Does the Steam Deck Throttle?

Given the size of the Steam Deck, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the APU at its heart would slow down when things got bad. After all, temperature or battery life throttling is something that many users have seen in high-performance laptops where the CPU and GPU can be deliberately limited to help with cooling the laptop itself. However, this is not the case with the Steam Deck, and the special AMD APU found inside Valve’s new PDA can run at full speed all the time without any issues. This was part of the original design spec for Aerith, AMD’s production name for the Van Gogh-based silicon at the heart of the deck. Aerith was originally designed to work within the limitations of a portable machine, both in terms of power consumption and machine thermals.

Sebastian Nussbaum of AMD introduced the chip as “optimized for consistent performance over a long period of time”, meaning that the focus has always been on solid gaming performance without throttling. And this is definitely the experience we got when testing Steam Deck. That’s not to say you can’t limit the CPU and GPU on your own and indeed, that’s exactly what you need to do to extend the machine’s battery life. There are several ways to do this from the “Additional Performance” menu, which can be accessed through the Steam interface or in-game by pressing the “…” button.

The easiest way to extend battery life is to simply limit the frame rate to 30 fps using the toggle switch in the menu. Depending on the game, this can significantly reduce power consumption and thus slightly extend battery life. We’ve seen battery life increase by 147% when playing God of War, for example when switching from the standard 60fps cap to a 30fps lock. It’s worth using the performance overlay to see what effect the settings have on various elements of the system if you want to continue on your own, but it’s just as important.

If you want to get a little more under the hood, you can manually set the GPU clock speed or use Thermal Power Limit (TDP). The manual GPU clock control allows you to adjust the GPU only and set the clock speed from 200W to 1600W. You can also set the thermal output limit from 3W to 15W, though you’ll need to know what you’re doing here to get consistently smooth performance.

Power and clock speed caps can have an unpredictable impact on your performance, so if you’re in any doubt sticking to frame rate capping is probably your best bet. But the option is there if you’re willing to experiment and it may be that other users find that limiting one or the other can provide better performance and battery life than just setting the frame rate cap to 30fps. Something to look out for in your favorite games where 30fps just isn’t enough.

Of course, you don’t need to touch any of these settings if you just want to play your games and not worry too much about battery life. Typically, you’ll still play at least 90 minutes of unlimited play on the most demanding games and up to seven hours on the less demanding ones. It all depends on the game you are playing and how far away you are from the charger. It’s also pretty moot if you’re playing with a Steam Deck connected, where you can just let Aerith’s APU do its thing without being held back by power or framerate limits.

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