Valve's Steam Deck is proving remarkably popular, generating enough interest in its promise of a handheld gaming PC that anyone currently trying to pre-order a Steam Deck is being told they may have to wait until the second half of 2022 to receive one.
When the Steam Deck does begin shipping to customers — something Valve says will begin happening at the end of 2021 — it will have a new user interface aimed at making Steam easy to navigate on the handheld device and its 7-inch touchscreen. This week a Valve developer confirmed that the company also plans to replace its aging Big Picture Mode with the Steam Deck UI, though they refrained from specifying when that would happen.
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That's significant because, according to a recent IGN chat with Valve designer Tucker Spofford, the Steam Deck UI is "just Steam" and will therefore get all the updates Steam gets, unlike Valve's Big Picture Mode, which is effectively a forked version of Steam.
"That means where Big Picture Mode didn’t get all of Steam’s recent improvements because development couldn’t necessarily be easily shared between the two versions, the Steam Deck will naturally be able to inherit everything," said Spofford. "And features Valve develops for the Deck will also go toward improving Steam in return."
This is potentially a big deal because Big Picture Mode hasn't changed much in the nearly 10 years since its 2012 debut. It works well enough when you need to navigate Steam with a gamepad, but it looks rough and lacks key features when compared to most modern game console interfaces.
The silver lining is that Big Picture Mode also doesn't have any of the ads which now clutter up modern console interfaces. And based on IGN's early look at the device, neither will the Steam Deck, which will also offer access to a full Linux desktop for those who want to explore beyond the Deck's Steam UI.
Still, it sounds as though Valve has put significant effort into designing the Steam Deck UI to make it easier for users to do things like search for games or quickly jump back into a game that was recently played. The UI is also designed to adapt to a variety of screen formats, from the small 7-inch touchscreen of the Steam Deck to a big 65-inch TV or a curved gaming monitor, as the Deck can connect to external displays via HDMI or DisplayPort when nestled in its official dock.
It all sounds like a much more modern and thoughtful take on what a gamepad-centric Steam could look like, meaning there's good reason to hope that playing Steam games on the big screen is going to get a whole lot smoother once Big Picture Mode is replaced by the Steam Deck UI. However, we'll have to wait and see how the project progresses — the Steam Deck looks great, but Valve’s hardware track record doesn’t, and we've learned to be leery of Valve promises that don't come with a firm deadline.