New meaning to "on deck" —
We match good hardware-manufacturing news with a dive into Valve's public-facing data.
For anyone trying to buy a modern piece of gaming hardware, good news is beginning to peek through the dreary clouds of chip shortages and manufacturing hold-ups. This week's optimism comes from a player outside the expected console- and GPU-making fray.
Valve, the longtime software maker responsible for the mostly brilliant Steam Deck handheld PC, announced on Monday that it has caught up with that system's "shipping estimate" schedule. According to Valve, everyone who ordered a Steam Deck system with a "Q2 2022" shipping window has been emailed with the option to order and pay for their own device.
The real news begins with buyers in the Q3 2022 window, as they'll be contacted beginning on June 30—at higher volumes.
"Production has picked up," Valve's official Steam Deck social channel announced on Monday. "After today, we'll be shipping more than double the number of Steam Decks every week!"
A fuzzy estimate of what “more than double” will mean
It's currently difficult to quantify how many systems that could be. Valve has kept Steam Deck shipment stats private since that system's February 2022 launch. For now, we have a fuzzy path to estimating Steam Deck ownership, as the system received a patch adding support for the Steam Hardware Survey in May, which allows PC owners to opt in to divulging their system specs.
Currently, the Steam Hardware Survey includes exactly one line item that correlates to Steam Deck hardware: "AMD Custom GPU 0405." This RDNA 2 graphics solution is part of the Steam Deck's custom AMD system-on-chip (SoC), not found on any other computing device on the market. Steam's May hardware survey counts the 0405's userbase as a sliver of the service's userbase: 5.2 percent of all Linux users, who are themselves 1.12 percent of all Steam users. (This AMD GPU doesn't appear in the OS-agnostic count of all GPUs on Steam.)
Steam's last announced figure of 132 million monthly active users came at the beginning of 2022. If we apply the Steam Hardware Survey's percentages to that figure, we can extrapolate that roughly 77,000 Steam Deck systems were in the wild when Valve's process automatically gathered data in the final week of May. (While Steam users have to opt in to the Steam hardware survey, it's still the best estimate we have of the Steam user base.)
Deck systems included in the Steam Hardware Survey had to arrive and be activated by the end of May, which leaves us with a shipping window from February 28 to May 23: 12 weeks. We can roughly estimate that 6,400 Steam Decks shipped per week from Valve's manufacturing lines to customers in its earliest days. A "more than doubling" of manufacturing and shipping capacity may start at 13,000 weekly Steam Deck shipments. (A margin of error could mean that the May survey counted 11 or even 13 weeks' worth of shipped Deck PCs.)
Still an order of magnitude behind Nintendo Switch
As of press time, Valve reps have not answered Ars Technica's questions about the Steam Deck manufacturing and shipping processes. The best insight we can glean comes from Valve designer and engineer Lawrence Yang, who told fans via his Twitter account, "as you may imagine, it’s pretty difficult to make hardware right now, and the team has been kicking ass behind the scenes to keep Steam Deck production ramping."
Valve's announcement follows a noticeable spike in GPU availability over the past month, though in that case, the count may have as much to do with manufacturing efficiency as it does a massive backtrack in cryptocurrency mining operations. Dropping prices on both new and used hardware indicates a stabilization of that supply-and-demand line, but it's arguably being affected by used GPUs that have taken a cryptomining beating before landing on used marketplaces. We'll have to wait for Nvidia's long-rumored RTX 4000 series of GPUs to get a clearer look at whether new PC GPUs can clear modern manufacturing hurdles.
Current-gen console manufacturers are still struggling to tread water in consumer demand, as both PlayStation 5 and the Xbox Series X/S family remain perennially sold out at both online and big-box retailers. Due to their allocations of parts, those console families are estimated to remain in short supply through 2022. Many of those orders are exclusive to paid services like Walmart+, Best Buy Totaltech, and Amazon Prime; if you'd rather not pay for such services, consider following savvy online-shopping trackers on social media, though their notices usually require acting within hour-long windows or less.
Perhaps the best context for both consumer demand and manufacturing speed remains the Nintendo Switch, whose three models combined to sell 23.06 million units worldwide during Nintendo's fiscal year 2022, or roughly 443,000 systems per week. Valve obviously has catching up to do on both manufacturing and consumer demand to get anywhere near a Switch-like shipping rate, but to Valve's credit, Deck hardware isn't sitting unsold on store shelves. Any Steam Deck orders placed today land in a backlog of shipping "after Q3 2022"—though once Deck's shipping speed increases in the coming weeks, that estimate may tighten.
Outside of comparisons to other gaming-hardware manufacturers, this week's announcement may be good news for a different slew of gaming fans: virtual reality users. Valve's apparent work on a new VR system continues to leak via mentions in its Source Engine. If Valve is now more easily manufacturing Steam Deck systems, the same could apply to any future VR system launch.