Steam Deck vs. Nintendo Switch: Which Should You Buy?

steam deck vs. nintendo switch

Valve; Nintendo

Valve just announced a new portable gaming device called the Steam Deck which will release in December 2021, and it looks to compete directly with the Nintendo Switch family of systems including its recently announced OLED model.

Like the Switch, the Steam Deck promises that you can take your games wherever you go. But while the Switch aims to take the experience of playing a console on a TV with you wherever you go, the Steam Deck appears to take the experience of playing PC games with you wherever you go. It’s features include full access to your entire Steam library and features, trackpads for mouse-like controls, the ability to connect to TV and computer monitors, and expanded customization models including the ability to install other software on the system. It’s essentially a PC with the portability of a handheld system.

So should you buy a Steam Deck or a Nintendo Switch system? We combed through the Steam Deck website and the Nintendo Switch technical specs website to bring you this full comparison chart below to help you make your decision.

Hardware Comparison

Note: The specs and features of the Steam Deck are subject to change.

 

Steam Deck Nintendo Switch OLED Nintendo Switch Nintendo Switch Lite
Game Library Everything in Steam library (including EA Play)

All Nintendo Switch games

Nintendo Switch Online exclusive games (e.g. NES & SNES games and Tetris 99)

All Nintendo Switch games

Nintendo Switch Online exclusive games (e.g. NES & SNES games and Tetris 99)

Nintendo Switch games that support Handheld mode

Nintendo Switch Online exclusive games (e.g. NES & SNES games and Tetris 99)

Controls and Input

Standard controls

Two thumbsticks with capacitive touch sensors

Two trackpads with haptic feedback

Four assignable grip buttons

6-Axis IMU gyro controls

Ambient light sensor

Steam button for Steam library, story, community, etc.

Quick Access button for notifications, friends, peripherals and settings

Detachable Joy-Con controllers

HD Rumble

IR Motion Camera

Accelerometer, gyroscope, and brightness sensor

Detachable Joy-Con controllers

HD Rumble

IR Motion Camera

Accelerometer, gyroscope, and brightness sensor

Joy-Con controllers not included (can connect to Joy-Con and other compatible controllers)

Accelerometer and gyroscope

Screen 7″ LCD Touchscreen 7″ OLED Touchscreen 6.2″ LCD Touchscreen 5.5″ LCD touchscreen
Display

1280 x 800px (16:10 aspect ratio)

60Hz Refresh Rate

Up to 1080p docked/up to 720p in handheld mode

60Hz Refresh Rate

Up to 1080p docked/up to 720p in handheld mode

60Hz Refresh Rate

Up to 720p in handheld mode

60Hz Refresh Rate

Storage
  • 64 GB eMMC (PCIe Gen 2 x1)
  • 256 GB NVMe SSD (PCIe Gen 3 x4)
  • 512 GB high-speed NVMe SSD (PCIe Gen 3 x4)
64 GB (NAND) 32 GB 32 GB
Storage Expansion Micro SD card slot (SD, SDXC and SDHC) Micro SD card slot (SD, SDHC and SDXC up to 2TB) Micro SD card slot (SD, SDHC and SDXC up to 2TB) Micro SD card slot (SD, SDHC and SDXC up to 2TB)
CPU/GPU

AMD APU

CPU: Zen 2 4c/8t, 2.4-3.5GHz (up to 448 GFlops FP32)

GPU: 8 RDNA 2 CUs, 1.0-1.6GHz (up to 1.6 TFlops FP32)

APU power: 4-15W

RAM: 16 GB LPDDR5 RAM (5500 MT/s)

NVIDIA Custom Tegra processor

CPU: 1.02GHz (according to Digital Foundry)

GPU: 768MHz docked (according to Digital Foundry), 387MHz undocked (according to Gaming Bolt)

NVIDIA Custom Tegra processor

CPU: 1.02GHz (according to Digital Foundry)

