to hit the same power consumption as an ARM chip. Intel CPUs are caught in a similar bind. Of course, there’s nothing stopping either Intel or AMD from offering a chip with a bit more customization in terms of clocks or core counts, so it’s anyone’s guess what we might see.
A handheld primarily intended for streaming from a local Steam device could use much weaker components and thereby hit lower power consumption figures without any trouble. It’d also be cheaper, and more likely to match the Switch on price. Problem is, a handheld that’s only good for local streaming isn’t really much like Switch at all.
This is all a bit of a puzzle. There are rumors that the device could be out by the end of the year, though these plans could easily be disrupted by the pandemic silicon shortages or Valve’s two-decade difficulties finishing most of what it starts.