We recently enjoyed some hands-on experience with Valve’s Steam Deck and spoke to the engineers behind Valve’s bold handheld project. While there are many questions surrounding the hardware side of the Steam Deck, there is also the whole operating system issue to consider. While it can, it doesn’t run Microsoft Windows by default, but instead Valve’s own SteamOS 3.0.
However, there is one important change from the version of SteamOS that was developed for its failed Steam Machines project and that is a move from Debian as the core distribution to Arch. Both are popular Linux distributions, but they target different markets , and that is what makes some fundamental differences between the two – mostly in the way they are updated.
Debian, one of the oldest Linux distributions, has a defined update schedule and long-term support of up to 10 years for certain releases. It uses a standard update model in which many smaller updates are grouped together and released as a large new version.
Given that Debian for servers is widespread, this is the kind of stable, consistent support that audiences are looking for. Debian is still getting security and general software updates, but the kernel is left alone – this whole “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality.
However, this setup isn’t ideal for what Valve is aiming to achieve with the Steam Deck. At launch, the Steam Deck will undoubtedly need several small updates to make sure everything is working properly. Some of these could affect the underlying kernel – not something Debian lends itself to easily.
This is what Valve designer Lawrence Yang told us during our hands-on time with the deck when we asked about the move from Debian to Arch.
“So Arch Linux, one of the main reasons, there are a few, but the main one is the ongoing updates from Arch that allow us to develop faster for SteamOS 3.0,” says Yang. “We made a number of updates and changes specifically to make sure things were working well for the Steam Deck, and Arch just ended up being a better choice for them.”
On top of that, you’re probably looking at video driver updates, and Proton might need some big changes too – this is the layer that ensures that games designed for Windows work on Linux. Fundamental changes to SteamOS itself cannot be ruled out either.
Essentially, the Steam Deck is required at startup a lot minor updates, not a large, one-time package.
The fact that Arch is based on a rolling release model as opposed to a traditional all-round update system simply makes it a better option for Valve’s needs. It doesn’t hurt that Arch is generally considered a better option for desktop PCs anyway.
The Steam Deck will be shipping to those who have pre-ordered it from December 2021. However, there was great interest in the handheld, and anyone who orders today will have to wait until the second quarter of 2022 before they can get their hands on the device.