GPU: 768MHz docked (according to Digital Foundry), 387MHz undocked (according to Gaming Bolt)

NVIDIA Custom Tegra processor

CPU: 1.02GHz (according to Digital Foundry)

GPU: 768MHz docked (according to Digital Foundry), 387MHz undocked (according to Gaming Bolt)

Dimensions 11.7″ x 4.6″ x 1.9″ 9.5″ x 4″ x .55″ 9.4″ x 4″ x .55″ 8.2″ x 3.6″ x .55″
Weight 1.47 lbs

0.93 lbs (with Joy-Cons)

0.71 lbs (without Joy-Cons)

0.88 lbs (with Joy-Cons)

0.66 lbs (without Joy-Cons)

0.61 lbs
Battery Life 2-8 hours 4.5-9 hours 4.5-9 hours 3-7 hours
Play Options

Can be plugged into TV, computer monitor, or even CRT with the right cables

Can use dock to connect to external displays, wired networking, USB peripherals, power, and powered USB-C hub (Dock sold separately)

USB-C with DisplayPort 1.4 Alt-mode support; up to 8K @60Hz or 4K @120Hz, USB 3.2 Gen 2

USB-C used for charging, peripherals, and USB hubs.

Dock: 1 USB-A 3.1 port, 2 USB-A 2.0 ports, ethernet, DisplayPort 1.4, HDMI 2.0

TV mode (HDMI)

Tabletop mode

Handheld mode

USB Type-C for charging or connecting to dock

Dock: Two USB 2.0 ports, HDMI port, Wired LAN port

TV mode (HDMI)

Tabletop mode

Handheld mode

USB Type-C for charging or connecting to dock

Dock: Three USB 2.0 ports, HDMI port

Handheld mode only

USB Type-C for charging

Internet Requirement Requires free Steam account to access Steam software and library Subscription required for online multiplayer (except for free-to-play games) Subscription required for online multiplayer (except for free-to-play games) Subscription required for online multiplayer (except for free-to-play games)
Extra Features

Bluetooth 5.0

Dual-band Wi-Fi

Can install and use PC software (web browsers, other game stores, other OSes, etc.)

Steam features: Steam Chat, Notifications, Cloud Saves, Remote Play, Store, Community, Steam Overlay)

Bluetooth 4.1

Wi-Fi

Nintendo Labo (including VR)

Ring-Fit Adventure

Bluetooth 4.1

Wi-Fi

Nintendo Labo (including VR)

Ring-Fit Adventure

Bluetooth 4.1

Wi-Fi

Ring-Fit Adventure (Needs Joy-Con)

Audio

Stereo

3.5mm headphone jack

Dual microphone array included

Multichannel audio via DisplayPort over USB-C, standard USB-C, or Bluetooth 5.0

Stereo (Features enhanced audio over other Switch models)

3.5mm headphone jack

Compatible with Bluetooth microphones and built-in smartphone and tablet microphone (Needs Nintendo Switch Online app to work according to Lifewire)

Compatible with headsets via audio jack (Only works with Fortnite and Warframe )

Stereo

3.5mm headphone jack

Compatible with Bluetooth microphones and built-in smartphone and tablet microphone (Needs Nintendo Switch Online app to work according to Lifewire)

Compatible with headsets via audio jack (Only works with Fortnite and Warframe according to Lifewire)

Stereo

3.5mm headphone jack

Compatible with Bluetooth microphones and built-in smartphone and tablet microphone (Needs Nintendo Switch Online app to work according to Lifewire)

Compatible with headsets via audio jack (Only works with Fortnite and Warframe according to Lifewire)

Price

$400 for 64GB internal storage

$530 for 256GB SSD storage, carrying case, and exclusive steam community profile bundle

$649 for 512GB SSD storage, premium anti-glare etched glass, exclusive carrying case, exclusive steam community profile bundle, and exclusive virtual keyboard theme

$349 $299 $199

 

Which Should You Buy?

