A little over a few months after its initial launch, Valve’s Steam Deck is evolving and its latest beta firmware offers three key features aimed at vastly improving the gaming experience. These features, in turn, are the ability to change the display’s refresh rate between 40 and 60 Hz, optional variable-rate static shading (VRS), and improved acoustics. In terms of volume, battery life, smooth gameplay and more, the general takeaway is that Valve is improving the mobile experience – 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 sharp. Apply this variable rate of shading to elements on the screen where you’re unlikely to see a difference (e.g. darker areas) and you have an easy way to improve performance – and/or battery life for a device like this Extend Steam Deck. In short, why would you spend the same amount of GPU power to paint a pixel you’ll barely notice vs those you’ll notice?
VRS can be achieved via software, but the latest GPU generations support it at the hardware level, and since Steam Deck is based on the latest RDNA 2 architecture, it’s handheld – but there’s a key difference here. Because this is a system-level feature, it cannot vary render quality based on subjective weights: every render target will be impacted. For example, based on my tests in Crysis Remastered, it has a strong 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.
Far more interesting is the addition of any refresh rate between 40Hz and 60Hz. Previously, Steam Deck only allowed 60Hz refresh, which essentially meant that unless you hit a perfect 60fps or weren’t using the 30fps framerate cap, you couldn’t consistently deliver new frames, which resulted in stuttering led.
By adjusting the screen refresh rate, you no longer have to rely on the 30 fps frame rate cap feature to save battery life – you have other options. The 40Hz cap results in a little strobe that you might notice (which becomes less noticeable the higher you bump the refresh rate), but it’s so much smoother than running at 30fps, despite noticing you’re only getting “10fps more.” ” obtain. The reason for this is due to frame persistence: a 60fps game updates every 16.7ms, a 30fps game drastically increases that persistence to 33.3m. If you do the math, you’ll find that 40 Screen updates per second result in 25 ms persistence per frame – it’s right in the middle between 30 fps and 60 fps. And since the game updates faster, the input lag also improves significantly.
This is by far the most impressive new feature in the beta firmware. In previous tests of Crysis Remastered, I ended up compromising by using the 30fps cap to get the visual experience I wanted – but there’s enough wiggle room here to run at 40fps fairly consistently rather than the new feature which dramatically improves fluidity and reduces input lag compared to running 30fps in a 60Hz container. Further examples? Rich Leadbetter points out that Remedy’s Control can now run fairly consistently at 40fps on settings that are “better than last-gen consoles”. 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 looks smooth and can allow you to Consistently meet your performance goal, or they can be used to save battery life.
Disadvantages? If you can’t maintain your new frame rate target, the stuttering will be more pronounced. If a game running at 30fps in a 60Hz container misses a frame, it only has to wait another 16.7ms for the next screen refresh. However, if you play at 40fps with the 40Hz display option, a dropped frame will cost you 25ms instead. The other downside is the battery life: yes, if you play at 60fps/60Hz and use the slow down update option, you will improve the available game time. However, going from 30 fps/60 Hz to 40 fps/40 Hz means more GPU load and less game time. In Crysis Remastered with my optimized settings, 150 minutes of gameplay at 30 fps is reduced to 115 minutes instead. All I can really say here is that those 115 minutes are certainly a lot more enjoyable – but obviously there’s a price to pay for boosting performance over the capped 30fps option.
The latest new key addition has nothing to do with performance or features per se, but with noise levels – which was a bit outrageous at launch and has definitely been improved now. Previously, the more load you put on the system, the louder the system would get, which would be characterized by high, annoying noise. Not only that, it could even hack into the relatively undemanding front-end menu system by doing tasks as simple as downloading a game.
Steam Deck’s new beta firmware attempts to correct this by changing the conditions that cause the fan to ramp up to maximum overdrive – and although the improvement isn’t a complete panacea if the system uses the AMD Van Gogh processor heavily loaded, it’s welcome nonetheless, and much more tolerable in scenarios where the system isn’t running at full capacity. Fan noise during downloads? That’s still there. Of course, in an ideal world, games should be able to be downloaded when the system is in sleep mode.
So, are there any downsides to reducing fan noise? If the system is not properly cooled, we have to reckon with higher temperatures and even lower performance under full load. Well, the deck’s processor is definitely getting hotter – temperature rises of between four and ten degrees Celsius have been logged in my testing. The point, though, is that we’re still well within silicon’s thermal tolerances, and crucially, I haven’t noticed any real degradation in performance: like-for-like test runs showed differences in margin of error. Since we’re looking at a beta firmware, there are indeed improvements in compatibility grades: Death Stranding’s intro sequence is half pre-rendered 60fps video, half real-time rendering. Previously the deck couldn’t run this portion of the video at 60fps – and now it can.
Ultimately, the changes to the fan curve pay off in that the machine becomes quieter and the heating has no real effect on the device, at least in the short term. Heat is silicon’s enemy, and the long-term lifespan of the chip is reduced as the device gets hotter. This is well within tolerance and readings suggest a machine that’s still significantly cooler than the silicon found in many gaming laptops.
So, three major new features have been added, and apart from VRS, they definitely improve the overall Steam deck experience. Support for any display updates stands out as the biggest “game changer,” but on a more general level, it’s great to see Valve picking up innovative new features and technologies and rolling them out so quickly. Steam Deck is definitely a “console-like” device, but at its core it’s a PC – the platform that’s pioneered gaming technology innovations. Valve clearly understands that, and we look forward to seeing where the company goes next.