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Steam Deck Developers Talk Shipping, Zen 2, SD Cards and More

Steam Deck
(Image credit: Valve)

While we worked on our Steam Deck review, we found ourselves with a lot of questions about the Steam Deck. We wanted to know more about when people can realistically expect their pre-orders, how the Valve team chose its hardware, and to learn more about some of the tricks the company used to get the Steam Deck to run well.

Valve gave Tom's Hardware time with developer Pierre-Loup Griffais and hardware engineer Yazan Aldehayyat to answer our questions, tell us what to expect, talk tech and assure us that, yes, a dock for the Steam Deck is still being worked on.

In our discussion, we talked about when people who put down deposits can expect to get a Steam Deck, how and why Valve went with a custom Zen 2 APU, the tricks to make gaming off of an SD card work and how the company came up with a two to eight hour battery life estimate.

Here are the biggest takeaways from our time with the Steam Deck developers. 

Hoping to Fulfill Reservations This Year, But Supply Chain is Uncertain

The first thing I needed to know is when people will actually get the Steam Decks that they may have plunked down deposits for as early as July last year Valve has already stated that the first Decks will ship out beginning Feb. 28, but what about everyone staring down the barrel of a "Q2 2022" release date?.

Right now, we're hoping that the current backlog of reservations can all be fulfilled this year," said Pierre-Loup Griffais, an engineer and developer at Valve. "But you know, because the supply chains and everything are still pretty uncertain, we don't have any more granular details than that." He acknowledged the original delay to February, suggesting that everyone will still see a two-month bump.

Yazan Aldehayyat, a hardware engineer at Valve, suggested more details might come once they can start getting them into customer hands.

"I guess that once we start shipping, I think we'll have more details than we do now. And hopefully, we can provide more clarity," he said. "But at this time, it's very difficult to really predict." 

Zen 2 and RDNA 2 For Power Efficiency, with 'Knobs' to Customize 

Valve is using a custom AMD APU, creatively dubbed "0405" but also known as "Aerith." It's a Zen 2 "Van Gogh" processor with four cores, eight threads, a 2.4-GHz base clock and a 3.5-GHz boost clock. It also includes eight of AMD's RDNA 2 compute units, going from 1.0 to 1.6 GHz.

But some time has passed since the Steam Deck's announcement and AMD's Zen 3+ processors are almost here. (Zen 4 is expected to come to the desktop later this year.) Should people expect the Steam Deck to keep up with these specs? Griffais and Aldehayyat explained how the specs were chosen and which decisions were made in an attempt to keep the Steam Deck long-lasting.

"I think right now, you don't really have any other mobile or handheld platforms with RDNA2  and that's kind of what we've been prioritizing," Griffais said. "You know, we were looking at Zen 3 was, you know, around the corner, when we were discussing the custom design with AMD. And getting into the, you know, the deep details of that, both between the timelines and the fact that Zen 3 wasn't quite ready for mobile, and also maybe a little bit bigger than what we needed in terms of area and power efficiency. We thought that was an appropriate trade off."

Griffais added that it will take time to see how games coded for the latest consoles and PCs simultaneously will work on the Steam Deck, but Valve hasn't seen "workloads that don't… fit into our power envelope for these components."

For Aldehayyat, the 16GB of RAM is what was necessary for keeping the Steam Deck viable long-term.

"I mean, our choice for 16 gigabyte memory was purely influenced by the fact that we expected future games to need 16 gigabytes, or more than 8 gigabytes," he said." And obviously, that's a very hard limit. So at least from that perspective, we think, we're pretty well positioned in that regard."

Granted, PC gaming has always meant games run across wide swaths of hardware, including lower-end systems. Tweaking is in its DNA.

"I think we see that PC gaming is very scalable, and there's a lot of knobs and tweaks that people can do to make the games you know, pick the right balance between fidelity and power… and all that kind of stuff," Aldehayyat said. "So, you know, we hope that these knobs will even get more advanced in the future and in the future games are still going to be playable."

Steam Deck Compatibility Testing Is Ongoing

When I first turned on the Steam Deck, I found that the vast majority of my Steam library had not yet been tested for compatibility. Valve is going through the Steam catalog and ranking games as verified (ready to play with no changes); playable (works, but may require some user changes or have small issues); unsupported (doesn't work due to anti-cheat, VR or other issues); or unknown (is yet to be tested.) You can see where your library stands here.

"I think that we've been ramping up testing quite a bit," Griffais said. "And the the volume at which you'll see games become classified is definitely going to increase over time, more so even, you know, before launch, but also after launch."

Griffais said that Valve sees the verified program "as a nice add-on" that Steam hasn't had before. It never specifically said if a game will work with your PC.

"But it doesn't mean that, you know, the things that are not verified don't run well," he added. "In fact, a lot of the games that we run on a daily basis…that we see, you know, people playing and enjoying are still in the unknown category. We're working as fast to, you know, to fill that gap. But we think there's tons of content there that, you know, is a great experience on Deck that we haven't necessarily gone through the process yet."

