Last Updated on November 1, 2021 by ViCadia
This week, Valve has announced their new portable gaming device called Steam Deck, which is powered by an AMD RDNA 2 based APU. There’s a lot to unpack here and one use case in particular seems very interesting to us. So let’s take a more in-depth look at this potentially industry disruptive device.
Over the last couple of years APUs (accelerated processing units) have been growing in popularity. Designed to act both as central processing unit (CPU) and graphics processing unit (GPU), APUs are considered to function as general purpose processors, and as such have a potentially disruptive impact on the whole tech industry. This is particularly seen in gaming industry, as once APUs get powerful enough to run AAA games at acceptable frame rate, then entry-level and even mid-range graphics cards will become mostly irrelevant.
Cutting-edge upscaling technologies such as AMD FidelityFX Super Resolution (FSR) and NVIDIA DLSS are greatly contributing to wide adoption of APUs, since they allow computers to artificially increase 3D image quality at virtually no cost.
Since Steam Deck features precisely an AMD APU with RDNA 2 graphics, it seems this device will be a perfect candidate to take advantage of something like AMD FSR to make running demanding games on a low-powered APU a reality. Looking at the hardware specs, we can see that Steam Deck will feature a Zen 2 CPU with 4 cores, and 8 threads that can boost to 3.5 GHz, and an RDNA 2 GPU with 8 compute units which features boost clock speed of 1.6 GHz for up to 1.6 TFLOPS of compute performance. That’s roughly on par with the GeForce GTX 1050 from 2016.
This may not sound very impressive, however, the screen resolution that Steam Deck is targeting is 1280×800, and with FSR now enabling much higher frame rates without compromising too much on the image quality, the Steam Deck may be able to run even AAA games comfortably. Since Steam Deck features a 7-inch screen, one will have a hard time telling the difference between native and FSR resolution. However, probably the most significant drawback of the upcoming Steam Deck is the fact that it features a 60 Hz screen. The good thing is that screen supports touchscreen functionalities, and Steam Deck’s APU will consume only 15 watts, which means its battery should last a fairly long time. According to some sources, the Steam Deck should be able to run Portal 2 for 4 hours on battery, and even longer if you limit FPS to 30. For 2D games you may even squeeze out up to 8 hours of battery life.
The Steam Deck will also feature 16GB of LPDDR5 RAM shared between CPU and GPU. The device will be sold in three different variants, each featuring different amount of system storage. The cheapest one will feature 64GB of eMMC storage, the middle one will come with 256GB of NVMe SSD storage, and the most expensive one will feature 512GB of high-speed Gen 3 NVMe storage.
Prices of Steam Deck seem quite steep, considering the specifications. For example, $400 for 64GB of storage seems quite excessive, as you’ll have to buy a chunky microSD card to store a decent amount of games. With games taking up as much space as they do today, having 64GB of internal storage seems quite pointless. The 256GB model at $530 also seems excessive, and the 512GB model runs into the same problem as most of these units. At this price you might as well buy yourself a decent laptop, rather than a portable gaming device.
In terms of design, the Steam Deck looks quite good, and it feels similar to the Nintendo Switch. The Steam Deck also appears to include a ton of buttons, including two shoulder buttons, and four back buttons. There are also two track pads for playing first-person shooters, or RTS-type games. However, it remains to be seen how well these will work. There are also built-in microphones, so you can use the Deck for multiplayer chat or for VoIP apps. The device is Wi-Fi only, but we assume that Steam Deck will offer option for pairing with a smartphone.
Fantastic thing about Steam Deck is that you can dock it, and use it as a regular PC. This is in fact, a PC, and you’ll be able to connect it to a regular USB dock that has Ethernet, HDMI, etc. You can also plug it into a monitor, and run games from Epic Store or anything that you’d run on a Linux-based PC. So when you consider all of that, giving $400 for a 64GB model does make some sense, especially if you look at Steam Deck as a replacement for your PC. This way Steam Deck can be used both as an entertainment and office PC, which is quite impressive.
Since Steam Deck uses Steam OS, which is free for use, we may even see more similar devices from other manufacturers in the future. The Steam Deck also comes with a bunch of other fancy features, such as gyroscope, haptic feedback, and USB Type-C and DisplayPort 1.4 which can output 8K image at 60 Hz, or even 4K at 120 Hz on an external monitor or TV. On Steam Deck website there is some footage showing Steam Deck running Doom Eternal pretty smoothly, however, it remains to be seen at what settings it was running at. There is also footage showing Steam Deck running Crusader Kings 3 in a docked mode on an external monitor, with Steam Deck being used as a Steam Chat device, while the game is being rendered on an external monitor. Judging by this footage, it seems that Steam Deck will offer a wide range of entertainment possibilities. For example, you may undock it, and then dock it in your living room to watch Netflix shows on your 4K TV.
Functioning as a device that is able to operate both as a portable gaming device, and a personal computer, the Steam Deck appears to be showing the future of modern PCs. Given how expensive gaming PCs have become these days, the Steam Deck proves to be a viable alternative which may find widespread adoption among mainstream users. The Steam Deck probably won’t disrupt the market – partly because of the high price, partly because it’s still too large to be considered an ultimate portable gaming device. Still with APUs becoming more powerful, and upscaling technologies aiding them to more easily render complex 3D graphics, it seems that the APU revolution is not too far off.