Steam Deck’s future-proofed potential borne out by ray-tracing tests

<em> Quake II RTX </em> and other games that support ray tracing have finally been confirmed as working on Steam Deck, both at 30 and 60 fps refresh rates.  But the fancy-looking option could be better — if Valve steps up to finish the job for its default SteamOS.”/><figcaption class=
Enlarge / Quake II RTX and other games that support ray tracing have finally been confirmed as working on Steam Deck, both at 30 and 60 fps refresh rates. But the fancy-looking option could be better — if Valve steps up to finish the job for its default SteamOS.

Valve / Sam Machkovech

In the weeks since Valve’s Steam Deck release, fans and critics alike have been poring through the device’s possibilities, stymied in part by near-daily software and OS updates. I previously posited 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 the hardware geniuses at Digital Foundry has struck gold. On Tuesday, site founder Richard Leadbetter unearthed something that the community at large appears to have missed up to now: The portable, 15 W-maximum Steam Deck is capable of ray tracing.

The (R) DNA was in Steam Deck the whole time

The proof, as seen in a video on DF’s YouTube channel, required an overkill testing scenario. Leadbetter wiped the system’s default OS, installed Windows 10, and retested ray tracing-compatible software before wiping the system again to get SteamOS back on there. This obnoxious process was required during Leadbetter’s testing period because Steam Deck does not officially support a dual-boot option for multiple OS installs, even though fans have more recently come up with methods to do that.

The four games in question (Quake II RTX, Control, Metro Exodus Enhanced Edition, Doom Eternal) gray out their ray-tracing menu toggles when loaded via the default SteamOS implementation, which translates Windows versions of games to Linux via the Proton compatibility layer. Those same four games, using official Windows 10 drivers from Valve and AMD, recognize the RDNA 2 cores built into Steam Deck’s custom APU and unlock every ray-tracing option — just 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 light reflection and material properties into account, typically resulting in more realistic and grounded lighting and shadows. Unsurprisingly, all the games tested need visual downgrades to get near-stable 30 fps with ray-tracing features enabled, and these come mostly in the form of pixel resolution downgrades at roughly 540p.

A base 252p resolution looks absolutely blurry in screenshot form, but for <em> Quake II RTX </em> on Steam Deck, this unlocks a fluid ray-tracing experience — which includes dramatic visual effects like this opening scene’s tempered glass warping the rays of light that pass through.  Digital Foundry’s telltale analysis interface can be seen tracking the near-solid 60 fps performance with these settings, but only in Windows 10 for the time being.” src=”https://cdn.arstechnica.net/wp-content/uploads/2022/04/df-deckrtx-980×551.png” width=”980″ height=”551″/><figcaption class=
Enlarge / A base 252p resolution looks absolutely blurry in screenshot form, but for Quake II RTX on Steam Deck, this unlocks a fluid ray-tracing experience — which includes dramatic visual effects like this opening scene’s tempered glass warping the rays of light that pass through. Digital Foundry’s telltale analysis interface can be seen tracking the near-solid 60 fps performance with these settings, but only in Windows 10 for the time being.

Digital Foundry

On a pixel-count level, that’s on par with the blurry Switch ports of Doom (2016) or The Witcher 3. But Leadbetter points to Metro Exodus‘implementation of temporal anti-aliasing upscaling (TAAU), which makes a pixel resolution of 504p look more crisp 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 particular stunner thanks to its reliance on a full path-tracing model, as opposed to any pre-baked lighting. Downscale it to a late-1990s resolution of 252p with full ray tracing enabled, and the Steam Deck can run the game at something approaching 60 fps. Wow. (This is 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 advanced significantly as an option in video games in the past few years, right alongside upscaling options like Nvidia’s proprietary DLSS and AMD’s open source FidelityFX Super Resolution (FSR). The latter already works on Deck in its 1.0 implementation, but FSR 2.0 sounds like it will take the best ideas from existing TAAU implementations and supercharge them upon its launch 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 that the Valve-AMD partnership is not put to good use here.

This week’s tests suggest 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, buying a Steam Deck is an easier proposition if it does not feel trapped in a “last-gen” 3D gaming universe.

We’re likely to see more games emphasize RDNA 2-based ray-tracing effects on AMD-powered consoles like Xbox Series X / S and PlayStation 5 in ways that are crucial to gameplay, rather than just cool lighting tweaks. If games include scaled-down ray-tracing effects on the weaker Series S console, this week’s tests suggest that Steam Deck could match the results — and that’s already the case to some extent with Metro Exodus.

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