In the weeks since Valve’s Steam Deck release, both fans and critics have been searching through the device’s capabilities, partially hampered by almost daily software and OS updates. I have previously stated in my review that Steam Deck was not “finished” and although the device has become much more stable, its full potential is still unclear.
Maybe that’s why the latest Steam Deck analysis from the digital geniuses at Digital Foundry has hit gold. On Tuesday, the site’s founder Richard Leadbetter revealed something that the community in general seems to have missed so far: The portable 15W maximum Steam Deck is capable of beam tracking.
(R) The DNA was in Steam Deck all the time
The evidence, as seen in a video on DF’s YouTube channel, required an overkill test scenario. Leadbetter deleted the system’s default OS, installed Windows 10, and retested ray-tracing-compatible software before wiping the system again to get SteamOS back there. This awkward process was required during Leadbetter’s trial period because Steam Deck does not officially support a dual-boot option for multiple OS installations, although fans have recently figured out ways to do so.
The four games in question (Quake II RTX, Control, Metro Exodus Enhanced Edition, Eternal doom) downplays their ray-tracing menu when loaded via the standard SteamOS implementation, which translates Windows versions of games to Linux via the Proton compatibility layer. The same four games that use official Windows 10 drivers from Valve and AMD recognize the RDNA 2 cores built into Steam Deck’s custom APU and unlock any ray-tracing option – just like if PC gamers used a GPU from AMD’s latest RX 6000 series.
Their ray-tracing implementations include varying amounts of dazzling effects that take light reflection and material properties into account, typically resulting in more realistic and grounded light and shadows. Not surprisingly, all of the games tested need visual downgrades to get almost stable 30 fps with ray-tracing features enabled, and these mostly come in the form of pixel resolution downgrades of around 540p.
At a pixel count level, it is on par with the blurred Switch ports Doom (2016) or The Witcher 3. But Leadbetter points to Metro Exodus‘implementation of temporal anti-aliasing upscaling (TAAU), which makes a 504p pixel resolution look crispier at Deck’s full 800p resolution – and it looks even better on Steam Deck’s 7-inch screen than it does on a web browser . Quake II RTX is a particularly astonishing thanks to its dependence on one full path-tracing model, unlike any pre-baked lighting. Scales it down to a late-1990s resolution of 252p with full ray tracking enabled, and Steam Deck can run the game at anything approaching 60 fps. Wow. (This is partly funny because that ray-tracing mode was developed by Nvidia, even though it’s no longer an “RTX” hardware-exclusive.)
TAAU has advanced significantly as an option in video games in the last few years, right next to upscaling options like Nvidia’s proprietary DLSS and AMD’s open source FidelityFX Super Resolution (FSR). The latter is already working on Deck in its 1.0 implementation, but FSR 2.0 sounds like it will take the best ideas from existing TAAU implementations and leave them at launch later this year on a variety of GPUs. AMD has not yet announced specific Steam Deck plans for FSR 2.0, but it’s hard to imagine that the Valve-AMD partnership will not be used here.
This week’s test suggests that Steam Deck could match Xbox Series S ‘ray-tracing results.
All to say: Lower base resolutions, smarter upscaling, and RDNA 2 silicon could make portable, ray-traced gaming on Steam Deck a legitimate option in the near future, based on Leadbetter’s tests. And as Leadbetter reminds viewers, it’s an easier suggestion to buy a Steam Deck if it does not feel trapped in a “last generation” 3D gaming universe.
We’ll likely see more games emphasize RDNA 2-based ray-tracing effects on AMD-powered consoles like the Xbox Series X / S and PlayStation 5 in ways that are crucial to gameplay, rather than just cool light adjustments. If games include scaled-down ray-tracing effects on the weaker Series S console, this week’s test suggests that Steam Deck could match the results – and this is already the case to some extent with Metro Exodus.