Steam Deck alternatives in 2024: worth buying or worth waiting?

Steam Deck Alternatives
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The release of Valve’s Steam Deck in 2022, following the Nintendo Switch’s massive success after its launch in 2017, has created a booming, competitive gaming handheld market, spanning across consoles and the PC. Handheld PCs existed before the Steam Deck (technically, decades before the Steam Deck), but Valve’s accomplishments on the gaming front helped push the market toward its current state of regular Steam Deck alternative releases and competitive hardware. But just how competitive is that hardware, really, and how much should you be willing to spend on it here in mid-2024?

Before we get too deep into that discussion though, it’s important to establish that, thanks largely to current power and thermal limits, the Steam Deck LCD, starting at $399, is still the baseline for handheld gaming power. That’s true even though there are much more expensive alternatives. The Steam Deck has capabilities similar to modern consoles (including very light ray tracing or RT support in some titles), but is most akin to a last-gen Playstation 4 Pro. This includes the ability to play titles like Elden Ring above 30 frames per second.

This may change at some point, but for now, the only way to get a truly high-end, on-the-go gaming experience is by using one of the best gaming laptops. Handhelds are perfectly capable of delivering an enjoyable gaming experience between 30-60 fps in most modern games, though.

Gaming Handhelds Differences Explained

Essential differences between gaming handhelds, explained

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Before meaningful comparisons can be made between the different handhelds, we should establish some basic terminology. Much of this will be familiar to hardware enthusiasts and experienced PC builders. But for those considering a handheld as their first foray into PC gaming, defining some basics will be important for understanding the pros and cons of competing devices.

  • Operating System — The operating system software your handheld runs will determine which online storefronts you can access (or at least access most easily) and therefore what games are available to you. Walled-garden handheld consoles tend to be more locked down than the majority of the handheld PCs below, but that can also make them easier for novices to navigate and use.
  • SoC — The combined system-on-a-chip of the gaming handheld, which combines the central processing unit (CPU) with the graphics processing unit (GPU).
  • RAM — Since your random access memory, or RAM, has to be shared by the CPU and GPU in  devices like these handhelds, higher RAM speeds and capacity are helpful. In general, higher speeds can increase frame rates, and higher capacities are great for future-proofing. Even the entry-level Steam Deck LCD offers 16GB, and some devices are starting to leverage 32GB for some performance boons and extra GPU buffer.
  • Display Panel Type — Display panel type will determine how a display handles colors and the degree of ghosting and input lag. OLED and IPS are best in this use case. But cheaper versions of IPS can be underwhelming.
  • Display Resolution and Refresh Rate — Higher display resolution means higher clarity, but also makes games much harder to run on handheld-class hardware. The same applies to refresh rate, in that it will be tough or impossible to run AAA games on modern handheld hardware at refresh rates above 30-60 Hz.
  • Display VRR Support — Variable Refresh Rate is a display and GPU feature that allows the screen’s refresh to sync with the frame rate of your games, with minimal impact on input lag and generally improved perceived smoothness. VRR also has some power-saving applications. It’s usually called G-Sync or FreeSync; The latter being particularly common in these mostly AMD-based handhelds.

Handheld Game Compatibility and Valve Proton

Handheld Game Compatibility and Valve Proton

(Image credit: Valve)

A major factor in the success of the Steam Deck has been the Proton compatibility layer, maintained by Valve Software on Github. Proton is also bundled in the Linux Steam client, and is built into SteamOS to enable easy compatibility with most Windows games on Steam. There are some major exceptions to Proton compatibility on Steam Deck, though, including the anti-cheat software required for some major multiplayer titles. Most recently, this includes pretty much everything using EA anticheat, including Battlefield V.

The Steam Deck can also run Windows, but will often achieve its best performance on SteamOS due to its ability to leverage pre-cached shaders for Steam Deck titles. This allows the Steam Deck to reduce shader compilation stutter in some titles that otherwise don’t have the feature in their Windows release. This means most performance targets are smooth once you’ve picked the correct graphics settings. 

Ray tracing pretty much ensures a 30 fps or worse experience if you enable it in anything, though — if the game is playable at all. Mostly rasterized games (like Doom Eternal with RT reflections enabled) might be playable, but most full RT games (like Metro Exodus Enhanced Edition) simply will not be playable on Deck’s limited hardware. If in doubt, enable resolution scaling, disable RT, and even consider disabling AA.

Outside of Steam Deck and other Linux handhelds having access to Proton, Windows generally offers the best game compatibility and graphics settings flexibility. A proper console like the Switch OLED will have a more limited library and graphics settings, but can still turn around locked-ish 30 fps to a surprisingly playable effect in intensive titles like Doom Eternal. Of course, Nintendo’s own games tend to run at 60 FPS, with more stylized than realistic graphics — and you get those Nintendo exclusives on Switch, of course.

Steam Deck Alternatives

The Main Steam Deck Alternatives

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Sub-$500 Steam Deck Alternatives

When shopping solely in the sub-$500 range for a Steam Deck alternative, your options are still quite limited. What few choices there are either opt for ARM and Android (which is starting to improve but is still less optimal for gaming today), or are just weaker than the Steam Deck overall. Perusing the used market can improve the situation, though that comes with its own risks.

In this range, your screens will usually be resolution-limited to 720p or 800p, though the streaming-centric PlayStation Portal has a 1080p screen.

