Why Steam Deck’s change of Linux distros could be a winning move

Two players using the Steam Deck
(Image credit: Valve)

The Steam Deck will run Steam OS 3.0, and with that new version of the operating system, an important change has been made in terms of the Linux distro that it’s based on – with Valve having clarified exactly why this switch (pun not intended) is crucial in terms of giving its portable PC the best chance of success.

Steam OS was based on Debian, but Valve decided to move to the Arch distro with version 3.0, with the Steam Deck’s operating system benefiting from the fact that the latter is based on a rolling release model.

A rolling release means that the distro is constantly updated on an ongoing basis, as opposed to having major releases of the operating system appear much less frequently – the latter being the case for Debian (like Windows 10 with its biannual feature updates, where a bunch of features all arrive together in a big lump).

Valve product designer, Lawrence Yang, explained to PC Gamer: “So, Arch Linux, one of the main reasons [for using it], there’s a couple, but the main reason is the rolling updates of Arch allows us to have more rapid development for SteamOS 3.0.

“We were making a bunch of updates and changes to specifically make sure that things work well for Steam Deck, and Arch just ended up being a better choice for them.”

Essentially, basing the Steam Deck on a rolling release distro allows Valve to better tweak the OS, and keep on top of driver updates, or honing Proton – the compatibility layer which will be how the machine runs Windows games – to ensure it copes with everything users can throw at it from their Steam library (or that’s the hope – and Valve’s promise – anyway).

Analysis: Full Steam ahead for Linux?

The move to Arch from Debian makes sense in ensuring Valve stays on top of keeping Steam OS running like clockwork (hopefully), and being able to troubleshoot issues and apply any needed fixes or changes swiftly. The whole point of the Steam Deck is that it ‘just works’ and all this kind of stuff happens seamlessly in the background, with no need for less tech-savvy users to worry about things like driver updates.

While Arch facilitates all this happening in an optimal way, as noted above, it’s clear enough that Valve still has to supply the actual resources in terms of nailing down any problems in a swift manner, and ensuring that Steam OS 3.0 does indeed offer a slick and seamless experience for the end user.

From what we’ve seen thus far, though, it seems that Valve is fully getting behind the Steam Deck to make sure it succeeds, and to push the device hard – from working on ensuring Proton runs all Windows games (it has serious problems with some right now, like those using anti-cheat tech), through to making the portable PC versatile across all sorts of fronts. And the latter includes ditching Steam OS if you want, and running Windows 10 (or indeed Windows 11).

In short, everything appears to be shaping up nicely – but promises are one thing, and reality another, so here’s hoping the latter lives up to the former come release time.

In the bigger picture, the Steam Deck could be the best thing to happen to the broader computing public’s perception of Linux in, well, forever, if it does indeed deliver. With all the interest in the handheld right off the bat, we’ve already seen an increase in folks checking out Linux (obviously do not start with Arch, though, in case you were even vaguely tempted, as it’s far from an easy distro to deal with – leave coping with Arch to Valve).

Darren is a freelancer writing news and features for TechRadar (and occasionally T3) across a broad range of computing topics including CPUs, GPUs, various other hardware, VPNs, antivirus and more. He has written about tech for the best part of three decades, and writes books in his spare time (his debut novel - 'I Know What You Did Last Supper' - was published by Hachette UK in 2013).