Valve announces the Steam Deck

The handheld PC market has been evolving and evolving, the GPD Win family has been getting better and better and we now have newcomers like the Aya Neo and even Alienware entering the fray. Now valve want a slice of the pie, and they seem to be making a fundamentally solid attempt at it. It should also have the best build quality by miles.

We will only know once the Steam Deck is out but on paper here’s a comparison with the Aya Neo, which I have chosen as it is also an AMD APU based device.

Let’s talk PO-PO-POWERRRRRRR

The Specs

Steam Deck

Custom AMD APU
CPU: Zen 2 4c/8t, 2.4-3.5GHz (up to 448 GFlops FP32)
GPU: 8 RDNA 2 CUs, 1.0-1.6GHz (up to 1.6 TFlops FP32)
RAM: 16 GB LPDDR5 RAM (5500 MT/s). Just to clarify MT/s is the same as MHz
Screen: Optically bonded LCD for enhanced readability
OS: SteamOS 3.0 (Arch-based)

Aya Neo

CPU: Ryzen 4500U 6 Cores
GPU: AMD Radeon Vega 6 @ 1.5 GHz
RAM: 16GB LPDDR4 4266 MHz
Screen: H-IPS pane
OS: Windows 10

Now before I get into some details that may well be missed to the average eye, from what I have seen the Aya Neo can run things like Horizon Zero Dawn on low at 800p at around 20-35fps on low, with the CPU being the bottleneck. I have also seen RDR2 run at around 37fps average at 720p (90% of native res) on low with 80% or so CPU usage at 15 watt TDP. Just to give you a ballpark idea of performance. I also saw it run DOOM Eternal on high at 720p at a near locked 60.

Now it is time to dissect the specs and here’s where things get interesting, without having one in hand however, it can not be said for sure how good it will be, on paper though it is a BEAST. To start with, the CPU on the Steam deck has 2 less cores than the Aya Neo, which seems like a red flag. However, the thing to remember here is when I was watching the RDR 2 Aya footage the CPU was running at 1.4GHz and GPU at 1.2-1.58GHz. Whereas the steam deck CPU is running at 2.4-3.5GHz, it also does have 2 more threads due to SMT but I think in the grand scheme that will not make much of a difference as 2 more cores is significantly better.

However, the GHz speed is the Key differentiator here, in the worst case scenario the CPU is just slightly under 1.75x the clock speed, at best case it is 2.5x the clock speed, now it is true that you can use custom profiles on the Aya to ramp up the CPU speed, however while it can cope with cooling, it will be putting out more heat and more battery drain than what the Aya was designed to produce and use. Now some games will benefit from cores more than speed, but other games will be more about CPU speed than cores, however even in a core advantage scenario having 1.75x the clock speed in the worst-case scenario should help significantly reduce that disadvantage, if not eliminating it entirely depending on multiple factors.

On the GPU side, the Steam Deck has a HUGE ADVANTAGE, and I am curious if the CPU might bottleneck it, but I would imagine that valve have designed this the best they can. The GPU uses RDNA 2 Architecture with 8 CUs running at 1.0GHz to 1.6GHz, there is no way to really compare the GPUs it is different architecture all together, what we do know though is the top end is slightly faster and RDNA 2 is vastly superior to Vega 6 in every single way. I believe the Vega 6 in the aya uses the old GCN units vs RDNA 2 and it’s CUs of the Steam Deck, RDNA 2 is rated to be up to 65% more performance per watt over the old RDNA architecture, which was 50% more performance per watt over GCN in traditional GPUs. So, in theory we could be seeing near DOUBLE the GPU performance in the steam deck, factor in the fact the CPU is 1.75x faster to 2.5x, that is a whole lot more power than the Aya could ever dream of.

Then we have the memory which is almost 30% faster, now RAM speed is something often overlooked in PCs, it is true the higher you go the smaller the gains get, you hit a wall where the returns are not worth the cost. However faster RAM can improve minimum FPS by 10% or so depending on the game. However, the other thing to remember here is this is an APU, meaning the GPU and CPU is using the same RAM pool effectively fighting for bandwidth, so an extra 30% here could end up being highly significant. This is likely one of the reasons the CPU is clocked higher, there is much more bandwidth to go around in the Steam Deck which on its own, even if specs were 1:1 with the Aya would make it perform better alone.

In addition to all this the other thing to remember is OS, the steam deck is running steam OS which will have a lot less resource overhead than windows, plus has been specifically designed to fully utilize the Steam Deck as effective as possible, remarkably similar to consoles and one of the reasons why they can hit above their spec in a 1:1 comparison with PC.