He admits it may be a strange thing to see for those who are first getting into PC gaming with the Steam Deck, and added other sources of information one might check before your favorite games get a rating.

For one, Griffais suggested, you might try to see if other Linux users are having a good experience, and how it is rated on Proton. 

The rating process itself is still being refined, he said. Valve is working with third-party testing houses that Valve has worked with before for Steam content verification. They play the games and check them for various criteria.

"The reason that you're seeing a lot of them come in [at once]  is that sometimes we, well, the process involves releasing the results in batches, even if we already had them for a while." Griffais said. "So that's why you're seeing, you know, bursts of new games coming out at the same time there"

How Valve Can Make Games Work

Last year, Steam Deck developer Lawrence Yang told PC Gamer that games should just work come launch.

"Something that we said earlier on is that we really want the entire library to work," Yang told the publication. "And if it doesn't work we see that as a bug and we want to fix it."

But with the exception of the game that Valve makes itself, what can Valve do on its end?

"There's a lot that we can do," Griffais said. "In fact, most of the things that are causing games to not run well now are usually things that we have to fix in Proton or in the graphics driver, or in the SteamOS itself, to get the game to the same point where, you know, it would run on a normal Windows PC."

During my review period, Valve pushed out a new version of Proton, which had better compatibility with Easy Anti-Cheat, which should make more multiplayer games work on Deck.

Sometimes, if a game doesn't work, they can simply patch Proton to support a Windows API to make it work.

"A lot of the time you know, a game that doesn't run in Proton just means that it's using a Windows API that we don't yet have implemented in Proton," Griffais said. "So we have a big team of engineers there that is, you know, always filling in the gaps and making it so that more games run on a daily basis. We also have a graphics driver team that is implementing the Vulkan and OpenGL drivers, in addition to the translation layers that are using Vulkan to implement Direct X 11 and 12 support. A lot of the time, you'll see a brand new game come out, it's using a new API in DX 12, that we haven't seen before. We implement support for that, and then the game starts working in Proton.

"Over time, we hope that this becomes more front loaded, he added. "So we're doing more of that work before the game releases. And we've been working with more partners to get access to games ahead of release so that by the time the game's on Steam, it's also a great experience on Steam Deck."

Those changes, at least, could get a game to "playable" status. Getting it to "verified" is on the game's developer. That includes changes like making text more legible, making sure the control scheme works well on the Deck and other criteria. That extra work, he said, wouldn't be Steam Deck-exclusive, and could open up a game to a larger variety of gaming PCs with lower-end specifications or to players who use controllers or touch screens.

Where Is the Steam Deck Dock?

When the Steam Deck was first announced, Valve also said there would be a dock for the handheld. Since then, there hasn't been any news: no price, no final design, no release date. What happened to it?

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Steam Deck

(Image credit: Valve)
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Steam Deck

(Image credit: Valve)

"I mean, we're still working on it," Aldehayyat said. "We actually have several prototypes. I mean, actually hundreds of prototypes in house. And we're going through the traditional development cycle. I mean, there's a lot of compatibility testing. There's a lot of certification, you know, FCC certification, all that kind of stuff. I mean, obviously, we have been sort of primarily putting resources into getting the Steam Deck out of the door."

Soon after the interview, Valve said in a blog post that " It won't be happening as early as we wanted, but we're excited to talk more about it soon and are planning to make them available in late spring."

For those who want a kickstand, 3D printing may be a way to turn in the meantime. Valve released CAD files of the Steam Deck's externals earlier this month, and Griffais said that Valve has since seen ideas for stands alongside other projects designed around the handheld.

SteamOS Coming to Desktop, Could be Licensed

A lot of work has gone into making a version of SteamOS fit on a controller-first system with a 7-inch screen. But SteamOS will come to the desktop, too.

"The work that we've been doing right now has been focused on the Deck," Griffais said. "But I expect that you know, the first the first Deck that hits users' hands will see people tinkering with the software image trying to get it running and other devices, their PCs." 

He said that Valve is working on SteamOS 3.0 as a full desktop operating system, including an installer, but there isn't a timeframe to announce for that.  "But just like all the SteamOS bits will be available, you know, free of charge for people that want to make comparable devices,'' he said. "They will also be available for . . . people that want to take it for a spin as their daily driver for desktop PC."

And if another company wants to make its own handheld like the Steam Deck, Griffais said it will be "available free of charge."

"All the…underlying technologies that power the experience there, be it SteamOS itself, the system compositor, the graphics driver we've been working on, Proton, all these things are open source and available, you know. for people to use and the OS itself as a whole package with the Steam client will be available under a free license for OEMs working on similar products as well."

That would, of course, limit those companies to games available on Steam.

Valve is Promising Continued Support

"I'm just gonna put it plainly," I told Griffais and Aldehattay. "Valve doesn't have the best reputation for supporting hardware long-term."

You can't buy a Steam controller anymore; those went on a firesale. Steam Link is now a software experience. Steam Machines (remember those?) fizzled out.

But Griffais assured me that Valve is "very excited" to support the Steam Deck for "a long time."

