In the weeks since the release of Valve’s Steam Deck, fans and critics alike have pored over the device’s possibilities, partly thwarted by near-daily software and operating system updates. I previously postulated in my review that Steam Deck was not “finished”, and while the device has become much more stable, its full potential remains unclear.
Perhaps that’s why the latest Steam Deck analysis from hardware geniuses Digital Foundry struck gold. On Tuesday, site founder Richard Leadbetter discovered something the community at large seems to have missed so far: the 15W max portable Steam Deck is capable of ray tracing.
(R)DNA was in Steam Deck all the time
The proof, as shown in a video on DF’s YouTube channel, required an exaggerated test scenario. Leadbetter wiped the system’s default OS, installed Windows 10, and retested the ray-trac-capable software before wiping the system again to revert SteamOS. This obnoxious process was necessary during Leadbetter’s testing period because Steam Deck does not officially support a dual-boot option for multiple OS installations, although fans have recently found methods to do so.
The four games in question (Quake II RTX, Control, Metro Exodus Enhanced Edition, Eternal destiny) gray out their ray-tracing menu toggles when loaded through the default SteamOS implementation, which translates Windows versions of games to Linux through the Proton compatibility layer. Those same four games, using official Windows 10 drivers from Valve and AMD, recognize RDNA 2 cores built into Steam Deck’s custom APU and unlock all ray tracing options, as if PC gamers were using a GPU from AMD’s recent RX 6000 series.
Their ray tracing implementations include varying amounts of dazzling effects that take into account light reflection and material properties, which generally results in more realistic and grounded lighting and shadows. Unsurprisingly, all of the games tested need visual downgrades to achieve near-stable 30fps with ray-tracing features enabled, and these mostly come in the form of pixel resolution downgrades to around 540p.
Pixel-wise, it’s on par with the blurry Switch ports of Loss (2016) or The Witcher 3. But Leadbetter points out Metro Exodus‘ Temporal Anti-Aliasing (TAAU) scaling, which renders a sharper 504p pixel resolution at Deck’s full 800p resolution – and it looks even better on Steam’s 7-inch screen Deck only on a web browser. Quake II RTX is particularly amazing thanks to its dependence on a full path-tracing model, as opposed to any pre-baked lighting. Scale it down to a late 1990s 252p resolution with full ray tracing enabled, and the Steam Deck can run the game at something approaching 60fps. Wow. (It’s hilarious in part because the ray-tracing mode in question was developed by Nvidia, even though it’s no longer an “RTX” hardware exclusive.)
TAAU has grown significantly as an option in video games over the past few years, alongside upscaling options such as Nvidia’s proprietary DLSS and AMD’s open source FidelityFX (FSR) super resolution. The latter already works on Deck in its 1.0 implementation, but FSR 2.0 appears to be taking the best ideas from existing TAAU implementations and boosting them when it launches later this year on a variety of GPUs. AMD has yet to announce specific Steam Deck plans for FSR 2.0, but it’s hard to imagine the Valve-AMD partnership not being put to good use here.
This week’s tests suggest Steam Deck could match the Xbox Series S ray-tracing results.
All to say: Lower base resolutions, smarter upscaling, and RDNA 2 silicon could make handheld ray-traced gaming on the Steam Deck a legitimate option in the near future, based on Leadbetter’s testing . And as Leadbetter reminds viewers, buying a Steam Deck is an easier proposition if it doesn’t feel trapped in a “next-gen” 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 just some cool lighting tweaks. If games include reduced ray-tracing effects on the weaker S-Series console, testing this week suggests that Steam Deck could match the results – and it already does to some extent with Metro Exodus.