Once Valve announced the new 7-inch Steam Deck handheld, the comparisons were immediate: What’s better, the Deck or Nintendo’s immensely popular Switch? Will the Switch finally have some serious mobile console competition? Will PC players be willing to hop over to a handheld they can fit in their backpack?
However, at a closer look, there are many significant differences that really set these two handhelds apart, making them suitable for very different audiences. We’re going over all the details so you can figure which may be best for you.
Note: You may also want to compare Nintendo’s latest OLED version of the Switch with the Steam Deck. While similar to the Switch, the OLED Switch does have some updates worth noting if you want to cover all your options before you buy.
Specs and performance
A quick rundown of the specs shows how different the Deck’s goals are from the Nintendo Switch. The Deck wants enough power and speed to handle a wide array of PC games the way a gaming laptop could, while the Switch is more concerned with being a highly portable console for Nintendo’s titles, which are generally less demanding and don’t require the same performance. In our spec list below, note the higher RAM and greater storage space the Deck provides, while the Switch has more output options and better battery life.
|Dimensions||10 by 4.2 by .55 inches||11.7 by 4.6 by 1.9 inches|
|Weight||0.66 pounds without controllers, 0.88 pounds with controllers||1.47 pounds|
|Processor||Nvidia customized Tegra/Tegra X1+||AMD-customized APU Zen 2|
|Storage||32GB of flash storage, expandable through microSD||64GB to 512GB of flash storage, expandable through microSD|
|A/V output||HDMI out||No|
|I/O output||One USB-C, USB 3.0, USB 2.o x2||One USB-C with DisplayPort 1.4 alt mode|
|Communication||Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.1||Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 5.0|
|Controller||Joy-Con or Pro Controller||Built into system|
|Screen size and resolution||6.2 inches, 720p||7 inches, 1280 x 800 resolution|
|Battery life||Up to 6.5 hours for old model, 9 hours for new model||2 to 8 hours|
|Physical media||Proprietary cartridge||N/A|
|Availability||Available now||Available December 2021 or later|
|Price||$299.99||$399 to $549|
At first glance, the Switch and the Deck have very similar designs. They both use joystick controls on either side of the screen, both have a 7-inch display, and both use a charging dock that can be connected to a larger screen if you prefer (neither handheld supports 4K resolution when outputting). Plus, they’re both around the same weight.
There are, however, some notable differences. First, the Deck’s controls cannot be removed or combined, like the Nintendo Switch’s can. They are there to stay. Second, control placement is a bit different, with the joysticks located on the upper corners instead of being staggered like the Switch controls, and buttons are generally smaller to make room for more control options, which we’ll discuss below.
Nintendo’s controls rely on the somewhat infamous Joy-Cons, which offer two thumb-friendly joysticks, two sets of four clustered buttons that can be used for a variety of control options, and two shoulder buttons. The Joy-Cons can be detached and combined into a more traditional controller, which makes switching to a larger screen or more comfortable position much easier.
Valve’s Steam Deck, meanwhile, doesn’t have the detachment options, but it does go all-in on control inputs with a remarkably wide variety. There are once again two thumbsticks here, one four-cluster of buttons, and a D-Pad, but also much more. On the left and right sides are two small thumb trackpads for touch-sensitive alternatives when controlling your game. On the top, you will find four shoulder buttons, two front and two back. And on the back of the handheld, your fingers will rest against four back buttons that can be programmed for all kinds of additional choices.
The Deck’s many options provide an incredible amount of versatility in how you can control a game, but they also involve more of a learning curve than the Switch, which anyone can sit down and play immediately.
Both handhelds offer compatibly for additional control options like mouse and keyboard, but they do it in very different ways, and the Steam Deck is a clear winner here.
The Nintendo Switch can support accessories like a keyboard, but only if you plug them into the USB-C port or the dock’s USB port. While the Nintendo Switch does have Bluetooth, it’s the restricted version that only works with certain designated products, and things like a mouse or keyboard aren’t included. There are a number of handheld controls that can connect with the Switch, but they don’t provide much of an advantage except being more comfortable than the combined Joy-Cons.
The Steam Deck, meanwhile, has the open kind of Bluetooth that allows for connections with all kinds of peripherals, including many mice and keyboards. If you’d like a few ideas, you can peruse our wireless mouse and wireless keyboard guides to get an idea of what’s available. If you’d really rather stay away from wireless accessories, the Deck’s dock offers USB-A 3.1 and USB-A 2.0 ports for wired connections.
One of the Steam Deck’s acclaimed advantages is that you can access your whole Steam library on it, and with cloud saving, you keep all your progress no matter where you are playing. In addition to this, Valve has made it clear that other game stores will also be compatible, such as Epic Games Store and uPlay — and even the potential to play Xbox Cloud Gaming on it, although that will need more research. Basically, if you can play it on PC, there’s a good chance that you can play it on the Deck.
Of course, there are limitations. Developers that don’t have their games on Steam will make it a little harder to get their titles. You’ll need enough storage to handle larger games, which probably means relying on an SD card. While the Deck’s specs are impressive, the most demanding games may struggle on the handheld. We’ve also seen some bugs crop up with things like anti-cheat coding, although Valve is working to fix those aspects.
On the Switch, meanwhile, you can only buy games on the Nintendo Game Store (or their physical versions). Of course, you are not limited to Nintendo-only titles on the Switch — plenty of AAA games have made their way to the Switch, sometimes even before consoles like PlayStation or Xbox (you can also jailbreak the device, although we don’t really suggest this, as it invites other problems). But the focus is certainly on Nintendo’s own games and franchises, which are not available on platforms like Steam.
This creates a stark choice: What games are more important to you? Do you want a handheld that can handle Skyward Sword and Super Smash Bros.? Or are you looking forward to playing Factorio or Destiny 2 on the go?
Pricing and availability
One final difference between the Switch and Deck: The Switch is significantly cheaper, starting at $299 for the standard model. The Steam Deck starts at $399 for its base model and goes all the way up to $649. Given the specs, this isn’t exactly surprising, but it’s clear that the Switch is better for saving, and the Steam Deck works better if you have more money to work with.
As for availability, the Nintendo Switch is widely available (unless you want the OLED version, which ships in October), but the Steam Deck starts shipping in December, with staggered shipments throughout the months afterward, depending on your location and when you reserved the Deck. In other words, acting quickly will help you get a Deck faster in 2022.
While it’s a little too early to tell — we would like to spend some more time one-on-one with the Steam Deck to really test all its features — the ability to play your Steam library on the go is truly exciting and should inspire many serious gamers to consider handhelds even if they weren’t interested in the Switch. The Switch, meanwhile, continues to be the best and only option if you want to play Nintendo’s latest titles on a console.