Valve just unveiled its surprising new gaming handheld. Steam deck, and it looks like a very cool idea to have all of your PC games in one Switch-like portable device. Let it be the same as that Switch OLED pre-orders are especially cold on Valve’s part, in ways that can only be respected.
But when I looked at the specs that power it, my first thought was, “Is this really the best thing you can do?” Because I’ve been describing the Apple M1 chip since it was first introduced almost a year ago, and if you look at the numbers, it’s alarming how much more power the Apple chip seems to offer compared to the AMD hardware that the Steam Deck offers – In particular, since the two chips are designed to fit in pretty much the same 15W heat package, you can really swap the M1 straight into the hardware of the Steam Deck (so to speak).
Some of this is pretty straightforward – the Steam Deck’s processor consists of four cores (with eight threads) compared to eight actual cores on the Apple M1 (although four are less powerful). But we can actually compare benchmarks to see what performance we can expect, even though the AMD CPU appears to be custom.
We know it’s a 4-core, 8-thread Zen 2 chip that runs from 2.4 to 3.5 GHz and is rated for a 15W thermal limit. That’s pretty much the specification that the Ryzen 3 5300U uses for its CPU – the 5300U only runs at a slightly higher clock rate. So let’s take that as a benchmark for a comparison with the Apple M1.
The highest Geekbench 5 scores for the Ryzen 3 5300U that I can find are 1,061 in single-core and 4,043 in multi-core. For the Apple M1 in MacBook Air (M1, 2020) and ultra-thin iPad Pro 12.9 inch (2021) these values are 1,737 for single-core and 7,468 for multi-core.
This is no small improvement, this is a total stun. That is 70-80% better performance with the same power consumption!
Let’s get graphic
A look at the GPU is much more complicated, but let’s start with estimates of the raw GPU processing power: Valve says the Steam Deck offers 1.6TFlops (FP32) while Apple says you can get up to 2.6TFlops (FP32) from the GPU of the M1.
Again, that’s an improvement of more than 50% over Apple’s chip. The architecture is important here, however – Apple’s GPU is a beast, but the AMD RDNA 2 system used in Steam Deck has been refined for strong performance per watt in the next generation consoles and includes some specific features that the M1 does not offer. Don’t have, including ray tracing hardware acceleration.
AMD could also include some of its other cache technologies, which means that the GPU’s apparent performance doesn’t really tell the story of its performance. But it’s still pretty alarming that the number we have to do know is quite far behind the Apple equivalent.
However, the M1 does not lead in all areas. Both chips are based on a unified memory architecture and offer 16GB of shared RAM, but the Steam Deck uses LPDDR5 while the M1 uses LPDDR4, although it’s likely both are 128-bit (Valve hasn’t confirmed it).
Impossible??? Yeah, probably
All of this is just a fantasy, of course. Apple will never out-license the M1 chip for others to use, although I really wish it was for devices that don’t really compete with what Apple makes – Steam Deck or the Fabled Switch Pro especially because it’s miles above what we’re likely to see from AMD, Intel, or Nvidia in the next few years. Though Apple might really consider these direct competitors with the iPad and Apple Arcade.
Even if Apple had a change of heart, there is of course the question of compatibility. The Apple M1 chip is ARM while the Steam Deck needs to be running x86 to be compatible with the entire library of Steam games, so this is an awkward place to start. Neither the M1 nor the Steam Deck support DirectX, however – the Steam Deck runs SteamOS, which is Linux and uses Proton to convert graphics for Vulkan compatibility.
For my Steam Deck M1 dream to come true, Apple might have to consider adding native Vulkan low-level graphics support rather than sticking to its own Metal equivalent (Vulkan APIs can be converted to Metal using a framework, but it does is imperfect).
If it were, converting x86 to ARM wouldn’t actually be that much of a problem – Apple already has a conversion process for Mac called Rosetta 2 that has minimal impact on game performance. Our friends at Anandtech would have Rise of the Tomb Raider runs at 60 fps on the M1 via Rosetta 2, at a resolution of 1366 x 768 – practically identical to the resolution of 1280 x 800 on the Steam Deck screen.
But Apple seems to be just as interested in native Vulkan support as it is in licensing the M1. It means that the best hardware and software for the Steam Deck lives on different sides of a huge tech industry divide, and that’s such a shame.