We don’t know how many Steam Decks have been preordered from Valve, but it’s safe to say the total is “lots.” Valve has continued to shuffle overall delivery expectations as the situation has evolved. When we last checked in a couple of weeks ago, the Steam Deck base unit and midrange part were expected in Q2 2022, but the top-end unit had been pushed back to Q3. Now it’s the base unit that’s being advertised with an “After Q2 2022” label while the two higher-end models are now expected to ship in Q2 2022.
There are probably some strategic reasons for this. Valve’s CEO, Gabe Newell, has said that the $400 device’s price point was “painful” for Valve, even though the product only offers an anemic 64GB of eMMC memory. eMMC memory isn’t nearly as fast as NVMe-attached flash, but that’s not actually the biggest problem with the base unit. Once you exhaust that 64GB of storage — and best case is really more like 50-55GB, once you account for overhead and SteamOS — you’re stuck using a microSD slot. According to Valve, this slot is UHS-I and it supports SD, SDXC, and SDHC.
UHS-I and SDXC are both more than 10 years old. SDHC is intended for storage volumes between 2-32GB, while SDXC stretches up to 2TB. UHS-I allows for transfer speeds of 50MB/s in full-duplex mode (sending and receiving simultaneously) and 104GB/s in half-duplex mode. We don’t know how big the hit is going to be for attempting to game on a microSD card, but microSD is generally slower than eMMC, and eMMC is slower than NVMe.
The other danger in relying on a microSD card for storage is that the quality and performance of microSD cards vary a great deal. Although this blog post deals with the Raspberry Pi 4, it showcases a wide range of I/O performance from various solutions:
The hdparm scores are all similar, but there’s nearly a 6x gap between the fastest and slowest drives in some other tests. How well games respond to being run off microSD will depend on the particulars of each, but we do expect performance to be measurably slower in some titles compared with what the player would see from NVMe. The high degree of variance in microSD card performance suggests some gamers could wind up having very different experiences depending on which card they buy. MicroSD cards speed ratings and advertising have been a mess since long before the Steam Deck, so this is not new, but it could introduce the problem to a group of people who haven’t had to deal with it before.
As a person who has literally always purchased the smallest storage tier available for any given smartphone and been perfectly happy about it, I’m not sure all three versions of the Switch will offer an equivalent experience. The 256GB pool on the midrange Switch Deck is not large, but it will hold a few AAA games if you don’t charge straight for the heaviest hitters on the menu. The $400 Switch Deck may be better suited to smaller games and indie titles. The larger versions have a better chance of fulfilling Valve’s vow to handle any game. Valve is probably prioritizing higher-end hardware for multiple reasons, but it may also be the best way to experience what the device can do. Whether that makes the Steam Deck a good deal at the midrange and high-end price points is up to the reader.