Steam Deck - spec analysis: is the console really capable of running the best AAA games?

Steam Deck - spec analysis: is the console really capable of running the best AAA games?

Steam Deck - spec analysis

Rumors have been circulating for some time regarding a portable console produced by Valve but now we have had official confirmation, and the product looks promising. Steam Deck is a product made with the same components underlying Sony and Microsoft consoles, resized and redesigned to make it a portable device. With a 1.6 Teraflop compute power GPU designed for 720p gaming, the idea behind the product is to free PC gaming from the classic conventions of PC nature itself. This is a portable gaming device that mimics what Nintendo did with the Switch, only that it is based on the huge ecosystem that Steam represents.

It is certainly not the first portable console with a PC ecosystem to be produced, but it should be emphasized that Steam Deck is a little beast. The dimensions are 29.8cm long, 6cm more than the Nintendo Switch, which already seemed much larger than a classic handheld console. These dimensions are certainly dictated by two factors: the first is the power it is capable of and consequently the large amount of heat generated to be efficiently dissipated; more area available allows engineers to implement numerous ways of keeping the device cool. The second factor is the battery life: the processor alone has a maximum consumption of 15W, so it was necessary to insert a massive 40WHr battery which takes up space. Fortunately, with the dimensions chosen by the engineers there is plenty of room for all of this and to also accommodate a 7-inch LCD screen with 1280x800 resolution and 60Hz refresh.

The dimensions of the machine are also functional to accommodate the complex controller system. There are two capacitive sticks (the machine understands when you are touching them) that are coupled with all the other classic inputs found on traditional joypads, plus there are also two programmable touchpads on the back of the unit. The idea is to ensure full compatibility with the entire PC game library, so we can consider this configuration of controls as an extension of the Steam controller. Every other aspect of the I / O appears to be handled via the USB-C port on the top of the unit, and there will also be the option to buy an additional dock separately. x 11.7cm x 4.9cm, it's a little beast. Valve Steam Deck Microsoft Xbox Series S CPU Architecture AMD Zen 2: Four Cores, Eight Threads AMD Zen 2: Eight Cores, Sixteen Threads CPU Clock 2.4GHz - 3.5GHz 3.6GHz Fixed GPU Architecture RDNA 2 RDNA 2 GPU Clock 1.0GHz - 1.6GHz 1.565GHz Compute GPU (TFLOPS) 1TF - 1.6TF 4TF Memory 16GB LPDDR5 10GB GDDR6 (8GB available for games) Storage 64GB eMMC NAND, 256GB NVMe, 512GB NVMe 512GB NVMe OS SteamOS Custom Windows Maximum power consumption 20W screen included 82.5W Note: Xbox Series S is undoubtedly the benchmark for developing 'next-gen' games that aim for 1080p and 60fps, so we chose this machine as the benchmark for Steam Deck, which instead aims for 720p / 800p gaming. On Series S we measured a power draw of 82.5W with Gears of War 5. The maximum value of 20W indicated by Valve suggests a minimum duration of 2 hours with the included 40WHr battery.

But actually the most interesting aspects of the Steam Deck are AMD's semi-custom processor and background operating system. Valve, via IGN, describes this chip as a next-gen processor, as it uses the latest architectures. This is true, but only if we consider consoles as the defining factor of a generation. We can actually consider the Steam Deck chip to be very similar to that of the Xbox Series S, albeit scaled down in all respects. The 8-core, 16-thread AMD Zen 2 chip is practically halved and the 3.6GHz clock is reduced to a variable frequency between 2.4GHz and 3.5GHz. The 20 compute units of the S Series GPU are more than halved by going to 8, and the clock of 1565MHz goes to a variable value between 1GHz and 1.6GHz. This implies that Valve's console is capable of variable GPU compute power between 1TF and 1.6TF, while the S Series has 4TF. Considering that we measured 82.5W absorbed from the S Series, we keep the hopes of the Steam Deck's performance alive.

Watch on YouTube. Another key specification decision made by Valve is system memory: 16GB of LPDDR5 certified at 5000 MT / s. Historically, the graphics performance of AMD desktop APUs has been held back by memory bandwidth. Games tend to run faster if the APU is paired with pretty fast RAM, much more so than if you overclock the GPU. Valve has therefore come up with a good solution for the Steam Deck, both as regards the memory bandwidth (assuming it is RAM with a 128-bit interface), and as regards the amount of memory, since a quantity less than 16GB would have undermined the longevity of the system.

There are three variants of Steam Deck available at the moment, priced at € 419, € 549 and € 679 respectively. The three variants differ at the internal hardware level only in the amount of storage, while the more expensive variant also gains an anti-glare glass for the LCD display (which has a peak brightness of 400nits). The base variant features 64GB of NAND flash, while the two more expensive drives feature 256GB and 512GB NVMe SSDs respectively. According to Valve, the higher you go with the storage size, the higher the read / write speeds. There is also a MicroSD slot on board, but obviously the loading times from this solution will depend exclusively on the speed class of the card you are going to insert. We highly recommend opting for one of the two versions with NVMe solution and avoiding the base model with NAND Flash.

