Valve’s Steam Deck handheld gaming PC was immediately compared to the Nintendo Switch when it was first announced, but that’s a rather superficial comparison when it comes down to the details. While both are indeed handheld gaming devices, the Steam Deck is more like the Switch Lite with its nonremovable controls. Another critical difference between the two has just surfaced, revealing that the Steam Deck’s performance will be the same whether you hold it in your hands or nest it in a dock with a larger, higher-resolution screen.
Both the Steam Deck and the Nintendo Switch have two main modes of play, with handheld being the primary form. When connected to the TV dock, however, the Switch can push its hardware to the limit and support a higher 1080p resolution than what the built-in display supports. The Steam Deck also supports higher resolutions when docked, but it apparently won’t get the same performance boost that the Switch does in that mode.
What this means in practice is that the Steam Deck might actually perform worse in docked mode, especially if it’s connected to a monitor with a significantly higher display resolution. Valve designed the handheld PC for 30 fps performance, but that only applies to its native 800p screen. A higher resolution will definitely push the device to the limits, especially if other peripherals are connected to it as well.
Speaking with PC Gamer, Valve’s Greg Coomer explains that it was an intentional decision on their part. They opted to prioritize and optimize for the main use case of handheld gaming and decided not to make any changes when in docked mode. It does make Valve’s work easier, but it comes at the expense of user experience down the line.
That said, there are still some missing pieces to the Steam Deck’s picture to make a final judgment on that front. The device’s and the dock’s cooling systems could definitely play a big part in pushing the performance beyond normal levels, for example. Since the Steam Deck runs on Linux, there’s also the possibility of overclocking or workarounds for whatever limits Valve set, much more than what Nintendo Switch owners could do without jailbreaking their handhelds.