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The magic of the Nintendo Switch isn’t games, it’s the formfactor. A dedicated handheld gaming device with an HD display and enough power to run most games is something people were begging for. People have an intimate relationship with their games. The Switch enables people to fit that relationship into their lives — without taking over the family television. Valve Software, the company that owns Steam, recognizes this. And it knows that the future of PC gaming looks a lot like a Switch.
Valve is working on a Switch-like device codenamed SteamPal, according to an ArsTechnica report. And this is good news even if Valve doesn’t see the project through to turning it into a consumer product. In order for a Switch-style handheld PC to work, it needs for the hardware and software to function together.
The Switch is so great because it knows what it is. I pick it up, and the device never acts like a phone or a notebook. It knows that I’m picking up the Switch to play games, and it makes that simple and straightforward.
Valve could build a similar user experience for handheld gaming PCs based on its Linux-driven SteamOS. And that hardware-software integration could ensure that these handhelds are not miserable to use.
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And that means even if Valve doesn’t end up making its own handheld, it could still offer up software that puts the Steam storefront and center.
AMD vs. Intel led to this moment
Handheld gaming PCs are inevitable because of the fight between Intel and AMD. Those companies are doing everything they can to improve performance and efficiency, and it has led to huge gains for their mobile processors.
AMD’s 7nm process and Intel’s 10nm process are both hitting their strides, and they are enabling OEMs to build extremely thin and powerful laptops. Some of these notebooks are so efficient that engineers are running out of ways to make them stand out.
For example, companies don’t feel the need to go much smaller than 20mm in terms of thickness, and yet they have more than enough compute power to drive a 4K display. This has led some companies to consider adding secondary displays to laptops.
All of that extra power, however, is exactly what a handheld needs. A portable could comfortable run games at 1080p on an 8-inch screen and not have to worry about boosting to such high clockspeeds that it needs constant, active cooling.
And Valve isn’t the first company to notice this. A number of Chinese manufacturers, like GPD, Aya, and One-Notebook, have already started building these devices. They use the new Tiger Lake Intel chips and the Ryzen 4000-series processors. And they’ve already sold thousands of units.
The hope with Valve stepping in is that it can ensure a strong integration between software and hardware.
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