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| 12. September 2021

Steam Deck — What Kind of Performance Can We Expect?

Valve’s Steam Deck has been the talk of the town for quite a while now and, frankly, it’s easy to understand why. It is an exciting little gaming PC and will pack a surprising amount of power inside its relatively compact enclosure. Still, a lot of people aren’t fully aware of what kind of performance they’ll be able to get from this oh-so-peculiar device once it is fully released.

So, let’s crunch some numbers. It’s important to have a fully realistic picture of what’s possible and what isn’t as it’s easy to get carried away by all the hype. This is an APU-based machine, so don’t expect any miracles — it simply has too many inherent limitations. That said, we’ve seen a surprising number of similar devices over the years (mostly from relatively unknown Chinese manufacturers), so we already have a fairly solid idea of what we can expect. Valve’s Steam Deck will no doubt deliver on its initial promise, but it’s not exactly built for triple A gaming on the go — no matter what anyone says.

Additionally, APU gaming has been a thing for quite a while now. Those who’ve been gaming on a budget (or just didn’t want to spend a small fortune on a dedicated graphics card) already know what kind of performance they’ll be able to get from Valve’s first-ever portable gaming PC. Could it exceed our expectations? For sure, but not by a considerably wide margin.

But before we delve any deeper into the nitty-gritty, it’s worth explaining (in fairly superficial, rudimentary terms) what an APU really is.

Steam Deck Performance | What’s an APU?

An Accelerated Processing Unit (or APU, for short) is basically chip that contains both the processor and the integrated graphics card. For the longest while, their sole purpose was to allow users to use their computers without the need for a dedicated graphics card. Nothing more, nothing less.

Once the Ryzen 2400G was released, however, things started to change — and we’re really putting it mildly here. It was the first APU in history that had a sufficiently powerful integrated graphics card, one that would actually allow for a bit of light gaming on the side. AMD then continued to iterate on its Vega iGPU and had accomplished wonders in a surprisingly short amount of time.

With that being said, these Vega integrated graphics are starting to show their age — there hasn’t been any sort of breakthrough in years. They’re still great, but they do leave a bit to be desired for anything other than esports titles. Fortunately, AMD has been working on its successor for quite a while now: RDNA 2. There’s still a whole lot that we don’t know about these next-gen iGPUs, but if the rumor mill is to be believed, we could be getting a far greater performance boost than anyone had expected.

Steam Deck Performance | Pros and Cons

The biggest benefit of an APU is fairly clear: it’s both a CPU and GPU combined. That’s not only pragmatic but wholly budget-friendly, too! The biggest con, however, is inherently tied to the aforementioned strength: an APU can only draw so much power (most often between 15W and 45W), which means it has to play a very intricate balancing act in terms of providing one component with enough “juice” to run without “endangering” the other.

Another element of the equation (which is neither a pro nor a con) is RAM speed: the faster the RAM, the better your iGPU will perform. Both the CPU and GPU share the same memory pool, so having as much bandwidth is of the utmost importance. Fortunately, Valve’s Steam Deck will sport 16 GB of LPDDR5 (on-board) RAM running in quad channel at 5.5 Gbps. That, in short, is simply astounding and will no doubt make its APU the fastest (gaming-wise) we’ve seen yet.

Steam Deck Performance| Huge iGPU Gains

Linus Sebastian (of Linus Tech Tips fame) had the great pleasure of testing out Valve’s Steam Deck, and had found out that — on average — its iGPU performed nearly 50% better than the Vega ones we’ve all become so accustomed to. Moreover, the fact that it’ll support AMD’s FSR along with Variable Rate Shading (and dynamic resolution) means it’ll chew through nearly any title you might throw its way with relative ease — assuming you lower the settings and play on its native 1280×800 resolution, of course.

That’s the most important point here: it’s still an APU, and no amount of marketing fluff is ever going to change that. Is it powerful? Absolutely, but it’s not going to blow anyone’s mind — the technology simply isn’t there yet.

Still, a ±50% performance uplift (iGPU) is way more than we thought we’d get from Valve’s Steam Deck, so no one should be complaining. Moreover, that’s just the right amount of graphical prowess to make most (relatively demanding) titles actually playable. By “playable” we mean 30 FPS at Medium(ish) settings. That might not sound all too impressive to the average PCMR enthusiast, but for a device that is basically an ultrabook crammed inside a Switch-like enclosure, that’s more than respectable.

Temper Your Expectations

Valve’s Steam Deck will perform far better than anyone expects at this point in time but it’s still a portable little console and should be treated as such. In other words: temper your expectations and understand that it was never designed to compete with the latest generations of consoles or a spec’d out gaming PC.