Experiences of configuring and using a ‘hackendeck’ homemade Steam Deck

hackendeck

Valve recently released information about developing for the Steam Deck if you didn’t have a Dev-Kit which is an engineering verification test build (EV2) version of their device. Included in the documentation is a suggestion to build your own Steam Deck, or ‘hackendeck’ using a mini PC. Whilst I didn’t have the exact brand they picture in the article I did have a mini PC with the required specifications so I set about following the instructions to see how it performed.

Hardware Overview

Valve’s documentation under ‘Performance’ states that ‘if you are really interested in finding a PC for testing that will perform similarly to a Steam Deck … there are a few options out there and then goes on to suggest a mini PC with the following ‘roughly similar specifications to a Steam Deck’:

  • AMD Ryzen 7 3750H
  • Radeon RX Vega 10 Graphics
  • 16GB of DDR4 RAM

This exactly matches the Beelink SER3 I reviewed recently and on which I also tested gaming in Windows. Rather than use the device as sold which comes with only one 16GB stick of 2666 MHz RAM I swapped it out for two sticks of 8GB 2666 MHz RAM to give me the same total of 16GB memory but running in dual-channel.

For ‘Input’ Valve suggested a controller and whilst they recommended that ‘using a PS4 or PS5 controller will give you the best coverage for the kinds of input Steam Deck … an Xbox controller, Steam controller, or Switch Pro controller will work as well. I haven’t used a controller for years and even then I gave up in favor of the keyboard however I still had my old Razer Onza Tournament Edition which is a third-party Xbox 360 controller.

Finally, for ‘Display’ the Steam Deck’s default resolution is 1280×800 and they suggest either using a 7” monitor at that resolution or using 1280×720 resolution and resizing the game window down to 7” across. As this latter point is only to see how legible the text is for game developers I simply opted for setting my display to 720p resolution.

Software Overview

The official Steam Deck’s Linux-based OS hasn’t been publicly released yet however Value suggests ‘installing Manjaro, which is an Arch Linux distribution, similar to what’s on Steam Deck’. They also highlight that it comes with KDE Plasma ‘which is the same desktop environment that will ship on Steam Deck – all in all, it’s very close to the Deck OS environment’. The instructions also require the installation of Steam configured to use Proton for all games.

Installation and configuration

First I made some tweaks to the BIOS of the Beelink SER3 in line with my earlier review. I set the Power On Reset (POR) to 35W:

Ryzen 35W POR Configuration

and then ‘overclocked’ the memory to run at 2666 MHz:

aptio overclock ram Aptio DRAM speeds

to get the best possible performance from the mini PC.

Following Valve’s instructions, I downloaded the 64-bit Manjaro ISO and created a bootable USB from it using Rufus.

I then installed Manjaro as dual boot with Windows by replacing the previously installed Ubuntu partition I had created which occupied effectively half of the internal 512GB NVMe storage drive.

Once booted I ensured the system was fully updated by running ‘sudo pacman -Syu’ and also swapped ‘Flameshot’ for ‘Spectacle’ as my preference screenshot application.

As a result of changing the power configuration, I also wanted to use ‘RyzenAdj’ with the same settings as in my review in order to prevent thermal throttling. Its build documentation mentions needing ‘libpci‘ however I found that for Manjaro I had to install several different packages including ‘cmake’ and ‘base-devel’ together with their dependencies:

manjaro cmake manjaro base-devl

However, to run ‘RyzenAdj’ I found I also needed to additionally install ‘Ryzen SMU’:

ryzenadj error

which required further dependencies of ‘dkms’ and the Linux headers:

dkms

Once the resultant ‘ryzen_smu’ module was loaded ‘RyzenAdj’ worked and I was able to apply my settings:

ryzenadj

I also used ‘cpupower’ to set the CPU governor to ‘performance’:

cpupower frequency

and also confirmed that the RAM was running at 2666 MHz:

memory speed

Next after installing Steam and configuring it to use Proton I connected my controller. To get it to work I had to select ‘Xbox Configuration Support’ in Steam’s controller settings:

Steam Controller Settings

Finally, I set the screen resolution to 1280×720:

steam display configuration

and installed my games for testing. It is worth pointing out at this point that storage space very quickly became an issue. The entry-level Steam Deck has only 64GB of eMMC storage with additional models supporting either 256GB PCIe NVMe or 512GB PCIe NVMe. With my dual boot ‘hackendeck’ I was effectively simulating the 256GB unit:

hackendeck storage

However with Proton (using 1GB) and only three games installed taking up 167GB (Counter-Strike: Global Offensive using 28GB, Shadow of the Tomb Raider using 36GB, and Grand Theft Auto V using 102GB):

hackendeck games storage usage

I had insufficient space to install Doom Eternal which required 89GB. As the drive is an M.2 2280 NVMe drive, it could be replaced with a larger 1TB one although this is not the case for the Steam Deck where Valve has said ‘we don’t recommend replacing the included drive’.

