The Nintendo Switch could have a new rival. Steam's parent company looks to be developing a pocket size gaming PC, which could challenge Nintendo's hegemony of the hybrid handheld space. The "SteamPal" wouldn't be the first handheld gaming PC, but it would be the only one with Valve's explicit stamp of approval and deliver high-end PC games on-the-go.
Ars Technica (opens in new tab) revealed the SteamPal in an exclusive report, citing "multiple sources familiar with the matter," Steam's own database code and a talk that Valve co-founder Gabe Newell gave in early May. While we don't know whether Steam's purported handheld will ever reach consumer hands, it seems safe to say that something is definitely in the works.
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First off: We don't know a ton about Valve's supposed handheld console. Even "SteamPal" is just a placeholder name (albeit a fairly catchy one). We do know that it's a handheld PC, much like similar projects from Alienware, Aya Neo and Onexplayer. That means it will probably have the same basic look and feel as the Nintendo Switch, but could play much more powerful PC games. Since Valve is at the helm here, it's not unreasonable to think that the SteamPal could run on SteamOS, or a similar Linux platform.
Ars Technica reports that the SteamPal will likely use an Intel or AMD chip, and will use face buttons and joysticks rather than a full keyboard. Whether the SteamPal will incorporate a D-pad is uncertain, as are specs like screen size, resolution, storage and battery life. We don't know how anything about the processor, GPU (integrated or otherwise) or memory yet, either.
One thing we do know is that the SteamPal would probably be a hybrid, similar to the Switch. With a USB-C cable, gamers would be able to hook the device up to a larger screen. It's not clear whether Valve would offer a dock, or just let players run a wire directly between devices.
While Valve seems to have prototype devices of the SteamPal ready, it's not clear how soon this product will be available to consumers — if ever. As the Ars Technica report points out, Valve has had something of a fraught relationship with hardware in the past. Its Steam Controller and Steam Link devices came and went; its Steam Machine gaming rigs never really materialized at all. Valve has always seemed more comfortable in the software space.
And yet, it's not impossible that Valve might be planning something similar here, too. Once it has the infrastructure in place to support a handheld gaming PC, the company doesn't necessarily have to make its own devices. It could license out the technology, or simply ensure that Steam is the download platform of choice on other handheld gaming PCs.
One thing is for certain: If handheld gaming PCs are on the way, Nintendo will probably want to release a more powerful Switch sooner rather than later.