Categories
Game

Steam Deck won’t flop like Steam Machines

PC gamers might have felt a tad disappointed at the news that Valve is delaying its Steam Deck portable PC gaming machine to sometime in 2022. Of course, that wasn’t exactly surprising given how other consumer electronics, especially computers and mobile devices, are facing production and shipment delays, but it still douses some cold water over the enthusiasm that has been building up towards the upcoming shopping and gaming seasons. Almost ironically, that can also serve to get gamers excited even more, especially after Valve continues to reveal some details that inspire confidence that the Steam Deck will not be a repeat of the ill-fated Steam Machine.

Handheld gaming is a thing (again)

Handheld gaming devices have been around for ages, though few can probably be considered to have garnered enough success to be worthy of being included in the annals of gaming history. The console side of the fence is filled with noteworthy examples like the original Nintendo Game Boy, the PlayStation Portable and the PS Vita, and, more recently, the Nintendo Switch. Handheld PCs have recently grown in number, but they are still relatively obscure compared to one that would bear the names of “Valve” and “Steam”.

Perhaps partly thanks to the Nintendo Switch and partly due to the lucrative mobile games market, the idea of gaming on the go has gotten more mass appeal lately. PCs, however, have never really been portable except in the form of laptops, making the idea of handheld PC gaming more enticing these days. Especially when it’s made by a reputable company with specs and featured geared towards gaming specifically.

Of course, this isn’t Valve’s first foray into PC gaming hardware, but it’s probably one that is finally more relevant. Steam Machines and Steam OS failed on multiple fronts, but the biggest reason was that the proposition didn’t offer anything truly unique and special. Almost any desktop gaming PC could be connected to a TV and a controller, and it would offer the same experience and even outperform some of the early Steam Machines. While there are a number of handheld gaming PCs from the likes of GPD, One Netbook, and even Chuwi, they don’t carry the same weight as Valve’s name, nor can they offer a tempting $400 starting price tag.

Valve is in control

The Steam Deck’s specs might disappoint some, especially when you compare it to the likes of the GPD WIN 3, for example. The key difference, however, is that Valve is almost in control of every aspect of the Steam Deck experience, or at the very least, has enough clout to influence its development. We aren’t talking about off-the-shelf PC components that any manufacturer can get their hands on but hardware that’s been designed and tested to deliver a very specific handheld Steam experience.

Valve recently held a live stream that goes into more detail about the device’s hardware, specifically the AMD chip that’s specially designed for it. For example, everything about the hardware is fine-tuned to deliver consistent 720p gaming, whether the Steam Deck is plugged in or connected to a TV. The latter is where AMD’s FidelityFX Super Resolution upscaling is utilized to output higher resolution graphics without actually going beyond 720p on the hardware level.

Almost ironically but very appropriately, the Steam Deck is still as open as any PC, with the ability to install Windows on it after the fact. The latter, in turn, could open the doors to other gaming platforms, like Microsoft xCloud, Google Stadia, and NVIDIA GeForce NOW, among other things. That said, heavy Steam users won’t have to look to those rival platforms since they will have access to almost all the games that Valve’s library has to offer.

Steam Proton

Part of the Steam Machine’s failure was blamed on Steam OS. Valve has long been a staunch supporter of Linux and for good reason, but it might have been too early for the company to put its eggs in that basket. Since then, however, Valve has worked tirelessly to bring Linux up to snuff in supporting Windows games available on Steam, which is where the newish Proton compatibility framework comes in.

It’s still not perfect, of course, but Proton opened up a whole new world of games on Linux, games that previously wouldn’t run even with the latest version of WINE (“WINE Is Not an Emulator”). There are still some compatibility issues as well, but Proton puts the burden in Valve’s and the open source community’s hands, freeing game publishers from having to specifically target Linux support.

The Catch: Controller versus Keyboard

The one probably small catch to this otherwise enchanting dream for PC gamers is the matter of input control. While many games are now available on both PCs and consoles, some are still defined by how they’re controlled, with PCs better known for their keyboard and mouse controls. The Steam Deck’s form factor makes that impossible, at least not without having to sit down and connect peripherals, immediately leaving a number of titles out in the cold.