  • Nintendo Switch OLEDReleased 2021. Runs Nintendo’s custom Switch OS and a custom Nvidia Tegra X1 SoC. If all you care about is gaming and you don't want to deal with the complexities PCs, the less-powerful Switch OLED and its family of devices may still be compelling— but you may also want to wait, as there are rumors of a successor on the horizon. It uses a 7-inch OLED screen.
  • Asus ROG Ally Z1Released 2023. Runs Windows 11. The Ally uses an AMD Ryzen Z1 SoC, which should not be confused for the Z1 Extreme SoC with AMD’s best iGPU, Radeon 780M. It supports a high-voltage-plug-only Turbo mode that brings performance of the device closer to on-battery Deck and ROG Ally Z1 Extreme, but is otherwise roughly ~35% slower in games. Uses a 7-inch IPS screen.
  • Ayaneo Pocket AirReleased 2023. Runs a custom Android distribution. Mostly just a very fancy, compact, entry-level ARM gaming handheld, particularly for Android titles and emulation. Uses a 5.5-inch OLED screen.
  • PlayStation PortalReleased 2023. Runs a custom, heavily-locked down Android distribution. Intended for streaming only from a PlayStation 5. Has an 8-inch IPS screen.

$500+ Steam Deck Alternatives

The best Steam Deck alternative right now actually might just be the Steam Deck OLED, which is a refreshed model at a higher price. While more powerful Ryzen 7840U, Ryzen 8840U, and Ryzen Z1 Extreme handhelds exist, these handhelds are really at their best when plugged into a wall or 65W+ power bank, and exhibit very similar performance to the Steam Deck when running on battery. The big reason to look at alternatives is if they have specific features or specifications that appeal to you — like the ROG Ally’s VRR or improved eGPU support, or if you want Windows 11 preinstalled.

Nearly every device in this pricing bracket has a 1200p, 120 Hz screen except Deck OLED. This is nice in theory, but can be a tough target to hit with modern games, particularly without using heavy image scaling or sticking to 2D games.

  • Steam Deck OLEDReleased 2023. Runs SteamOS. Mostly identical internal specs to Steam Deck, but a massively-improved OLED screen with great HDR support. Our own Deck OLED review was quite favorable, and other outlets point toward Deck OLED being the leading option, as long as it’s within your budget, due to the excellent screen.
  • Asus ROG Ally Z1 ExtremeReleased 2023. Runs Windows 11. The first major competitor to the Steam Deck in terms of hardware power, providing superior gaming performance when plugged into an appropriate power source. It achieves this thanks to the Ryzen Z1 Extreme SoC, which is akin to the 7840U, with an identical core layout and Radeon 780M iGPU. Has a 7-inch IPS screen like the Steam Deck LCD, but the screen is generally considered much better.
  • Lenovo Legion GoReleased 2023. Runs Windows 11. Leverages the Ryzen Z1 Extreme SoC like ROG Ally does, and has a larger 8.8-inch screen than Deck or Ally with a higher 2560 x 1600 resolution. Mostly ideal for users who want more screen real estate. Also slightly more performant than other Z1X devices in Performance mode.
  • MSI ClawReleased 2024. Runs Windows 11. The only handheld on this list to leverage Intel hardware instead of AMD hardware, or the Nvidia hardware present in the Switch. Can perform better (~5%) than the Ryzen Z1 Extreme handhelds in select games, or dramatically worse in others, as benchmarked by GamersNexus
  • Orange Pi NeoReleased 2024 — but currently only in China. Runs Manjaro Linux. Uses AMD’s Ryzen 7840U SoC or 8840U SoC depending on kit, but entry-level at ~$500 is currently the cheapest 7840U handheld by a significant margin.
  • Ayaneo Air 1SReleased 2023. Runs Windows 11. Uses AMD’s Ryzen 7840U SoC, but in one of the most compact form factors of the high-end handhelds due to its 5.5-inch screen.
  • Ayaneo KunReleased 2023. Runs Windows 11. Another Ayaneo Ryzen 7840U option with a roomy 8.4-inch screen.

Note: This category would normally include some of GPD’s devices, but they all seem to be mid-refresh and so both past-gen, and current-gen GPD hardware cannot be ordered from the company’s site at the time of writing.

Upcoming Handheld Devices: Reasons To Wait

Upcoming Devices: Reasons To Wait

Ayaneo is preparing multiple new devices, seemingly for release around the same time. Its most unique upcoming offering is the Flip DS, which crosses the modern Deck form factor with that of legacy Nintendo dual-screen handhelds. But there are also more traditional Next Lite and Flip KB handhelds on the way from Ayaneo. These are all slated to be 7840U-, 8840U-based, or weaker handhelds.

Alternatively, startup Playtron has announced an ambitious plan to take on Valve with a new Linux distribution called PlaytronOS and matching custom handhelds. These handhelds will most likely leverage Qualcomm's high-end Snapdragon X Elite chips, or at least be optimized for them, which at least sounds interesting due to the X Elite’s supposedly great gaming performance. Playtron’s goal is to provide a SteamOS-like unified Linux interface for all PC games, not just the ones on Steam.

The ever-churning GPD is mid-refresh cycle and preparing a slew of upcoming Ryzen 8840U handhelds. The GPD Win Mini 2024 looks like another compelling clamshell option for those who don’t need dual screens and who like VRR, while the Win Max 2 refresh looks to be ideal for those who like particularly large screens on their tablets. But these all fall within expectations of a market currently dominated by AMD’s Ryzen 7840U and 8840U CPUs at the high end.

What portable gamer fans are anticipating most is the seemingly impending release of the Nintendo Switch 2, and the likely price-to-performance advancements that will come with it. The latest Switch 2 leaks point toward that release being early in 2025— possibly around March, which is when the Nintendo Switch launched back in 2017. With much more competition in the form of the Steam Deck and its contemporaries, handheld gaming has never looked better— but like with all PC hardware, it can often seem enticing to wait a little longer.

Freelance News Writer