With Valve's Steam Deck now officially unveiled, including all the major core specifications, it's surprising just how much there is that we still don

Steam Deck Hardware Analysis: Expect Potent 720p Gaming

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2021-07-21 19:00:02

With Valve's Steam Deck now officially unveiled, including all the major core specifications, it's surprising just how much there is that we still don't know. It seems like a well designed little handheld, and compared to the Nintendo Switch hardware, it's easy to get carried away with just how much faster and more potent the Steam Deck should be. The problem is that where the Switch runs games custom designed for the hardware, the Steam Deck has a massive backlog of PC games that definitely weren't built with a handheld device in mind. As such, the hardware might not feel nearly as fast as we'd like. Or at least, that was our initial concern, but after poking around at some lesser GPUs and APUs, we're confident that the Steam Deck will be able to handle just about any game at its native 1280x800 resolution. We've put together some thoughts and estimates on the Steam Deck hardware to discuss where it might land in terms of performance and experience. We won't know for certain until the actual hardware comes out, but that's still months away and as we've already reported, there are scalpers trying to sell their reserved units for as much as $5,000. That's too much, full stop. Even if Valve's first generation handheld ends up a runaway success, which is far from certain, the hardware simply isn't worth anywhere near that much. Theoretical performance looks iffy at best when compared to modern PC hardware, but that's an unfair comparison, so let's dig a little deeper. 

The Steam Deck has a lot of interesting stuff going on in the hardware and software departments. Fundamentally, it's PC-type hardware, just with a custom handheld form factor and a few bits and pieces that don't currently have a direct PC equivalent. We could easily put together a PC that should deliver similar or better performance than the Steam Deck, albeit without the handheld and mobility aspects. Take the CPU, for example, a 4-core, 8-thread Zen 2 design running at 2.4–3.5GHz. The closest direct comparison to that right now is the near-mythical Ryzen 3 3300X, a potent little chip that was so good and so cheap that AMD didn't want to make enough of them, so it doesn't show up in our list of the best CPUs. That CPU should easily outperform the Steam Deck CPU, given the significantly higher 65W TDP, but it's not going into handheld devices. While the CPU might feel like a bit of a throwback to the days of 4-core processors ruling the market (thank you, AMD, for helping to put an end to that), it's plenty potent for the target market. There are a few close competitors right now, with somewhat similar CPUs. The Aya Neo uses a 6-core, 6-thread Ryzen 5 4500U 15W APU. The GPD Win3 uses an i7-1165G7 or i5-1135G7, both of which are 4-core, 8-thread Intel chips, and the OneXPlayer also uses the i7-1165G7. A Zen 2 CPU should be at least comparable to those options. Why not Zen 3, though? That was erroneously listed in the initial specs reveal, and Zen 3 generally has better throughput than Zen 2. Except, a lot of that stems from the reworked CCX (core complex) and L3 cache layout, which previously added extra latency on communication between different cores. Zen 3 has an 8-core native CCX, while Zen 2 had a dual 4-core CCX topology. For a native 4-core monolithic design with integrated graphics, then, Zen 3 might not matter all that much for performance. There's also an interesting aside from the AMD perspective, showing the flexibility of AMD's current designs. Here we have a new product using a Zen 2 CPU design from 2019, coupled with AMD's latest RDNA2 GPU architecture (more on that in a moment), and paired with an LPDDR5 memory interface. It's not entirely clear if this is being made on TSMC N7 (probably), but we basically have three generations of AMD IP in use: last generation CPU, current gen GPU, and future gen memory controller, all in a highly integrated SoC. That's pretty awesome from a technology perspective.

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