The reason Nintendo has always excelled in the handheld market was because of their smart use of budget hardware to keep an accessible price point and because of their lineup of exclusive, quality games from massive franchises like Pokemon and Super Mario. Nintendo’s competitors in the handheld market all failed to keep up because despite having superior hardware in many ways, they all were too expensive and didn’t have the lineup of quality games to justify the price or even the boost in performance.

The Steam Deck is analogous to many of Nintendo’s competitors. It’s the rival to the Switch the same way the SEGA Game Gear was the rival to the Nintendo Game Boy and the Sony PSP was the rival to the Nintendo DS. While the Steam Deck is more powerful than the Switch, it also can be prohibitively expensive. And without Nintendo’s beloved games on the Steam Deck (unless Nintendo finds it in its heart to put its games on Steam, like that’s gonna happen), many would be more attracted to the Switch. It also remains in doubt how willing Valve is to support the Steam Deck over the years, especially with the fall of its Steam Machines initiative. However, unlike all of the other Nintendo competitors, the Steam Deck has the library to go toe-to-toe with Nintendo and offers a much more flexible user experience.

The one things the Switch OLED has over the Steam Deck is that it uses a OLED screen as opposed to the Steam Deck’s LCD screen. According to CNET, while LCD has OLED beat on brightness, OLED is a clear winner in picture quality. OLED has a much better contrast ratio, has more consistent brightness across the screen and has wider viewing angles. This only affects the experience in handheld mode, unless you have a TV that also is OLED.

However, the Steam Deck has all models beat on resolution. While the 800p screen of the Deck is only slightly better than the Switch, the Deck can connect to external displays for up to 8K at 60Hz or 4K at 120Hz according to its tech specs and even has a dock like the Switch that can help facilitate that process. The Switch is stuck at 1080p in docked mode. The Steam Deck and all Switch models have the same refresh rate of 60Hz. The downside is that the dock for the Steam Deck is sold separately and it’s the only way to connect the Deck to a monitor via HDMI or DisplayPort. The Steam Deck by itself only has a USB-C port and while many gaming monitors are starting to turn to USB-C according to Gizmondo, you might not get the best picture quality with USB-C alone and in fact you might need an adaptor to connect via USB-C. Plus, an external monitor that can output the enhanced resolution can quickly become expensive.

The Steam Deck also has more power under its hood. Its CPU measures at 2.4-3.5GHz and its GPU measures at 1.0-1.6GHz. Meanwhile all the Switch Models have CPUs that measure at 1.02GHz according to Digital Foundry and GPUs that measure at 768MHz docked and 387MHz undocked according to Gaming Bolt. While the Switch can put a valiant effort into ports of The Witcher 3 and Doom Eternal, the Steam Deck is looking to be way more powerful. That means more support for AAA games, which often skip over the Switch or release as cloud versions.

The Steam Deck also has superior internal storage. Not only can models of the Steam Deck go up to 512 GB in storage, but the 256 GB and 512 GB models have Solid State Drives which are much faster compared to regular hard drives like on the Switch models. That being said, PC games tend to have higher storage requirements than Switch games, so your mileage may vary.

Nintendo confirmed that the Joy-Cons for the Switch OLED Model will be the same as the previous Switch model, which means that “Joy-Con Drift” – when the control stick deteriorates and starts registering inputs even if it isn’t touched – might once again be a rampant problem on the Switch OLED model. However, only time will tell if the Steam Deck will have the same problem.

We can also see the Steam Deck being friendlier for multiplayer. You can chat through the Steam software and the system even includes microphones. You need to go through a confusing process to get voice chat with Switch games – if voice chat is supported at all. We assume you won’t need a subscription for online play for the Steam Deck; you just need a free Steam account to access your games. Meanwhile Nintendo charges for online play for everything but free-to-play games. And while the subscription offers other benefits like free NES and SNES games, it’s still not enough to justify its price even if it is relatively cheap. Steam Deck also includes cloud saves right out the box while Nintendo only includes cloud saves via the Nintendo Online subscription, and even then not all fist party Nintendo games support cloud saves.

