Valve made the surprising announcement of its Steam Deck this week: a portable, Nintendo Switch-like device with the flexibility of being a PC. Unlike Nintendo’s Switch, the Steam Deck is being sold in three different variations, all with more storage than the last. But if you’re looking at the cheapest of the lot, you should understand what corners were cut to hit that $400 price point.
At a glance, the only differences between all three versions are the amount of internal storage you get. Starting at 64GB and going all the way up to 512GB, the difference is stark already. But what isn’t clear without going into the Steam Deck’s technical specifications is just how different the type of storage is that you’re getting. Two models, the 256GB and 512GB versions, are both using NVMe drives (the more expensive one having a faster drive, too), which is pretty much still ahead of the curve when it comes to traditional PC gaming.
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What isn’t is the cheapest model, which uses eMMC storage. Worse yet, this storage is only PCIe Gen2 compatible, with only a single lane dedicated to the storage. The NVMe versions run across PCIe Gen3, with four lanes associated for storage alone. That has a dramatically different effect on the speed at which the Steam Deck’s CPU can access assets on your drive, which can hinder the performance of games where those matters.
For context, the maximum theoretical throughput of the eMMC 64GB model is 500MB/s, according to the official PCIe specifications. By comparison, the other two models have a theoretical throughput of 4GB/s, or around eight times faster. For modern games that are being developed with the assumption of faster memory will become common soon (spurred on by the move to new consoles, with both the Xbox Series X|S and PS5 having extremely fast SSDs) the cheapest Steam Deck might be quickly hindered by its storage if you’re playing any games that are either large sandboxes or graphically demanding.
This isn’t a new problem to portable devices, either. Microsoft’s Surface Go, its cheaper alternative to the Surface Pro, also features eMMC storage for its cheapest models. These were notoriously slow for even simple computing tasks, which lead some reviewers, such as WindowsCentral, to suggest spending more for the faster memory. It’s not clear that the speed of the memory used in the Steam Deck is the same, but given its limits based on its PCIe support alone the picture doesn’t look great.
The Steam Deck can have its storage expanded with MicroSD cards, which are also used with the Nintendo Switch. These come with their own speed compromises, and thus that option isn’t going to make up for the lack of an NVMe drive in the $400 system. The Steam Deck and its native operating system, SteamOS, will still need to run off the internal storage, so choosing its cheapest option will lock you to the eMMC internal drive in one way or another.
Valve’s Steam Deck is available for preorder today in select regions, with a release in December later this year. If you’re planning to secure one, just make sure your use case matches up with the performance you’re purchasing.