Valve’s Pre-Release Teardown of the Steam Deck Shows You How to Replace the SSD

and Warns Against it

Valve published this video to YouTube today demonstrating how to open up a pre-production Steam Deck, replace the custom analog stick modules, as well as the SSD, and very much warning against doing so:

I’m not sure how I feel about the warnings. In the past I’ve definitely felt bad about breaking or inadequately modifying things that I’m working on but that is also a necessary part of learning how to modify, fix, and build electronics. The parts in modern electronics are delicate and often made to be unserviceable by the companies who design them, this is “for our protection” as users but it is also clearly for their benefit. The longer things are usable and repairable, the less money these companies make on new sales.

That also doesn’t mean the executives at these companies want users to have a bad experience. I can’t be sure of this, but from my experiences my understanding is that these decision makers want users to have a great experience and be motivated to upgrade by new features as well as repairs that are so expensive they make recycling broken hardware a better option.

Valve is also not in a great position with regard to supporting the users of their hardware but may be getting better. It’s one thing for a huge company like Apple who has physical retail stores to lock users out of repairs, there is an argument there that I disagree with from Apple that Apple can provide the best support. Valve has none of that retail presence to repair, replace, and even just troubleshoot hardware near their users. I think that’s why they made this video, essentially arming the more experienced hardware repair technicians to have access to repair these devices when they start breaking down. Valve even makes a promise in the video about upcoming Steam Deck part availability for people doing repairs.

As an example, according to a friend in Australia all Valve hardware sales and returns are done through the local EB Games chain. Apple does the same thing. In several countries where Apple does not have a physical retail presence they train third parties in how to service iPhones, iPads, and Macs. I once started but did not complete that training before my life took me elsewhere.

There are also still criticisms I have about Valve’s attitude regarding Linux porting which, to the best of my knowledge, is still putting people who are in the business of porting games to Linux natively out of work as well as advising developers not to port games natively and instead relay on Valve’s Proton Windows API compatibility layer/emulation to make games run under Linux.

The one “bright spot” in the Steam Deck’s software support is that Epic’s Easy Anti-Cheat middleware is promising Linux support. Previously, anti-cheat middleware locked out some Linux users running games under any Windows API Compatibility layer/emulation like Valve’s Proton and simply wasn’t available for native ports. Now, Epic has promised that Easy Anti-Cheat is available for both Native Linux and Mac game ports, including the Linux-based Steam Deck, and will be supported in WINE and Valve’s Proton. Unfortunately the decision to allow WINE and Proton to run these games is still only in the hands of developers and publishers who may not be interested in providing any support to Linux and macOS, quoting Epic:

To make it easy for developers to ship their games across PC platforms, support for the Wine and Proton compatibility layers on Linux is included. Starting with the latest SDK release, developers can activate anti-cheat support for Linux via Wine or Proton with just a few clicks in the Epic Online Services Developer Portal.

This makes it more likely that games using Easy Anti-Cheat will be able to support WINE or Proton, assuming business interests about support costs and other middleware doesn’t get in the way, but when those games get that support the compatibility is a coincidence that can disappear with any future updates.

Valve is still the wrong company to be making hardware and software decisions that affect the rest of the game industry. Valve are presumably, by majority of their income, a store for third parties. The people running stores have different motivations from places that exclusively make and sell hardware products and what software decisions are best for developers. Although I think the people who work at Valve clearly are trying to make the Steam Deck as open as possible and often do make the best decisions for developers and users, the motivations of people running a store are to sell things, maximize their own profit, and not to make good products for the overall health of an industry of developers who are still overworked, abused, not organized, and ruined by the success of the wealthy who are making decisions for the rest.

There is nothing the workers at Valve can do to change that unless they are organized to reject the false non-hierarchical model of Valve’s workplace, gain equal decision making abilities, and their independence from the store business.

The first Steam Decks are still supposedly shipping before the end of the year. Valve has never responded to any of my requests for comment. If you’re a game developer who is interested in commenting on this story please feel free to comment below or get in touch over E-Mail. My address is zjs@zacharyjackslater.com.