So, to summarise the Steam Deck, has a significantly faster CPU, GPU and RAM, in addition to much less overhead due to it’s OS meaning even more performance gains. The Steam Deck is by miles the strongest handheld PC, it is the Terry Crews of Handheld PCs. Then there is the emulation game, given the Aya Neo can 4K Gamecube games and anything before the Gamecube, the Steam Deck is going to be a beast. Then you factor in the Aya Neo tends to fall slightly short on Switch emulation, the extra GPU and CPU power here could see Switch games running at native res and running at native if not better performance. Add to that your entire steam library and cloud saves… This is an interesting proposition indeed

Display

The one thing the steam deck could lose out on here is display, it seems to use a standard LCD, and might well be TFT as the panel tech is not stated. This will mean that colours will be far less accurate than the Aya Neo, however the latency could be lower due to that meaning a cleaner image in motion. I would like to know more about its screen, it is optically bounded which should improve visibility in outside scenarios, and the top end model has anti-glare etched glass.  It does also have an ambient light sensor. So, the weak point compared to the Aya here could well be the display, but I imagine that is going to be a pros and con trade-off.

Ergonomics/design and Control

Now the controls look super awkward, but the video below provided by IGN states it is much more comfortable than it looks. I can believe that valve would have tested this, and the very curved nature of the Steam Deck should make it feel extremely comfortable. It has some genuinely nice input options. It weighs 669 grams which may feel quite heavy in the hands, as it is just over twice the weight of the switch, but it only ways 19 grams more than the aya neo, so it is an expected weight. It’s size however is quite large at 298mm x 117mm x 49mm, the Nintendo Switch is 239mm x 102mm x 28.7 mm, the AYA is 255mm x 106mm x 20mm.

Gamepad controls: A B X Y buttons, D-pad, L & R analog triggers, L & R bumpers, View & Menu buttons, 4 x assignable grip buttons
Thumbsticks: 2 x full-size analog sticks with capacitive touch
Haptics: HD haptics
Trackpads: 2 x 32.5mm square trackpads with haptic feedback, 55% better latency compared to Steam Controller with Pressure-sensitivity for configurable click strength
Gyro: 6-Axis IMU
microSD: UHS-I supports SD, SDXC and SDHC
External connectivity: controllers & displays USB-C with DisplayPort 1.4 Alt-mode support; up to 8K @60Hz or 4K @120Hz, USB 3.2 Gen 2

I particularly like the assignable grip buttons.  I also love how it looks visually and it reminds me heavily of the Sega Game Gear. A dock is being made for it to be sold at a yet to be announced date, but it has been stated any USB-C dock will work.

The rest of the specs are in the pictures below, the DSP will be interesting to listen to, as the quality of the index HMD audio is absolutely fantastic, so I am very eager to hear what the onboard audio sounds like on my high-end earphones, headphones and the Steam Deck’s speakers. If I had to nitpick, the lack of WIFI 6 while expected, is disappointing.

Battery

The battery is rated at 2-8 hours, but valve have said portal 2 at 60fps will last about 4 hours. While this may seem underwhelming to some, this is what I would expect of a device of this size with so much power crammed into it to run at. Also, when you think of games like BOTW lasting about 3 hours on switch at 30fps, and the switch battery in general, it is quite good.

Pricing

This is where I am blown away, the Aya Neo will RRP at around £600 GBP without a case, whereas all steam decks come with a case. Meanwhile the Steam Deck Premium model with the premium anti-glare etched class among with some digital extras and is priced at £569 in the UK, making it cheaper while being significantly stronger and it comes with a case. The 64GB eMMC model is £349, and the 256GB NVME SSD version is £459. The eMMC version should be avoided in my opinion just because eMMC memory is garbage, will likely not last as long the NVMEs and is significantly slower. Although an SD card is an option to try and overcome the lack of storage, but is still far from ideal in my opinion, especially given the extra cost. The SD card will be slower than the eMMC and use more power, so the 256GB and higher seem like the only logical models.

Conclusion

So, is the steam deck any good? Obviously, I need to try one out, but on paper it is miles ahead of any handheld PC and the Switch. It is completely unmatched, and I can see it running new fairly demanding games on low-medium at a locked 30 or 60 depending on the game no problem, maybe more, time will tell. Obviously, this is a niche but growing market, I personally do not need one but want one, as it is a beast of a portable previous gen console emulation machine and a incredibly strong handheld PC, with steam games on the go and switch emulation performance looking bright on paper, this may well be the handheld device I and many others have been waiting for.

If you already have a GPD device or an Aya this is a significant upgrade and a no brainer. Valve have come out of nowhere and set an incredibly high standard to match. The Reservations start tomorrow the 16th of July at 10am PDT, naturally witht he chip shortage demand will outstrip supply so if you want a Steam Deck you will have to get in early. Just like with the Valve Index.

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