"In terms of what we've done in the past, I think you've seen a ton of continued support for things like the controller, the software that powers it, Steam Input, has been receiving many different updates over the years, and we've kept iterating on it." Griffais said. "You know, even I think, this year, I've been talking to engineers that we're still working on bugs affecting the  Steam Link experience, Steam Input.

"So all these things, you know, are to us, we see them as still being a part of our ecosystem, it's just that they've kind of morphed into different things. Like a lot of the Steam Controller hardware, you see represented there and the input surface of the Steam Deck, there's tons of learnings there, a lot of continuity. Steam Link, you know, turned into a wide ecosystem of Remote Play apps for various different devices. And for Steam Deck itself, I think it's something that we see a lot of customers, you know, being very excited about. And whenever there's, you know, excitement and users, you're going to be looking at continued support from us. hardware or software."

The Tricks Behind Gaming Off of an SD Card

I was pleasantly surprised by performance while gaming off of an SD card on the Steam Deck. Sure, there were some loading times that seemed longer, but nothing that interrupted gameplay.

"SD cards have a bad reputation, you know, for good reasons," Aldehayyat said. "But read speeds actually tend to be pretty good. They really suffer when it comes to write speeds. And even worse, whenever you do try to do reads and writes at the same time, they really do suffer. So for things like game load times, where it's primarily a read operation, as long as you sort of try to not do any writes at the same time, you actually tend to get good performance."

But Aldehayyat also suggested that most games don't take advantage of the full performance from an SSD. There are some games, he said, that will load faster, but a lot of them should be similar.

"When it comes to write speeds, though, that's when you will notice a difference," he said. " Like if you're downloading a game, or trying to transfer a game from the internal storage to the SD card, you know, the very bottom of the class in terms of SD cards, you'll see a difference there. But it's still going to be pretty comparable, the performance is going to be good."

There are no specific optimizations for caching, Griffais and Aldehayyat explained. But the big trick, they suggested, was to avoid performing reads and writes to the SD card simultaneously. When you launch a game, the Steam Deck will pause any downloads to the storage that game is housed on, whether it's the SSD or the SD card, Griffais explained.

That's not to say caching doesn't happen.

"Even though we don't do any active caching on our side, there still is caching as part of the SSD controller or the host itself. A;dehayyat said. "So if you launch the same game over and over again, you will see it launch faster or a little bit faster every once in a while," though you may lose that when you reboot your device.

KDE Plasma and Windows 11

By Valve's estimations, the majority of players will probably never leave SteamOS. But you can, and it's easy to access the KDE Plasma desktop from the power menu.

"[We] recognize that there's a lot of other use cases that PC brings to the table that people might want to use [other than gaming] and it's easier to get third party apps, it's easier to get other stuff installed," Griffais said. He also highlighted the preinstalled web browser and that apps like music players can be launched through the SteamOS UI.

Griffais suggested there are features coming to the desktop that have been on the back burner as the Steam Deck teams worked primarily on getting the mobile experience out of the door They include touch controls, gamepad support (which should enable cloud streaming) and increasing the number of apps made easily available. (Valve ships the Steam Deck with Plasma Discover, which lets you install a combination of popular and obscure software without any knowledge of the command line or Linux's more expert-level features.)

One aspect we weren't able to test by launch was Windows 11. Tom's Hardware held out because some key drivers weren't finalized. There were, he said, some questions about the sound drivers at launch.

At the moment, if you install Windows 11, you'll need to reimage the Steam Deck with SteamOS if you want to revert it (unless you install Windows 11 on an SD card or launch it from a flash drive in the USB Type-C port.

Griffasis said that while there's not an installer that sets up dual boot for Windows 11 and SteamOS, "it's something that we're working on," and that there will be documentation "at some point… sometime after launch."

(Image credit: Valve)

About Those Battery Life Estimates…

Valve estimates that the Steam Deck will last two to eight hours on a charge. It's a wide range, which seems almost impossible to come up with, given the vast number of games on Steam. In my experience, battery life fell somewhere in the middle of that range, though it did vary depending on how graphics-intensive a given game is.

So how did Valve come up with that range?

To start, Aldehayyat said, there needed to be some sort of baseline for performance.

"So for example, we kind of put the baseline of 30 [frames per second] for the games we test to kind of figure out to kind of just understand," Aldehayyat said.  "So when we said two to eight hours, our expectation is that that would be under a 30 fps limit. But yeah, I mean, there was really no, no great answer, besides just testing a bunch of games and seeing."

But Valve also had some modeling behind that number. It does, after all, know what kind of power the Steam Deck has the capacity to consume.

"Another thing I guess we do is that we do have a pretty detailed breakdown of the different power that the different subsystems consume…" Aldehayyat said. "And so we understand how much power each component can pull under specific circumstances. So there's definitely some projection, some modeling that has to be done there, because we can't test every single game."

Andrew E. Freedman is a senior editor at Tom's Hardware focusing on laptops, desktops and gaming. He also keeps up with the latest news. A lover of all things gaming and tech, his previous work has shown up in Tom's Guide, Laptop Mag, Kotaku, PCMag and Complex, among others. Follow him on Twitter: @FreedmanAE