There’s also a lot more customization options for the Steam Deck. Valve have confirmed that you can install and use PC software on the Steam Deck such as web browsers, other OSes and even other game stores. Now we know that emulation is a touchy subject, especially for Nintendo, but why spend money on Switch Online to get a handful of quality NES and SNES games when you can potentially download an emulator on the Steam Deck and play all the NES and SNES games?

However, the Steam Deck is significantly beefier than the Switch models. Not only is it much bigger and thicker, making it harder to put into backpacks or purses, but it’s also much heavier at 1.47 lbs compared to the 0.93 lbs of the Switch OLED and especially the 0.61 lbs of the Switch Lite. The Steam Deck also has slightly lower battery life than the Switch OLED and Switch (while being comparable to the Switch Lite). All that is definitely a blow to its case as a portable system.

While the Steam Deck will have thousands of game spanning decades of gaming from day one, Nintendo has a variety of incredible first-party exclusives on the Switch including The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Super Mario Odyssey, Pokemon Sword & Shield, Animal Crossing: New Horizons, Splatoon 2, Super Mario Party, Fire Emblem: Three Houses, and Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. However, with Sony starting to release PS4 exclusives like Horizon: Zero Dawn and Death Stranding on Steam and Microsoft continuing to release its big games on Steam like Ori and the Blind Forest, Sunset Overdrive, Gears 5, Gears Tactics, Sea of Thieves, and entries in the Halo Franchise including the upcoming Halo Infinite, it might not be so bad to miss out on the Switch games. That being said, Microsoft’s Game Pass service isn’t available on Steam (though it has EA Play if you happen to be a fan of EA for some reason). However, it might be possible to download the Microsoft Store onto the Steam Deck and play Game Pass games there.

However, the price for the Steam Deck is significantly more expensive than any of the Switch models. The cheapest model is $400, but even then you really want to go for the $530 model for the SSD and expanded internal storage. Meanwhile the Switch Lite is $199. For $100 more you get a Switch that can connect to the TV and also features detachable controllers that are not only fun to use but can be used for Nintendo Labo and Ring-Fit Adventure. The Switch OLED is $349 – $50 more than the original Switch – with the only major improvements being the slightly bigger OLED screen, the improved kickstand, and improved audio.

The Steam Deck is definitely aiming for the hardcore PC games market with its price point and features. The Switch would probably be a better fit for families and more casual players who appreciate the selection of quality, family-friendly games and the more portable form factor. However, the Switch is definitely showing its age a little bit. If you wanted to upgrade from the regular Switch but don’t think the OLED model is enough of an upgrade, and if you’re burned by the lacking offers of the Switch Online membership, then I’d say that the Steam Deck is the upgrade you were looking for.

Only time will tell whether the Steam Deck can make a big enough splash in the handheld market. History has not been kind to Nintendo’s competitors in that market, with the mobile games market being the only real competition for Nintendo. The Steam Deck’s price and intimidating nature with all those buttons will definitely be a turn-off for many people, but for many it might just be the thing they’re looking for. Unlike the Game Gear and PSP, the Steam Deck will have hundreds of excellent games to choose from and its battery life isn’t too far behind the Switch. And the added functionality of installing additional PC programs and the extra options for navigating the Steam software and communicating with friends definitely puts the Switch to shame. Even then, it still has steep competition against the Switch thanks to its accessibility, more reasonable price, classic games, and the fact that it was the first of its kind as a hybrid console/handheld system. Either way, without the Steam Deck actually out in the wild and in our hands, it’s hard to say if it’s worth the hype and the price. Pre-orders for the Steam Deck are happening soon, but if you’re comfortable with potentially missing out the first time it releases, it might be worth it to see other people’s opinions of the system before you get your hands on one.

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