Teardown: Valve Steam Deck
Image credit: Steamdeck
The gaming specialist has translated its open-hardware platform into a console.
The Steam Deck is not the first attempt at a handheld for PC gaming, but it does come with a pedigree and a market-friendly price.
Since 1996, Valve has evolved from game developer (the Half-Life franchise) into being a major online market for PC games, into offering an open-hardware platform (Steam Engine) and now, fully into the console market after a flirtation with peripherals.
The company has quite the fanbase, and the bad news is that if you have not already reserved a Steam Deck, you will have to wait until “after Q3 2022” for its delivery. Like most console vendors, the company has fallen prey to semiconductor shortages.
Enthusiasm for the Steam Deck does not only reflect Valve’s reputation and the promise of PC gamers being able to migrate much (but not all) of their libraries from desktops and laptops. Priced mainly according to storage at £349 (64GB), £459 (256GB) and £569 (512GB), the Steam Deck is a lot cheaper than comparable handhelds. These hover around £1,000.
At the same time, thanks to a collaboration with x86 specialist AMD, the Steam Deck is a powerful product for its space. Its custom Aerith ‘accelerated processing unit’ combines a four-core, eight-thread Zen 2 CPU (clocked at 2.4-3.5GHz) and an eight-compute unit RDNA 2 GPU (1.0-1.6GHz) for claimed 1.6Tflops performance. The IPS touchscreen LCD is a seven-inch diagonal in a 1,280x800px, 16:10 aspect ratio with 400nits brightness and a maximum 60Hz refresh rate.
The Steam Deck can be connected to an external display, keyboard and mouse to become a portable PC (it runs the Steam OS 3.0 based on the Arch Linux distribution, but an alternative load of Windows 10 is supported). But although 4k and 8k output is claimed, there is a reduction in visual quality on larger screens for more graphics-intensive gameplay.
With its focus on portable gaming, Valve has incorporated features such as quick resume, which allows players to pick up where they left off without reloading software from scratch. There are more than 20 programmable controls on the front, back and top of the console, as well as options to constrain features such as clock speed and screen refresh rate and thus extend battery life.
However, battery life is, according to reviewers, one of the main weaknesses. The x86 architecture has never been very portable-friendly for power consumption. While Valve’s official rating for the 40Wh dual-cell unit in the Steam Deck is 2-8 hours of gameplay, some users claim that more demanding titles can drain the battery in around 90 minutes.
Then, while the 64GB option might be appealing to those on a budget, several popular titles already exceed that size. All three storage configurations include a memory card expansion slot but the read from those tends to be slower than for on-board memory, with implications for performance. Better to go for the 256GB and 512GB options then.
Finally, among the main criticisms, while Valve’s original intention was that all PC games should be capable of being brought across, that is not yet possible. The company has developed a compatibility layer, Proton, for Windows-based titles but it does not always work, and yet further work on Windows compatibility has come up against security and rights management issues around Microsoft’s Trusted Platform Module technology (with some game developers wary of making ‘concessions’ for Steam Deck because of the risk of them creating wider vulnerabilities).
As a result, Valve is reviewing major archive and new titles to rank them across four Steam Deck-compatibility classes: Verified (a ‘great experience’), Playable (some ‘tweaking’ required), Unsupported (will not run), Unknown (still in review).
One issue is closer to being resolved. Review units were sent out while Valve was still making major in-the-field upgrades and bug fixes. Many have since been addressed, though not all.
The reality, though, is that PC gamers have historically been willing to accept more quirks than those who mostly follow dedicated platforms – and x86 is, well, x86. “After Q3 2022” is not just about chip shortages. Most users lucky enough to have received a Steam Deck since shipping began in February genuinely like the console. It extends their gaming experience at the right price.
One area where Valve has earned praise is in hardware design, particularly ease of maintenance. It has been transparent about layout, working with repair engineers as the design evolved. Teardown specialist iFixit rates the finished Steam Deck as “even more repairable and upgradable than many laptops” at a score of 7 out of 10.
Within the console, most elements are clearly labelled and held in place using standard screws. The iFixit team particularly liked how breakout boards take a lot of the component and functional weight off the motherboard, the ease with which on-board memory can be upgraded, and the simple removal and replacement of the two thumbsticks without soldering.
Thumbsticks are a gamer bugbear because of ‘drift’. Dust and debris can accumulate over time around the sensors below them leading to interference whereby objects and characters move even when there is no thumb on the controller.
One criticism that iFixit did have concerned, again, the battery. It is easy to spot but the removal process shown in an iFixit video is unnecessarily awkward (you can see for yourself on the company’s YouTube channel). Given that battery replacement is likely to be an issue for heavier Steam Deck users comparatively quickly, that is a “missed opportunity” though not a deal-breaker.
Meanwhile, iFixit has partnered with Valve to offer replacement parts for the console.
Valve deserves further credit for leveraging and reusing its work on the earlier Steam Engine platform. It offered that to other manufacturers but got little traction, so it has taken what it learned and used it to enter the hardware market itself. The opportunity for reuse is likely to be one of the reasons why the company can offer a handheld PC gamer at half the price of rivals.
As wider demands around right-to-repair continue to grow, Valve can consider itself a pioneer in that realm, too.
Valve Steam Deck
1. Rear cover
3. Trackpad boards (2x)
6. Thumbpad and button
7. Front cover
8. Storage module
9. Heat pipe
11. Button input boards (2x)
14. Thumbpad and button
16-19. Memory (DRAM) Micron
20. SoC AMD/Valve
21. USB-C battery charger Maxim Integrated Circuits
22. Memory (NOR flash) Winbond
23. Display Port to MIPI receiver Analogix
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