Granted, some of those games might not exactly be good to play on the go, anyway. And, being a true PC, the possibility of accessories and addons to address those limitations is left wide open. Hopefully, Valve will be able to deliver on the promise of the Steam Deck and sell enough of it to warrant supporting the device in the years to come or maybe even have a Steam Deck 2.

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Categories
Computing

3 Things Android Apps on Windows 11 Need to Not Flop

The next generation of Windows is Windows 11. The updated operating system brings some big changes and improvements to Windows 10, including Xbox features on Windows and Microsoft Teams integration. Maybe the biggest announcement to come out of the Windows 11 event, though, is that Android apps are coming to Windows 11.

Running Android apps on the desktop sounds great, and it could fill an important whole in the Windows app library. But the implementation may not be as cut-and-dried as Microsoft has suggested. There are three key things Android apps need on Windows 11 to not totally flop.

No intervention from developers

The Android implementation in Windows 11 is powered by Intel Bridge, which is a “runtime post-complier” that Intel says will allow Android apps to run natively on x86-based systems. The “runtime” bit means that the app runs in real time, and the “post-complier” part means that Bridge compiles the code a second time to give the operating system instructions it can understand.

It seems simple enough, but as Chrome OS has shown, running Android apps on x86-based systems isn’t always easy. Chrome OS runs a full version of Android that can launch Android apps in a virtual container. The problem is that many apps are written for ARM binaries, which power most Android handsets. That leads to a disjointed Android experience on Chrome OS where some apps work, others don’t, and the rest feel poorly optimized. Let’s not forget that Google owns both Android and Chrome — and it still can’t seem to iron out the wrinkles.

After the Windows 11 announcement, Microsoft held a developer panel that talked a bit more about Android apps on Windows. The implementation sounds very similar to Chrome OS, with apps running in a virtual machine container and requiring binaries for ARM and x86 CPUs to run their best.

Microsoft and Intel are pioneering the Bridge technology with Windows 11, so we’ll hopefully know a lot more about it over the next few months. If developers need to go back and optimize their apps to work with Bridge, we might be caught in a similar situation to Chrome OS.

Optimization for desktop

Windows 11 on screen

Developers may not need to update their apps to run on Windows, but they’ll need to update them to function well on Windows. Google has a list of optimizations developers should use when designing apps to work across Chromebooks and Android, and Microsoft needs to issue similar guidelines for porting Android apps over to Windows.

The most obvious optimization is support for multiple input devices. Windows 11 is bringing a slew of touch enhancements, but keyboard and mouse is still the go-to input method for many. Outside of making sure clicks and text input work, Android apps on windows should support mouse wheel scrolling, keyboard shortcuts, and ideally, touchpad gestures.

The Android experience should also be seamless with the Windows experience. You may not be able to drag and drop things in and out of an Android window, but the apps still need to support context menus and system-level inputs like the Windows button and volume wheel.

Although it’s probably wishful thinking, we would like to see cross-platform syncing, too. Automatically browsing Instagram without signing in or picking up where you left off in a game would go a long way toward making the Android experience seamless on Windows 11. Unfortunately, that sounds like a logistical nightmare without something like Google Play at the heart of Android on Windows.

Google Play

Disney+ on Google Play

Speaking of which, Google Play is necessary for the long-term health of Android on Windows. Android apps may be coming to Windows, but only some of them. Microsoft will offer Android apps through the Amazon App Store, which has significantly fewer apps than Google Play. You can download and use your favorite Android apps on Windows 11, assuming your favorite apps also show up in Amazon’s store.

To be clear, Amazon still offers the most important apps you could want. It covers major social media platforms, streaming services, and the most popular games.

The killer here is Google Play Services. This API package is what allows you to sync game progress across devices, sign into accounts using a Google login, and cast content from apps to your TV. Amazon provides a similar set of tools, but Google Play is still the main way that Android users access their apps.

The good news is that Microsoft says Amazon is just the first partner it is working with. Other app stores could come to Windows 11 over time, but it’s not clear how long that may take or if Google Play is in the conversation.

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