SteamPal – Valve’s New Take on Handheld PCs in 2021?

“Will Steam be porting any games on consoles, or will it just stay on PC?” Gabe Newell was asked this question a few weeks ago by a student at a college in New Zealand.

“You will get a better idea of that by the end of this year… and it won’t be the answer you expect,” Newell responded. “You’ll say, ‘Ah-ha! Now I get what he was talking about.'”

Naturally, the Internet seemed to explode with YouTubers and the like theorizing what Gabe’s vague reply might mean. Gardiner Bryant suggested that Valve could be working on a game console. Other websites had a similar thought.

Well, that theory could very well be true — albeit in a portable form factor. Ars Technica reported about this earlier. Pavel Djundik, SteamDB operator, tweeted of Valve’s “Neptune” controller showing up in the latest beta Steam client. “SteamPal” became the new name for this controller/handheld.

Apparently, SteamPal (name may not be final) will come in a Nintendo Switch-style format — a touchscreen, USB-C connectivity, and buttons on both sides, with triggers, analog sticks, and perhaps a touchpad that looks similar to the touchpad found on the Steam controller. There’s talks about it being dockable to also connect to a larger screen.

The hardware of the SteamPal may be powered by Intel or AMD — which would be a plus in my book for the open-source Mesa driver support. It’s no surprise that Nvidia may not be on that shortlist, since the proprietary integration is always going to limit what Valve can do without the direct support of the green company. At the same time, we have heard on Phoronix that a “big GPU player” may be releasing an open-source driver on Linux in the near future – whether that’s Nvidia or not, we will have to see.

After Valve’s experiments with designing their own hardware (the Steam controller, and more recently the Index VR headset), it’s clear that they have the skills and network to pull it off – and it’s probably a better approach than what they did years ago with the Steam Machines, where they took a risk-free approach by not involving themselves into hardware design and manufacturing.

For Valve’s push for Linux, we should expect this device will likely be pre-installed with some customized version of Linux. Perhaps a massive SteamOS 3.0 update is brewing, and that distribution will be on it. After all, SteamOS has not seen any release for a long time now, so they could be working on a complete redesign of the interface and capabilities instead of gradual improvements.

Back in 2018, as the mainstream gaming press was claiming that Valve is dropping SteamOS and the Steam Machines, we reported that Gabe and Valve had no such intentions:

Gabe Newell: We aren’t going to be talking about it today, but sort of the big thing, the new arrow we have in our quiver, really, is our ability to develop hardware and software simultaneously. We’ve always been a little bit jealous of companies like Nintendo. When Miyamoto is sitting down and thinking about the next version of Zelda or Mario, he’s thinking what is the controller going to look like, what sort of graphics and other capabilities. He can introduce new capabilities like motion input because he controls both of those things. And he can make the hardware look as good as possible because he’s designing the software at the same time that’s really going to take advantage of it. So that is something we’ve been jealous of, and that’s something that you’ll see us taking advantage of subsequently.

And let’s not forget what Pierre-Loup Griffais also said at the time:

Pierre-Loup Griffais: We also have other Linux initiatives in the pipe that we’re not quite ready to talk about yet; SteamOS will continue to be our medium to deliver these improvements to our customers, and we think they will ultimately benefit the Linux ecosystem at large.

Take this all with a grain of salt though: a lot of this is just speculation, and knowing Valve, they could cancel things at any given moment. We don’t even have any pictures of prototypes or even any concept image yet for the SteamPal. In my mind, I picture something similar to the SmachZ — basically a Steam controller that’s wide enough to fit a large touchscreen in the middle, potentially with smaller haptic controllers though.

SteamPal... something similar to Smach Z?
Will Valve take some ideas from how Smach Z was designed?

It will be interesting to see what price this will come at, if it actually becomes a reality, or if it’s possible to customize the hardware/software configuration. I don’t need to preach to the choir about how ridiculously expensive it is to obtain computer hardware these days. Maybe Valve had this hardware for the SteamPal ahead of the pandemic. Who knows. It does seem to be a good time to be talking about it though, as 2021 seems to be the baby boom of x86-powered handheld PCs.

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