How-To Geek: “Why You Should Use Proton Instead of the Steam Linux Runtime”

You should really just go play Escape Goat 2

The situation with Windows “API Compatibility” or emulation, however you call it, came to an inflection point when Valve started pushing or reassuring developers that they don’t need to port their games to Linux for them to work well on the Steam Deck. Jordan Gloor at How-To Geek has this article titled “Why You Should Use Proton Instead of the Steam Linux Runtime”:

When you use Steam’s compatibility features to run games on a Linux PC, you may have the option to run it with one of two utilities: Proton and Steam Linux Runtime. Between the two, you should probably choose Proton. Here’s why.

Gloor goes through a few reasons that it might be preferable for Linux gamers to use Proton instead of a native Linux port. Gloor says that the smaller size of the Linux game-playing audience means that the game developer may have spent fewer resources on making the port function well versus the Windows version of their game.

I don’t think Gloor is a bad person, but this is bad advice for both game players and Linux as a whole. Articles like this are disappointing, but they are the natural consequence of what Valve is doing by pushing their Windows API compatibility emulation layer over native Linux ports. It would be interesting if game developers have the option to disable Proton for their games because, and I cannot stress this enough, Windows emulation or compatibility layers truly are a coincidence when they work. Especially with games from smaller developers who do not have fantastic commercial success, I would not expect Proton to be the correct choice or to be surprised when Proton doesn’t work. Valve will most likely not take the time to make sure that, for example, Escape Goat 2 works in Proton. Yes, Escape Goat 2 is a real and very good puzzle game with a native Linux port. There are tens of thousands of games on Steam, it is impossible that these games will all work well in Proton. Linux users should absolutely go with the native port first, when they have the option.

Valve Announces Their Linux-Running Windows-Emulating Handheld “Steam Deck”

It won’t be available in New Zealand?!

Calling it “The most gaming power you have ever held” Valve announced their Steam Deck handheld gaming computer today. The pricing starts at $400 and it ships this December to the US, UK, and EU according to the company. Order reservations start Friday, July 16th at 10AM Pacific time and are $5 to get a spot in line with the remainder due when your order comes up.

Valve is restricting sales in the first 48 hours to people with Steam accounts older than June 2021 that have made a purchase on Steam. They say the reservation system is to let them make the ordering process fair, but they also won’t let Steam users order more than one device or switch which tier of system they’re ordering. The only changes allowed will be cancellations which are refunded to a Steam wallet if the refund is 30 days after the reservation is made.

The basic model of Steam Deck has a paltry 64GB of eMMC storage. Another model is $530 and includes 256GB of faster NVMe SSD PCIe third generation x4 storage. The highest end version is $650 and has a 512GB NVMe SSD and “Premium anti-glare etched glass”. Typical NVMe SSDs run about $100 per terabyte so it seems a little expensive for these upgrades. There is also a microSD card slot for expanding the storage on the system.

All models have a 4 core AMD Zen 2 APU that supports up to 8 threads and 16GB of DDR5 RAM.

The display is an LCD, not an OLED, and it uses a 16:10 aspect ratio, has a resolution of 1280×800, and a fixed 60hz refresh rate. No variable rate. It’s a 7” touch screen, measured diagonally. We won’t know the full quality of the display until reviewers who are more technical get their hands on it.

The controls on the device include a traditional dual-stick layout and two square trackpads with haptic feedback that Valve claims have 55% better latency than their discontinued Steam Controller.

The Steam Deck will also have a dock available in the future from Valve with more ports, and third-party docks may work out of the box. The USB-C port supports external display resolutions up to 8K at 60hz or 4K at 120Hz. The same USB-C port allows for charging the internal 40Whr battery at 45 watts using power delivery 3.0. Valve says the device will have anywhere between 2 and 8 hours of battery life.

Unlike the Nintendo Switch, Valve’s Steam Deck supports Bluetooth audio. There is also a traditional 3.5mm stereo headphone jack and stereo speakers.

The Steam Deck is running what Valve calls SteamOS 3.0, in a change from earlier versions that used a version of Debian, Valve’s new Linux operating system is using Arch Linux as a base. Arch Linux uses the pacman package manager instead of Debian’s apt system. Valve also notes that you can install any operating system including Windows on the device.

Valve appears to have completely given up on native Linux gaming, their developer FAQ for the Steam Deck includes this question and answer:

Do I need to port my game to Linux to have it work on Steam Deck?

No porting necessary. Your Windows build will likely work right out of the box, thanks to Proton.

