Steam Deck isn’t just bad news for the Nintendo Switch – Windows 11 better watch out as well

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While a lot has been made of how the new Steam Deck could take on the Nintendo Switch when it comes to handheld gaming, what’s perhaps most exciting is what it could do for Linux gaming.

The Steam Deck runs Steam OS, an operating system built by Valve and based on Arch Linux. Steam OS has been around for a while now – though you might not have known it. Originally a Debian-based Linux distro, Steam OS was originally conceived as an alternative to Windows 10 that gamers would use, either installing it on their own gaming PCs, or by buying a Steam Box gaming device.

The benefits of Steam OS were that, like other Linux distros, it would be free – so you didn’t need to buy a license as you do with Windows 10. The money you save on that could then be spent on something more fun, like more games or putting it towards upgrading your GPU, for example.

Steam OS was also less resource-hungry than the comparably-bloated Windows 10, and that meant that when playing games, your PC could concentrate its firepower on the game, not background processes, and this could lead to better performance in games.

These sound good, but Steam OS failed to take off, and gamers stuck with Windows 10. The main issue was that many game developers didn’t share their enthusiasm for Linux as Valve has, so wouldn’t make ports of their games to run on Linux. It was a bit of a vicious circle, really, as the small base of Linux gamers made it uneconomical to port their games to Linux. This lack of games made gamers reluctant to move to Linux, which meant game developers didn’t want to port their games to Linux, and so on and so on.

This could change, however.

What’s different?

There’s two big reasons why Steam OS, and Linux gaming as a whole, could now be a force to be reckoned with. For a start, the Steam Deck looks like a genuinely good piece of kit, and there’s a lot of positive buzz around it already, especially from people who were hoping for a Switch Pro and were disappointed by the minor upgrades that the Switch OLED has brought.

For the first time, Steam OS could be connected to hardware that people actually want to buy. And if the Steam Deck is a hit (it’s a big ‘if’), there will be a bigger audience of gamers using Linux, and that could convince game developers to make versions of their games that run on the Steam Deck. And, if they can run on the Steam Deck, they should be able to run on other Linux distros. That’s great news for Linux gamers who don’t want a Steam Deck, but would like more games to play.

An even bigger bonus for Linux gaming is Valve’s Proton software. Based on WINE (Wine Is Not an Emulator), which is a compatibility layer that allows Windows apps to run in Linux, Proton does the same thing for games – allowing titles that can only be run in Windows 10 to be run in Linux. Most excitingly, they perform pretty well, especially if they use Nvidia’s DLSS tech.

It’s pretty certain that the Steam Deck will rely on Proton to run many of its games, so Valve, which will want its Steam Deck to run games as well as possible to generate good word of mouth. That means we can expect more improvements to Proton (and the Steam Deck may have been why Valve was so keen on creating Proton in the first place) and this will again be great news for Linux gamers.

So, while Nintendo may be thought of as being the company most at threat of the Steam Deck, maybe Microsoft should be worried as well?

It’s only just announced Windows 11, its latest operating system, and at the launch event it made a lot of how gaming will be improved. However, Microsoft has always relied on PC gamers begrudgingly using Windows to play their games on. In many ways, this led to complacency, as Microsoft neglected PC gaming for years, and while all major PC games run on Windows, Windows itself isn’t a great platform for gaming.

So, if gamers can comfortably play their games on Linux, either via Steam OS and the Steam Deck, or on their distro of choice, Windows 11 may look like a less appealing upgrade.

Both Nintendo and Microsoft should take the threat of the Steam Deck seriously – but at the end of the day, it looks like Linux gamers could be the real winners here.

Matt Hanson
Managing Editor, Core Tech

Matt is TechRadar's Managing Editor for Core Tech, looking after computing and mobile technology. Having written for a number of publications such as PC Plus, PC Format, T3 and Linux Format, there's no aspect of technology that Matt isn't passionate about, especially computing and PC gaming. He’s personally reviewed and used most of the laptops in our best laptops guide - and since joining TechRadar in 2014, he's reviewed over 250 laptops and computing accessories personally.