Just over a couple of months since its initial launch, Valve's Steam Deck continues to evolve and its latest beta firmware features three key features that aim to significantly improve the gaming experience. In turn, those features are the ability to change the display's refresh rate from anything between 40 to 60Hz, optional static variable rate shading (VRS) plus improved acoustics. Addressing issues of loudness, battery life, gameplay fluidity and more, the overall takeaway is that Valve's makes the mobile experience better - but not every new feature is a hit.
Let's tackle the disappointment first and that's the addition of variable rate shading. At a basic level, VRS reduces the internal resolution of objects, but keeps their silhouettes crisp. Apply that variable rate of shading to elements on-screen where you're unlikely to be able to tell the difference (eg darker areas) and you have a simple way to improve performance - and/or improve battery life for a device like Steam Deck. In short, why spend the same amount of GPU power painting a pixel you'll barely notice versus those you will?
VRS can be achieved via software means, but the latest GPU generations support it at a hardware level and as Steam Deck is based on the latest RDNA 2 architecture, it comes into play on the handheld - but there's one key difference here. Because it's a system-level feature, it cannot vary rendering quality based on subjective weights: every render target is compromised. Based on my tests in Crysis Remastered, for example, it has an intense and obvious degradation in image quality and using it only improves performance by a couple of percentage points. It's a neat trick but very niche in its use case.
Far more interesting is the addition of arbitrary screen refresh rates between 40Hz and 60Hz. Previously, Steam Deck only allowed for a 60Hz refresh, essentially meaning that if you did not achieve a perfect 60fps, or if you did not use the 30fps frame-rate cap, consistent delivery of new frames was not possible, causing judder.
By adjusting the screen refresh rate, you no longer need to rely on the 30fps frame-rate limiting feature to improve battery life - you have other options. The 40Hz cap introduces a little strobing you may notice (which becomes less noticeable the higher you push the refresh rate) but it's so much smoother than running at 30fps even though notionally you are only getting '10fps more'. The reason why comes down to frame persistence: a 60fps game updates every 16.7ms, a 30fps game increases that persistence drastically to 33.3m. Do the maths and you'll find that 40 screen refreshes per second resolves to 25ms persistence per frame - it's at the exact midway point between 30fps and 60fps. And because the game is updating more quickly, input lag improves considerably too.
This is by far the most impressive new feature in the beta firmware. In previous tests with Crysis Remastered, I ultimately compromised by using the 30fps cap in order to get the visual experience I wanted - but there's enough headroom here to run fairly consistently at 40fps instead using the new feature, drastically improving fluidity and reducing input lag compared to running at 30fps within a 60Hz 'container'. Other examples? Rich Leadbetter points out that Remedy's Control can now run fairly consistently at 40fps at 'better than last-gen console' settings. Those games that struggle to hit 60fps can be smoothed out by lowering the refresh rate - 45Hz (22.2ms per frame) to 50Hz (20ms per frame) still look fluid and can allow you to hit your performance target consistently, or else deployed to save battery life.
Downsides? If you can't sustain your new frame-rate target, stutter is more pronounced. If game running at 30fps in a 60Hz container misses a frame, it only needs to wait an additional 16.7ms for the next screen refresh. But if you're gaming at 40fps with the 40Hz display option, a dropped frame costs you 25ms instead. The other downside is battery life: yes, if you're gaming at 60fps/60Hz and you use the option to slow down the update, you'll improve the amount of gaming time available. However, moving from 30fps/60Hz to 40fps/40Hz means more GPU load and less gaming time. In Crysis Remastered on my optimised settings, 150 minutes of play at 30fps drops to 115 minutes instead. All I can say here really is that those 115 minutes are certainly a lot more enjoyable - but obviously there is a price to pay if you're increasing performance against the capped 30fps option.
The last new key addition doesn't have anything to do with performance or features as such, it's about the noise level - which was somewhat egregious at launch and definitely improved now. Previously, the more load you put onto the system, the louder it would get, characterised by a high-pitched annoying noise. Not only that, it could kick in even on the relatively non-taxing front-end menu system, by tasks as simple as downloading a game.
The new Steam Deck beta firmware tries to rectify this by changing the conditions which cause the fan to ramp up to maximum overdrive - and while the improvement is not a total cure-all when the system is pushing the AMD Van Gogh processor hard, it's welcome nonetheless and much more bearable in scenarios where the system isn't fully stressed. Fan noise on downloads though? That's still there. In an ideal world, games should be able to download when the system is in sleep mode, of course.
So, are there negatives to reducing fan noise? If the system is not being properly cooled, we should expect higher temperatures and even lower performance under maximum load. Well, the Deck's processor definitely runs hotter - temperature increases of between four to 10 degrees Celcius were logged in my testing. However, the point is that we're still well within the thermal tolerances of the silicon and crucially, I noted no real reduction in performance: like-for-like test runs showed margin of error differences. Indeed, as we're looking at a beta firmware, there are actual improvements in the compatibility level: Death Stranding's intro sequence is half pre-rendered 60fps video, half real-time rendering. Previously, the Deck couldn't run that video portion at 60fps - and now it can.
Ultimately, the changes to the fan curve pay off in that the machine is quieter and the heat increase has no real impact on the device, in the short term at least. Heat is the enemy of silicon and long-term longevity of the chip is reduced the hotter the device gets. With that said, we're well within tolerances and the readings suggest a device that's still significantly cooler than the silicon in many gaming laptops.
So, three key new features have been added and VRS apart, they definitely improve the overall Steam Deck experience. The arbitrary display refresh support stands out as the biggest 'game-changer' but on a more general level, it's great to see Valve embracing innovative new features and technologies and rolling them out so quickly. Steam Deck is definitely a 'console-like' device, but at its heart, it is a PC - the platform that is the pioneer in gaming technology innovations. Valve clearly gets that, and we'll be looking forward to seeing where the firm goes next.
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