Valve promises an integrated and bespoke Steam experience for the new laptop. The hardware is first class in the handheld landscape and Valve aims to compete in the Nintendo Switch market share with these prices, after all the convenience of the proposal is unprecedented. But it is the software that has to convince. Steam Deck is basically an open PC like any other: there's nothing to stop you from installing Windows or another OS on your machine. But the unit comes from the factory with an evolution of SteamOS, therefore based on Linux. However, this choice presents a problem, since Linux support is limited on the platform, while Vulkan APU support is more widespread but still far from being the industry standard.

Valve's solution to this problem is to resort to an enhanced version of Proton (a collection of technologies, including WINE and DXVK, which has the task of re-interpreting the Windows code to make it work on Linux). The ProtonDB database makes you realize how robust this technology is, but it is clear that 100% compatibility is not guaranteed and that there will be a loss of performance compared to the same hardware that runs the game natively on Windows. That said, Valve talks about a 'growing compatibility of Proton games and an anti-cheat system developed in direct collaboration with the vendors'.

This is the sphere of the Steam Deck that arouses the most perplexity. We are not so sure that the hardware we find in the specs is able to provide all the potential it is capable of and the compatibility will have to prove to be excellent. On the other hand, we first saw this machine spinning the maxed-out triple-A Star Wars: Jedi Fallen, impressive for a mobile chip. But even more remarkable was the experience gained from the system with Control. By extension, we can assume that most of the titles in the Steam library perform very well on the machine, and let's not forget that in the Steam catalog there are not only recent games but also all those released in the last three decades, as well as modern games but decidedly light.

With dual analog sticks, standard buttons and triggers, and programmable rear pads, the Steam Deck is full of features when it comes to controls. But we must inevitably also think about the next generation of gaming. Let's not forget that the Xbox Series S consumes a lot more power and that to reach 60fps in most games it has to compromise with the dynamic resolution, which can drop to 720p or even below. And all this by working on a system engineered on a low-level version of DirectX 12 created especially for this chip. Comparisons with Nintendo Switch should also be made with caution. On the one hand, there is no doubt that Steam Deck is light years ahead of Switch hardware specifications, but if we remember the comparisons between Switch and Nvidia Shield (based on the same chip), we realize how much more performance there is. achieve them by working on low-level APUs.

All of this brings us to what we believe to be the crucial factor in the success or failure of the Steam Deck, namely developer involvement. Nintendo and Nvidia have provided developers with the development tools and APIs to make the Switch what it has become today, but in the end, it is the game creators who have tailored the code for the Tegra X1 processor. The list of so-called 'impossible ports' for Nintendo's hybrid is immense, but it's all thanks to the immense efforts of the developers. In the case of the Steam Deck, it will first of all need performance profiles suitable for the machine to be applied from the start of the single game without the need for user intervention, even if the classic graphics options menus should remain available.

But moving forward, the key to success will lie in scalability. Techniques like temporal super-sampling and DRS, which already exist on consoles, have proved vital for Switch ports and we assume Steam Deck will rely heavily on them. This could also generate a domino effect on overall scalability in the PC ecosystem, which would be a great thing. The primary goal of the Steam Deck is to bring the PC experience to the masses, and providing a product with great startup performance, without user intervention, must prove to be as easy as on console.

PC peripherals connect via USB-A but there's only one USB-C port here, so it'll take a dock to connect multiple peripherals at the same time. The really interesting idea of ​​the Steam Deck is that of wanting to bring PC gaming outside the desktop PC universe-notebok to a totally new world. After all, Nintendo has shown that this mainstream market loves mobile gaming and Valve has made a bold move in this regard, especially if we take into account the price which is decidedly low by PC standards and more in line with that of consoles. The real difference with Switch though is that this will be an entirely open system, as are all PCs.

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Valve makes no secret of the fact that the Steam Deck is a full-fledged PC and that you can do whatever you want with it, even install on it Windows, which could improve performance in many games by the way. The SteamOS system that becomes open as it has never been, with the hope that other manufacturers will also market their own Steam Deck. If this happens, it will be unlikely that they will keep in line with Valve's pricing, but with processor and screen technologies constantly updated, it is likely that we will see even more powerful third-party Steam Decks coming over time.

At the moment, however, from our point of view there are three key areas where Steam Deck needs to convince. First of all it must be a valid laptop. This thing is really big: the ergonomics must work, the screen must be visible and the battery life must be decent. Secondly, there is compatibility: if Valve is talking about your Steam library, it must work in its entirety, and here comes the great compatibility improvement that the Proton layer must guarantee. Finally, there are the performances. The games obviously have to run, but how will they run? We are in a trans-generational era of the industry: if today's titles run well, the question mark arises on the games of tomorrow.

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