How to Get the Most Out of Your Steam Deck in Dock Mode

Valve’s Steam Deck is an excellent 720p portable gaming machine, with the performance of a previous generation console in a relatively compact size. But can the system be pushed further? With a 4K TV as our goal, we’ll push the Steam Deck to its limits by playing in dock mode. It sounds absurd, but newer second-generation reconstruction techniques – FSR 2.0 and TSR – are beginning to be implemented in commercial games, offering huge performance gains in high-resolution rendering. Additionally, there is a vast library of older, less technically demanding content that the Steam Deck should be able to move at high resolution. Is it possible to get a good docked gaming experience on a 4K TV with the Steam Deck or are the high resolution gaming requirements too high for the low power consumption AMD APU and low bandwidth that the system contains?

While you can of course just scale 720p to fill the 4K screen, the results are often not very good. Games at this resolution are often blurry, and many TVs lack the upscaling technology to preserve sharpness. Content at 1080p or higher performs much better, so that will be our focus; at least about twice as many pixels as the Steam Deck screen. True native 4K resolution is impossible except in some simpler games, but we should be able to improve the image quality a bit.

We’ll start by looking at a few older, less demanding games, and 7th Gen consoles often do the trick thanks to their low performance requirements and solid gamepad support. Half-Life 2 is a good one. example, running at 4K and 60FPS with maximum detail without MSAA. Similarly, Deus Ex: Human Revolution runs well at 1440p60 with details set to Medium, with reasonable image quality, solid performance and art that holds up well, and you can even opt for 4K30 if you prefer. Valkyria Chronicles and Dishonored both render in a similar range at standard 1440p detail, though the frame rate drops may encourage you to opt for 1080p for a more stable 60FPS. Both titles hold up well, in any case, and even compare favorably to 8th Gen console ports, a real win for the Deck. However, other older games don’t work as well. Alan Wake, for example, requires running at 900p to hit 60FPS, and Mass Effect Legendary Edition is best played on the Deck at 1080p, as well as PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, not being ideal for a 4K TV.

comparison of 1080p upscaled for 4K TV and native 4K

comparison of 720p upscaled for 4K TV and native 4K
Here’s the big deal: 1080p looks fine scaled on a 4K TV, but 720p looks noticeably worse.

The Steam Deck offers tools to further enhance the image on a 4K panel, including AMD’s FSR 1.0 upscaling which produces a slight but noticeable improvement over bilinear upscaling without introducing aka excessive. Modern console games using AAA also perform well, with the Steam Deck being able to deliver 900p30 with standard graphics options. This includes Horizon: Zero Dawn, Tales of Arise, or Grid Legends, although other games, like Dirt 5, are a bit more demanding and run best at 720p30. Image quality, unsurprisingly, isn’t particularly good on the Steam Deck with these games, most of them resembling the Xbox One versions. FSR 1.0 can help with this and generally has better interaction with techniques like TAA than an older post-process AA Techniques, albeit to some extent. An interesting example is Final Fantasy VII Remake, released a few weeks ago, which runs on the Steam Deck with fewer hiccups per build than on Windows PCs.

Half-Life 2 runs well on the Steam Deck at 4K, only dropping below 60FPS when there are lots of alpha effects on screen.

Finally, and perhaps most interestingly, we have games that use second-generation reconstruction techniques with aggressive time-scaling that produce better image quality, like Unreal’s TSR or FSR 2.0 from AMD. God of War has an implementation of AMD’s new scaling technology, but the results are mixed. Image quality in static or low-motion areas of the screen is good and looks like 1080p, even though half the pixels are rendered internally. The problem is that the image is affected by popping and deocclusion artifacts when Kratos does not obscure an element on the screen or moves quickly, while artifacts also appear in hair and particle effects. 1080p30 is achievable with FSR 2.0 in balanced mode, but in the end I preferred the cleaner presentation that came with a lower resolution.

Ghostwire: Tokyo is the first game to implement Epic’s Super Resolution Temporal Scaling technology, but it requires huge sacrifices in resolution and graphics options to run well on the Deck: an output resolution of 1600×900 in performance mode for a 800×450 internal resolution, with low detail on everything else. The good news is that rebuilding Ghostwire Tokyo works much better than rebuilding God of War. Artifacts are minimized in motion despite low internal resolution, if disocclusion artifacts were present in FSR 2.0. Still images are resolved to almost the same quality as the native resolution, despite rebuilding from a quarter of the resolution. Visually it’s not perfect, but the technology really is a game changer in terms of performance, allowing for a huge improvement in frame rate over native rendering.

At least with these titles, the results are mixed. God of War’s FSR 2.0 rebuild isn’t good enough to deliver a convincing 1080p image, while Ghostwire demands too much to get 1080p in the first place, although its rebuild is frankly good. I would have liked to try Deathloop as well, but that game still has serious stability issues on the Steam Deck and I currently can’t get past the title screen.

4k adapters for steam bridge
Only one of the USB-C adapters I have is capable of outputting at 4K and 60Hz.

But testing the Steam Deck in docked mode raised a number of issues that really hurt the experience, even though the Deck is powerful enough to provide a good docked experience with many titles. To get started, you’ll need a USB-C to HDMI 2.0 adapter capable of delivering 4K60 (like He is by Satechi), since most HDMI 1.4 adapters lock the system to 30Hz output, even at lower resolutions. There are ways around this, such as entering desktop mode and changing display options by hand, but this is quite annoying and must be done directly from the SteamOS interface.

Gamepad functions are also not fully supported. Vibration does not work as expected with external controllers, often persisting for several seconds or not activating. Text input is clunky, as many games require a software keyboard to be enabled which is not ideal for gamepads. Also, some games that normally work with a gamepad require the use of a mouse to navigate the settings menus, which means blindly tapping the Steam Deck’s touchscreen when it’s in dock mode.

However, updates to improve Dock Mode have been released regularly. For example, at first it was impossible to run games at more than 1280×800 even when connected to a 1080p or 4K monitor. After the June update, it’s possible to set a screen resolution between 640×400 and 4K, although this applies to handheld and dock modes and has to be changed on a game-by-game basis, which I did during these tests.

I had to manually set a higher resolution in SteamOS to get games to run at over 800p.

Is the Steam Deck able to provide a good experience in Dock mode? Right now, the truth is, he still has a long way to go, but not for the reasons you think. Older games and less intense titles scale well on a 4K TV, and while modern games don’t run as well, often requiring resolutions lower than 1080p, FSR 2.0 and TSR technologies show promise when it comes to to extract a decent top quality image in their. We still have a system with a GPU that offers similar performance to a previous generation base console, but the flexibility of the Steam Deck allows you to tweak and tune the system for the best possible result. Options like system-level scaling or frame rate limiters are really useful here, even when the software doesn’t perform particularly well on the hardware.

In my opinion, the real problem lies with SteamOS issues in dock mode. The operating system is often unresponsive, games can be sluggish, pad support is poor, and there are a number of configuration issues that Valve needs to address. A traditional console, or even a decent Windows PC in Steam’s Big Picture mode these days, offers a better experience when gaming on the TV in the living room. Hopefully over time these issues will be resolved, but for now the Steam Deck works much better as a portable system.

Translation by Josep Maria Sempere.

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