Just over a few months after its initial launch, Valve’s Steam Deck continues to evolve, and its latest beta firmware includes three key features that aim to dramatically improve the gaming experience. In turn, these features are the ability to change screen refresh rate between 40 and 60Hz, optional static variable rate (VRS) shading, and improved acoustics. Addressing issues with volume, battery life, game smoothness and more, the bottom line is that Valve is improving the mobile experience – but not all new features are a hit.
Let’s tackle the letdown first and that’s the addition of variable rate shading. At a basic level, VRS reduces the internal resolution of objects, but keeps their outlines sharp. Apply this variable rate of shading to elements on screen where you’re unlikely to be able to tell the difference (e.g. darker areas) and you have an easy 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 to paint a pixel you’ll barely notice versus ones you will?
VRS can be achieved through software means, but the latest generations of GPUs support it at the hardware level and since Steam Deck is based on the latest RDNA 2 architecture, it comes into play on the handheld – but there’s a key difference here. As this is a system-level feature, it cannot vary render quality based on subjective weightings: every render target is compromised. From my testing in Crysis Remastered, for example, it has an intense and obvious degradation in image quality, and using it only improves performance by a few percentage points. It’s a neat trick but very niche in its use case.
Much more interesting is the addition of arbitrary screen refresh rates between 40Hz and 60Hz. Previously, Steam Deck only allowed a 60Hz refresh, which basically meant that if you weren’t getting a perfect 60fps or weren’t using the 30fps frame rate cap, the delivery coherent new images was not possible, which caused jerks.
By adjusting the screen refresh rate, you no longer have to rely on the 30fps frame rate cap feature to improve battery life – you have other options. The 40Hz cap introduces a bit of strobe that you might notice (which becomes less noticeable as you increase the refresh rate), but it’s so much smoother than running at 30fps even though theoretically you wouldn’t. get that “10 more fps”. The reason for this is frame persistence: a 60fps game updates every 16.7ms, a 30fps game dramatically increases that persistence to 33.3m. Do the math and you’ll find that 40 screen refreshes per second resolves to a persistence of 25ms per frame – that’s exactly halfway between 30fps and 60fps. And because the game updates faster, input lag also improves dramatically.
This is by far the most impressive new feature in the beta firmware. In previous tests with Crysis Remastered, I eventually 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 40 frames per second instead of using the new feature, greatly improving fluidity and reducing input lag compared to running at 30 fps in a 60Hz “container”. Any other examples? Rich Leadbetter points out that Remedy’s Control can now run fairly consistently at 40 frames per second at “better than last-gen console” settings. 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 feels smooth and can allow you to achieve your performance goal consistently, or deployed well to save battery life.
Disadvantages? If you can’t maintain your new frame rate target, the stutter is more pronounced. If a game running at 30fps in a 60Hz container misses a frame, it just has to wait another 16.7ms for the next screen refresh. But if you’re playing at 40fps with the 40Hz display option, a dropped frame costs you 25ms instead. The other downside is battery life: yes, if you’re playing at 60fps/60Hz and using the option to slow down the update, you’ll improve the available game time. However, going from 30fps/60Hz to 40fps/40Hz means more GPU load and less gameplay time. In Crysis Remastered on my optimized settings, 150 minutes of gameplay at 30fps drops to 115 minutes instead. All I can say here is that 115 minutes is certainly much nicer – but there’s obviously a price to pay if you increase performance over the 30fps capped option.
The last key new addition has nothing to do with performance or functionality as such, it’s about noise level – which was somewhat blatant at launch and definitely improved now. Previously, the more load you put on the system, the louder it became, characterized by a high-pitched annoying noise. Not only that, it could even intervene on the relatively non-taxing front-end menu system, by tasks as simple as downloading a game.
The new Steam Deck beta firmware attempts to remedy this by altering the conditions that crank the fan up to maximum overdrive – and while the improvement isn’t a total panacea when the system pushes the AMD Van Gogh CPU full throttle is welcome nonetheless and much more bearable in scenarios where the system isn’t completely stressed. Fan noise on downloads? It’s still there. In an ideal world, games should be able to be downloaded when the system is in sleep mode, of course.
So, are there any downsides to reducing fan noise? If the system is not properly cooled, we should expect higher temperatures and even lower performance under maximum load. Well, the Deck’s CPU definitely runs hotter – temperature increases of between 4 and 10 degrees Celsius were recorded during my testing. However, the point is that we are still well within the thermal tolerances of silicon and, importantly, I have not noticed any real reduction in performance: identical tests have shown differences in the margin of error. Indeed, while we’re looking at a beta firmware, there are some real compatibility improvements: Death Stranding’s intro sequence is half pre-rendered 60fps video, half real-time rendering . Previously the Deck couldn’t run this video part at 60 fps – and now it can.
In the end, the changes to the ventilation curve pay off insofar as the machine is quieter and the increase in heat has no real impact on the device, at least in the short term. Heat is the enemy of silicon and the long term longevity of the chip is reduced as the device heats up. That said, we’re well within tolerances and the readings suggest a device that’s still significantly cooler than the silicon of many gaming laptops.
So, three new key features have been added and aside from VRS, they definitely improve the overall Steam Deck experience. Support for arbitrary display refresh 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’s a PC – the pioneering platform for gaming technology innovations. Valve clearly understands that, and we’re looking forward to seeing where the company will go next.