Turns out you can actually update graphics in Valve’s steam deck (opens in new tab) with an off-the-shelf GPU. As long as it’s an AMD Radeon card and you don’t mind pulling the SSD out of the slot, you can get up to ten times the gaming performance of the standard Aerith APU.
The Steam Deck is a complete gaming PC. This is something Valve has been keen to talk about ever since it unveiled its portable gaming PC. And what do you do when your gaming PC doesn’t have enough graphics grunt? You strap a new graphics card to it, which is exactly what the YouTube channel, ETA Prime (opens in new tab)just did it.
This isn’t the first time someone has inserted a new GPU into their Steam Deck; UFD Tech had an RX 6600 XT running (opens in new tab) in one, he took Ebay for a likely offensive amount of money. But ETA Prime went further, much further, and managed to connect a ASRock RX 6900XT OC (opens in new tab) on one of Valve’s portable beasts.
Now, you might be wondering how they put a desktop GPU at the limits of the Deck, and the answer is obviously not. But they also didn’t use an external graphics card dock. That’s because the Steam Deck does not have a Thunderbolt connection, only USB Type-C. That’s a shame, but what it does have is an M.2 PCIe connection for its SSD.
Since it’s still essentially just a PCIe 3.0 x4 slot, you can use a simple adapter to connect a desktop GPU to your Deck’s inner workings. Unfortunately, this requires removing any SSD storage you previously had and also means you have to boot from the SD card slot.
This currently prevents the use of SteamOS 3.0 as it is not yet available to install on an external drive. But you can install Windows on an SD card, and that will allow you to boot your Deck with a full desktop graphics card plugged into the SSD slot.
It’s a really jury-rigged setup, and since the RX 6900 XT GPU is a thirsty slice of silicon, the ETA Prime has an entire desktop power supply dedicated to running the AMD card. A portable solution this is not.
In terms of performance, the 3DMark Time Spy score jumped from 1,722 with the standard AMD Aerith APU on the Deck, to 10,395 with the RX 6900 XT powering things up. That’s a massive performance boost, as you’d expect and expect. And the same thing happened in gaming, where they managed to get games like Witcher 3 to go over 100fps on ultra 4K settings and over 60fps on GTA V at the same resolution and ultra settings.
But the Aerith APU is an unavoidable bottleneck for the GPU, with modern games like Cyberpunk 2077, God of War, and Elden Ring fighting for something like decent levels of RX 6900 XT performance, even at dial-up graphics settings.
This isn’t a surprise, however, and highlights how well specified the Deck’s overall hardware is for its price/performance tier.
So now graphics cards are plentiful and ‘affordable’, is there a future where Valve will release a Deck with the option for an external GPU to connect to it? Oh hell no.
These are just interesting experiments that show what you can do with Valve’s portable hardware, not what anyone he must doing. The Steam Deck is a surprisingly versatile portable gaming device and PC, but without a Thunderbolt connection it’s certainly no basis for a big gaming rig with a beefy external GPU.
But fun, huh?