Proton is Valve’s fork of the open-source WINE Windows API emulator. Proton is focused on game compatibility.

Comparable devices that use similar hardware to the Steam Deck like the Aya Neo and One XPlayer cost closer to a thousand US dollars and come from brands people do not recognize. None of these devices will run the highest end games very well, especially not when outputting video to an external screen, but they are all more powerful than systems like the Nintendo Switch.

I’d expect the performance on the Steam Deck to still be good enough for the majority of the games on Steam, the 1280×800 resolution is a little larger than 720p and not that difficult a target to hit, but the Steam Deck should be extremely capable of streaming games from a more powerful local computer (there’s no cellular hardware).

Competing stores for computers could run on the Steam Deck, but Epic’s Game store doesn’t run on Linux for example, that one is only available on Windows and macOS. The only other store that I know of that runs on Linux is the Itch store. Software like the PlayStation 4 & 5 Remote Play, that lets users stream games from their consoles to computers and mobile devices, also does not support Linux.

One thing that should run exceptionally well on the Steam Deck is emulators. They should be absolutely terrific on the device, and I hope that emulator authors are able to get onto the platform easily.

OpenTTD on Steam

OpenTTD, the open-source game of business transport simulation based on Transport Tycoon Deluxe, is now available for free on Steam for Windows, macOS, and Linux. The developers recommend that new players check out OpenTTD’s manual, a 26-part tutorial series on YouTube, and a short 14 minute video on signaling. This seems like it’s in the Dwarf Fortress realm of difficulty but those guides should help.

Windows Pretendulation Is Bad Even When Valve Does It

Valve’s Pierre-Loup A. Griffais announced that they’re including their brand new fork of the WINE Windows pretendulator in a new beta product for Steam. They call it Proton. WINE is an open-source Windows API emulation layer that lets Linux users play Windows games without rebooting into Windows. I call this process “pretendulation” because it isn’t emulating the entire operating system, but it is still far from native.

That sounds good, more games for Linux, right?

Well, when I started writing about Linux gaming 18 years ago there was a commercial, closed-source, fork of WINE called WineX. WineX had a lot of fans, it was developed by people who had been working on Wine, which was a more generalized product for Windows software, to target game software. These developers of WineX (later called Cedega) did a good job at writing the software, but it had a number of issues.

One of those WineX issues was that Windows compatibility is a moving target. Any progress the WineX developers made to support new versions of Microsoft’s DirectX game software programming interface were usually still years behind where modern games were. If the latest Battlefield game came out and it only worked with DirectX 8 and WineX was still on 6 or 7, it was going to be a while until they could support that new game.

Even though new DirectX versions are less of a headlining feature in Windows these days, compatibility with a wide range of games is going to be a problem for Valve’s Proton as well. 

Any emulation, or translation, layer, is also going to introduce some amount of performance overhead. You can’t emulate a PlayStation 3 or Dreamcast at full speed on a lot of expensive computers today, but you can buy the original console for $50 that plays those games perfectly. The same issue happens with emulating Windows APIs under Linux. Some games will only have a very small hit to performance, but others might be more of a problem and you won’t get the same framerate that you do under Windows.

So there are compatibility and performance issues, that’s it, right? Nope, there’s one more technical hurdle. When something breaks, you’re not going to know if it’s the game or the emulation layer. I imagine this will infuriate some developers.

Valve claims that games they’ve tested and whitelisted in this beta have an almost identical gameplay experience to Windows, and they acknowledge the performance overhead. Valve doesn’t acknowledge the negative effect this will have on real native ports of games. Back in those WineX days there were some developers and publishers who cancelled their plans for native Linux ports because Windows pretendulation was “good enough” for them, even when Wine or WineX didn’t provide a great experience for players.

“Good enough” Windows API emulation eventually turned into developers porting their games with Wine wrapped up into a library, giving Linux players some of the half-assed ports they have today.

One additional issue that wasn’t a problem with WineX, these improvements to Wine are only designed to work with games on Steam. You won’t be playing Battlefield  5 with Proton. Although Valve’s fork of Wine is open-source, unlike the old WineX fork which had its source closed behind an agreement that the executives at Transgaming later deleted and refused to acknowledge.

Proton is an interesting technology, but a bad thing for anyone who loves Linux gaming and wants native ports of games brought to Linux.