The Valve handheld console is a capable first-generation device.
Even though many of you won’t be able to get your hands on one until next year, the Steam Deck is shaping up to be the most exciting handheld console in years. Valve claims that it is aiming for an 800p 30Hz experience in modern AAA titles, but based on early developer kit reviews, you should be able to squeeze a lot more out of it depending on how much eye candy you’re willing to forego.
Valve started shipping the first Steam Deck developer kits earlier this month, and since then things have been relatively quiet. However, thanks to an enthusiastic Chinese developer (via Tom’s Hardware), we now have access to an early look at the hardware and software that makes the Steam Deck such an intriguing product. Granted, the commercial version will be more polished, so there will be differences when compared to the developer kit, especially in the performance department.
The Steam Deck is powered by a custom AMD APU that combines a Zen 2 processor with RDNA 2 graphics to create a low-power system-on-a-chip. The CPU has four cores and eight threads, with a base clock speed of 2.4 GHz that can be increased to 3.5 GHz if thermals allow it. The GPU has eight Compute Units (512 Stream Processors) that operate at 1 GHz and can be overclocked to 1.6 GHz when necessary. The APU is supported by 16 gigabytes of LPDDR5-5500 RAM, which should be sufficient for even the most demanding AAA games.
Valve has chosen a 7-inch LCD display with a 16:10 aspect ratio and a resolution of 1280 by 800 pixels for the new handheld. This screen is limited to 60 Hz operation but you can theoretically get a 4K 120 Hz or 8K 60 Hz image when docked.
The Chinese developer used the default SteamOS 3.0 setup to test four popular games: Cyberpunk 2077, Shadow of the Tomb Raider, Doom, and DOTA 2. As expected, Cyberpunk 2077 is the most difficult to run at a consistent frame rate, and using the High preset will only get you around 20 to 30 frames per second with some stuttering. To achieve 30+ frames per second, you’ll want to use a Medium preset or a combination of Low and Medium settings, but the developer hasn’t tested those scenarios.
The Steam Deck was able to deliver 30 frames per second on average in Shadow of the Tomb Raider when using the Highest preset, which is a respectable result. When set to High, the average frame rate drops to 36 frames per second, and a combination of Low, Medium, and High settings can produce slightly more than 60 frames per second.
Doom is a bit easier to run, so the Medium preset will give you an average frame rate of 60 frames per second. The Chinese developer also tried increasing visual fidelity in some areas, which resulted in a satisfactory 46 frames per second, but he didn’t specify what settings he changed for the second test run.
DOTA 2 is easily the least demanding of the bunch, running at an average frame rate of 47 frames per second on the highest preset. The developer says dropping all the way down to the low preset yields over 80 frames per second, so with a bit of tweaking you should be able to enjoy good visuals at 60 frames per second.
According to the developer, the Steam Deck gets a little toasty under load, with temperatures on the back of the device reaching over 42 degrees Celsius. With a maximum recorded temperature of 29 degrees, the grips remain relatively cool.
After about three hours of playing games on the Steam Deck, the 40 Wh battery dropped from a full charge to only 46 percent. However, this is unlikely to be indicative of what you’ll get from the commercial version, as Valve and AMD are currently working on a Linux driver that will significantly improve performance-per-watt.
Overall, these performance results are in line with reports from other developers. For instance, Mike Rose from No More Robots says the downhill cycling game Descenders runs at 50 to 60 frames per second using the maximum graphics settings. And Microsoft Xbox boss Phil Spencer said last month that he’d been testing the Steam Deck with xCloud and found the experience excellent for fans of Xbox Game Pass.
Steamdeck update: Shock to no-one; this is a devkit. Second shock to no-one; Valve was clear that this was NOT for VR. Third shock to no-one: It will take time to understand what the capabilities are and how to optimize. This is about a potential future, not the right now. pic.twitter.com/AYOzN93c3r
— Denny Unger @CloudheadGames (@DennyCloudhead) September 24, 2021
There are still many unknowns at this time, but Valve has confirmed that the Steam Deck can be used as a PC controller. The company also claims that the handheld console will work with VR headsets, though it wouldn’t go into any further detail other than to dismiss unrealistic expectations of PC-like VR experiences.
Having said that, the Steam Deck appears to be a competent first-generation device. If all goes well, the handheld console will be available in December for $399 for the base model with 64 gigabytes of eMMC storage. If you need more storage, Valve charges $529 for a Steam Deck with 256 gigabytes of NVMe storage and $649 to double that.