We can confirm some, but not all, of what's in store for the codenamed "SteamPal."
Video game and hardware studio Valve has been secretly building a Switch-like portable PC, designed to run a large number of games on the Steam PC platform via Linux—and it could launch, supply chain willing, by year's end.
Multiple sources familiar with the matter have confirmed that the hardware has been in development on and off for some time, and this week, Valve itself tipped the device's hat to the outside world by slipping new hardware-related code into the latest version of Steam, the company's popular PC gaming storefront and ecosystem.
SteamDB operator Pavel Djundik spotted the change in Steam's code on Tuesday, which pointed to a new device named called "SteamPal." This is a derivative of a previously discovered code term, "Neptune," which began appearing in September of last year and came with a "Neptune Optimized Games" string. At the time, curious code crawlers thought this was some type of controller.
Technically, that's true. The "SteamPal," whose name we're putting in scare quotes because we do not have final device-name confirmation, is an all-in-one PC with gamepad controls and a touchscreen. In other words, it looks and functions like a Nintendo Switch (albeit without removable "Joy-Con" control functionality).Further ReadingValve’s Gabe Newell hints at vague console plans coming “this year”This is very likely the announcement Valve co-founder Gabe Newell hinted to in a panel conversation at a New Zealand school earlier this month. There, he dodged a question about Valve's plans for future console video games with an indirect answer: "You will get a better idea of that by the end of this year... and it won't be the answer you expect. You'll say, 'Ah-ha! Now I get what he was talking about.'"
Width for the sake of touch
In recent years, the "Switch-like PC" category has exploded. In very early 2020, Alienware revealed its first Switch-like gaming PC, but its status as a "concept" device has yet to bear commercial fruit. If you want to buy one today, you're largely looking at Chinese OEMs like GPD, One-Netbook, and Aya, who have slapped ultramobile PC processors and parts into a Switch-like chassis.Advertisement
SteamPal will go a similar route, with a System on Chip (SoC) likely coming from either Intel or AMD, not Nvidia. (The aforementioned Switch-like PC manufacturers have leaned on both AMD and Intel for their products.) It's unclear whether Valve will release multiple SKUs to offer customers a choice of power level, battery life, and other specs, like other Switch-like PCs have offered over the past year.
As far as form factor is concerned, at least one SteamPal prototype version is quite wide compared to a Nintendo Switch. This is in order to accommodate a slew of control options. No, Valve is likely not slapping an entire QWERTY keyboard onto its system, but Valve's team has built a standard array of gamepad buttons and triggers and pair of joysticks, along with at least one thumb-sized touchpad (in addition to the device's touch-sensitive screen). SteamPal's touchpad(s) are likely smaller than the pair of touchpads that came standard on every Steam Controller.Further ReadingValve’s “Steam Play” uses Vulkan to bring more Windows games to LinuxWhat we've seen and heard of SteamPal is still in the prototype stage and is subject to change, as we've seen with prototype hardware for other Valve initiatives like SteamVR and the Steam Controller. In other words, while I'm pretty confident SteamPal will include a d-pad, I wouldn't risk my integrity on it. This also means I don't currently have specific details on crucial hardware aspects like battery size, screen size, pixel resolution, memory, and storage capacity.
SteamPal's Switch-like properties will include the option to "dock" to larger monitors via its USB Type-C port, but I don't have firm details about exactly how that connection will work or whether Valve has any plans for an eventual SteamPal dock.
Lastly, SteamPal was built with Linux as a likely target, which lines up with Valve's continued stomp towards making its entire catalog compatible with the open source OS, particularly through Steam Proton. That in no way means Valve's increasingly cozy relationship with Microsoft couldn't result in a deal to get Windows onto SteamPal, though in an attempt to get prices down, skipping the Windows license cost per device, and telling users that SteamPal is open enough for them to customize like any other PC, is a very Valve-like option on the table.Advertisement
A completely different proposition than Steam Machines
I have no idea how much this device will cost. Valve may very well be in a position to take a loss on every SteamPal sold in order to drive revenue through selling software on Steam, but it's unclear whether the turbulence of chip shortages and other supply shortages could stick Valve with too massive a bill to get anywhere near Nintendo Switch's $299 MSRP.
While Valve has had its share of rocky hardware launches (particularly its Steam Machines partnerships with other OEMs), the Valve Index saw the company streamline its manufacturing process with something resembling significant quality control. And taking the lead on its own VR hardware meant not getting into bed with other OEMs, which is arguably one reason Steam Machines didn't work out as a platform. But where Steam Machines tried to sell desktop systems in a marketplace already saturated with the things, Switch-like PCs are still an entirely new sector—and one where Valve might very well succeed on the basis of getting in earlier than other major Western manufacturers.Further ReadingValve secrets spill over—including Half-Life 3—in new Steam documentary appOn the other hand, while I can confirm the device's existence and development, and I can point to Newell's very loud hints that something console-related will be announced later this year, Valve is still in a position to change gears (pun intended) at a moment's notice. It could either to delay or outright cancel this highly portable gaming PC project for any number of reasons. As we learned from a massive 2020 report on the development of Half-Life: Alyx, Valve loves to create, incubate, and then cancel things.
Valve did not immediately respond to Ars Technica's requests for comment.
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