Valve’s decision to get into the console hardware business could have a number of long-term ramifications for the PC market. One apparent consequences will be a better AMD CPU driver for Linux.
According to Michael Larabel of Phoronix, AMD’s current power management lags behind Intel when running Linux. He writes, “It’s no secret that the ACPI CPUFreq driver code has at times been less than ideal on recent AMD processors with delivering less than expected performance/behavior with being slow to ramp up to a higher performance state or otherwise coming up short of disabling the power management functionality outright.”
AMD has advertised jobs for more Linux engineers earlier this summer, so the company is clearly putting more effort behind the operating system. It is not clear if this effort will employ proprietary AMD extensions or if the company will implement better power consumption through more generic implementations.
This type of close collaboration with Valve will be required if the Steam Deck is to compete with other devices. If you dig into the handful of devices that have launched in the “handheld gaming PC” market, they all require clear compromises of one sort or another. Noise, limited horsepower, battery run-time and weight are tough areas for any handheld, but it often feels as though the PC is hopping from foot to metaphorical foot in this space in its efforts to meet the needs of various users.
The GPD Win 3, for example, has received very strong reviews for its features, price, and performance — but it costs $700 and delivers no more than 90 minutes of gaming time according to Notebookcheck.net on a 44Wh battery. The Steam Deck’s battery is slightly smaller, at 40Wh, and its screen resolution is about 10 percent higher. We know the Steam Deck is built around a new AMD APU with RDNA2 graphics and Zen 3 cores, but not how much additional efficiency the chip will offer over Intel’s 11th Gen Tiger Lake (the GPD Win 3 uses a Core i7-1165G7) is not yet known.
Valve has promised that the Steam Deck will provide between 2-8 hours of performance depending on your settings and that higher-end, more demanding games will draw more power. One critical way for gamers to save battery life is to limit the machine to 30 fps — rendering more frames per second consumes commensurately more power, and while most of this is incurred on the GPU side of the equation, the CPU is probably responsible for a small amount of it as well. Even so, practical battery life while playing major titles on the Steam Deck seems as though it may be in the 2 – 3 hour range.
AMD working with Valve to optimize its CPU power management and any other optimizations that might improve the Steam Deck is excellent news for the likelihood that this number is higher instead of lower. In a handheld device like this, it’s much more important for the CPU and GPU to pick stable clocks they can hold over the long term than to ramp up to maximum frequency only to fall back when the SoC slams into its thermal limits. Careful tuning of the CPU and GPU power states will maximize the amount of battery life the system can offer while keeping handheld temperatures reasonable.
In the long run, these improvements should also benefit the larger Linux community and improve the overall performance of Steam on Linux both on the Steam Deck and on more general PC hardware. Linux recently ticked up to 1 percent of the total Steam userbase, having hovered around 0.8 percent – 0.9 percent over the last few years. Its high was 2 percent after SteamOS and Steam Machines were launched, but if the Steam Deck takes off Linux’s total market share will rise further. Whether that’ll be enough to encourage developers to take the OS seriously is an unknown, but it was a smart move of Valve to tie Linux to the idea of a handheld PC gaming system.
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