According to Valve, the Steam Deck is more than capable of chewing up titles on the PC platform, despite its relatively low hardware specs. Whether an APU has the chops to drive traditional PC games is a valid question. While Nintendo has sold a lot of switches with weaker hardware than the Steam Deck. Nintendo also has an army of developers who explicitly code for its platforms and their hardware. Valve’s Steam Deck might get special attention from developers who want to support it, but it’s not exactly the same as targeting the device from day one.
Valve’s official message is that the system is AAA gaming ready.
“We’ve looked at various games over the last few years in the catalog, but the real test for us was the games that came out last year. They just couldn’t perform very well on the previous types of prototypes and architectures we were testing, ”Valve’s Pierre-Loup Griffais told IGN. “This is the first time that we have achieved the level of performance required to really run the latest generation of games without problems. All of the games that we wanted to be playable are, in fact, the entire Steam library. We didn’t really find anything we could throw on this device that it couldn’t handle.
The Steam Deck has several advantages that can make this possible, although a recent laptop comparison by PCMag found that even high-end integrated systems are still marginal for 1080p PC gaming. For starters, the Steam Deck runs at 1280 × 800, which is just over 1MP. It’s just a little less than half the resolution of a 1080p screen. The switch operates at 1280 × 720 to reduce bandwidth pressure and battery life as well.
Integrated graphics solutions are still tied to memory bandwidth, partly because the economy prohibits huge memory connections at these price points, and partly because the CPU and GPU share the bus together. This is where the Steam Deck has another advantage over any integrated shipping solution today. It uses a four-channel LPDDR5x solution with 4 × 32-bit memory channels of LPDDR5x-5500. This corresponds to 88 GB / s of memory bandwidth. This is a substantial boost beyond what the DDR4-3200 (51.2 Gb / s) offers. We also know that the APU inside the Steam Deck uses an RDNA2-derived GPU, which should be worth at least 1.25x IPC compared to the old Vega architecture.
I’m not sure how much performance improvement we can expect from the built-in RDNA2 over the built-in Vega. The GPU inside the Radeon 5800U is clocked at 2 GHz, while the GPU inside the Steam Deck will run between 1 GHz and 1.6 GHz. We would expect RDNA2 to be significantly more efficient than Vega, but AMD and Valve may have prioritized adapting the performance of AMD’s current APUs to a lower power envelope.
Good news ? RDNA2 shows all the signs of a very energy efficient architecture, especially at low clock. We don’t know if the semi-custom chip that Valve is purchasing for this project includes additional cache for the onboard GPU, but even assuming it doesn’t, the additional memory bandwidth – 1.72 times more than the 5800U – should still pay off. We wouldn’t be surprised if the RDNA2-based GPU gained at least 1.25x to 1.3x performance just through the memory bandwidth upgrade, not knowing anything about how much higher RDNA2’s CPI is. compensated by lower clocks.
We can’t precisely quantify the improvement in the drop to 720p from 1080p, but again, we would expect it to be 1.15x to 1.25x as a minimum. Reducing the resolution has always been one of the best ways to improve GPU performance, and while the gains are rarely linear (unless you’re in a totally GPU-related situation), they’re usually substantial. .
The above graphic is from PCMag’s recent 1080p iGPU laptop games comparison. As you can see, 1080p is a tough sell for these systems in AAA, although they all do better in esports and simulation titles. ExtremeTech’s estimate is that the Steam Deck should be at least 1.4 times faster at 720p compared to these 1080p tests. Total gains of 1.7x to 2x or more are not impossible, although much of this depends on the specifics of the title in question, its response to RDNA2 over Vega, the strength of Valve’s cooler and the overall effectiveness of AMD APUs. GPU sustained clock will matter a lot here.
If you assume a 1.5-fold increase over the PCMag laptop numbers above, Valve’s prediction starts to make more sense. Games like Far Cry 5 and Borderlands 3 would break the 30fps line at 1280 × 800. The Steam Deck presumably doesn’t use FreeSync, which is a bit unfortunate – technology like FreeSync would shine in situations like this. here – but 30fps is still a big mark for smooth gameplay, and a 1.5x boost gets us there.
The only downside to all of this is that some games may still require 720p and poorly detailed settings to function properly. Valve’s tech specs for the Steam Deck stated that the GPU clock ranges from 1 GHz to 1.6 GHz, which is a pretty wide range.
What about future games?
There’s a big difference between the Steam Deck and the Switch that impacts how customers view Valve’s handheld in the long run. When Sony, Microsoft, or Nintendo release a handheld, the end user knows they are purchasing guaranteed compatibility with future titles over a period of time. Outside of the Dreamcast, even short-lived consoles like the Wii U have been Nintendo’s fastest platform for four years.
In the PC world, the day you buy a PC is the day you trade the theory of performance faster than you could buy in 6-18 months to see the real performance available today. The Switch is already four years old. While there are still rumors of a future 4K Switch equipped with DLSS, nobody expects Nintendo to release a new platform for another 2 to 2.5 years. Console makers typically don’t retire an old platform the day they roll out the new one, so the total window that the Switch will be supported could easily last 8 years.
The Steam Deck is unlikely to enjoy that kind of longevity, but PC gamers don’t have a cultural expectation of that kind of life expectancy either. A well-built and upgradeable desktop can last 6-10 years as a gaming PC these days, but laptops don’t last as long.
This could play out in different ways depending on who buys the Steam Deck and what it’s used for. The Steam Deck won’t be powerful enough to run ray tracing workloads in AAA titles, but Valve could work with developers to implement a special “Steam Deck mode” with settings that allow games to be played. on low-end equipment. Back in the days when netbooks were popular, some games added a “netbook mode” specifically to improve performance on low-end hardware. The fact that Steam Deck is all built on a common hardware platform could prompt Valve to optimize the Source Engine for its own CPU and GPU platform and help developers deliver the best possible performance.
It’s, of course, also possible that the Steam Deck is just another example of Valve having a clever idea that it doesn’t follow, like the Steam Machines were. We’re not big fans of pre-orders, and the Steam Deck is no exception. But this device has the potential to be something interesting and Valve seems to realize how important it is to deliver on all fronts.
One thing to keep in mind: Saying that Valve couldn’t find a game that couldn’t run on Steam Deck for performance reasons isn’t the same as saying Steam Deck can run all games. Steam. We still don’t know what the Proton compatibility situation will be by December, but currently there are some important games that are not supported by Linux.