We recently enjoyed internships with Valve’s Steam Deck and were able to talk to the engineers about Valve’s cute hand project. While there are many questions around the hardware side of the Steam Deck, the entire operating system issue also needs to be considered. While it can, it won’t run Microsoft Windows out of the box, but Valve’s own SteamOS 3.0.
However, there is a key change from the version of SteamOS designed for its failed Steam Machines project, and this is a change away from Debian, as the basic distribution in Arch instead. Both are popular Linux distributions, but they are aimed at different markets and this makes for some fundamental differences between the two, especially the way they are updated.
Debian, one of the oldest Linux distributions, has a definite update schedule and long-term support of up to 10 years for specific versions. It uses a standard update model, where many smaller updates are grouped and released as a new, larger version.
Because Debian is widely used for servers, this is the kind of stable, constant support its audience seeks. Debian continues to get general security and software updates, but the core is left alone: this mindset "if it doesn't break, don't fix it."
This setting is not ideal for what Valve wants to do with Steam Deck. At launch, Steam Deck will definitely need several small updates to make sure everything works perfectly. Some of which could affect the underlying kernel, not something to which Debian lends itself easily.
This is what Valve designer Lawrence Yang told us during our hands-on time with the Deck when we asked about switching from Debian to Arch.
"So Arch Linux, one of the main reasons, there's a couple, but the main reason is that Arch's continuous updates allow us to make faster versions for SteamOS 3.0," says Yang. . "We were doing a lot of upgrades and changes to specifically make sure things worked well on Steam deck, and Arch ended up being a better option for them."
In addition, you're probably looking for graphics driver updates, and Proton may also need major changes, which is the layer that ensures games designed for Windows run on Linux. The fundamental changes of SteamOS itself are not out of the question either.
Essentially, at launch, Steam Deck will need it a lot smaller updates, not a single big package.
The fact that Arch is based on a continuous release model, unlike an all-encompassing traditional upgrade system, makes it a better choice for Valve’s needs. Overall, this Arch is considered a better choice for desktop computers does not hurt either.
The Steam Deck will begin shipping to those who pre-ordered it from December 2021. But interest in the hand has been significant and anyone asking today will have to wait until Q2 2022 before they can get on the machine.