For a couple of the games sometimes I couldn’t hear any sound, and I found that after opening the ‘system settings’ under ‘audio’ this was caused by the playback streams being muted:

gaming muted sound

Also before initially playing some games, it was best to wait for Steam to compile the Vulkan shaders required by the Fossilize library as this doesn’t take too long to complete:

steam processing vulkan shaders

Finally, I always clicked ‘Continue Anyway’ to disregard the warning from Shadow of the Tomb Raider that appears:

Tom Raider unsupported Linux distribution

Gaming Performance

Establishing the average FPS in games is difficult in Linux due to the lack of tools like MSI Afterburner.  Update: Check out my post with MangoHud to see how to check FPS in Linux and the results with the “hackendeck”. The rest of the review below remains unchanged.

As a result, for most of the games, I’ve had to estimate based on the observed frame rates.

Starting with Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, using default settings with 1280×720 resolution and ‘net_graph 1’ set to display the FPS:

csgo-game-settings-video csgo-advanced-video

I encountered a low of 50 FPS:

csgo low framerate

and a high of 125 FPS:

csgo high framerate

with the average frame rate around 90 FPS as demonstrated by the following short screen capture:

In Grand Theft Auto V using default settings, 1280×720 resolution and ‘VSync’ off:

gtav graphics settings 1

gtav graphics settings 2

gtav graphics settings 3
during the final built-in benchmark the frame rate dipped to 38.9 FPS towards the end:

gta v low fps

from a high of 92.7 FPS near the start:

GTA V high fps

however overall the average FPS was in the 50s:

Shadow Of The Tomb Raider was the easiest to quantify due to the built-in benchmark statistics. I used the lowest graphical preset:

sottr graphics

with 1280×720 resolution:

sottr display

and during the benchmark I observed a low of 36 FPS:

sottr low fps

and high of 70 FPS:

hackendeck sottr high fps

with the average being 44 FPS:

sottr average fps hackendeck

The following is a short extract captured during the benchmark:

Finally, I tried Doom Eternal which I had to play from an external storage drive connected by USB. With the following defaults including ‘Performance Metrics’ set to ‘Low’ to display FPS:

hackendeck doom settings 1 hackendeck doom eternal settings 2 hackendeck doom settings 3 hackendeck doom eternal settings 4

During my limited gameplay I saw a low of 33 FPS:

Doom Eternal on Hackendeck

and a high of 63 FPS:

doom eternal high fps

with an average frame rate of around 40 FPS:

Overall the frame rates appear slightly lower than those previously obtained in Windows.

Final Observations

Valve using Linux on the Steam Deck removes any Windows licensing costs and also benefits Linux gaming by ensuring ongoing support and hopefully future improvements. Unfortunately, gaming performance on Windows still appears better than on Linux and when video playback is considered, YouTube, for example, is also currently better on Windows than Linux on this mini PC.

However, building a ‘hackendeck’ was never about pitting Windows against Linux but about simulating the expected performance of the Steam Deck.

The primary advantage of the Steam Deck over the mini PC is portability given the included 7” display. Notwithstanding this point, its comparable performance shows that this mini PC is a viable gaming device. Complementary to this is the mini PC includes an Ethernet port and can also support an eGPU.

Given the delay in the availability of the Steam Deck, this mini PC ‘hackendeck’ could be considered as a disappointment-saving Xmas alternative.

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11 Comments
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and.elf
and.elf
16 days ago

Valve just released the stand-alone “Steam OS 3.0”, which is the exact same Arch-based version the deck used. Too bad you did all that extra work

anon
anon
16 days ago

Source?

As far as I know they aren’t releasing Steam OS 3.0 until after the Steam Deck is out.

and.elf
and.elf
15 days ago

You are so true. My bad 🙂 I just glossed over the headlines and misread

T
T
15 days ago

Where? Link please.

Anonymous
Anonymous
16 days ago

The team agreed that if a game runs well on this mini-PC at 1280 x 800, it will definitely run well on Steam Deck* – compared to Steam Deck, this system’s GPU is weaker and there’s less memory bandwidth, but the CPU is a bit stronger. It’s underpowered compared to Steam Deck, but is the closest system we could find that is still generally available for purchase. So do we know if the Steam Deck’s 8 RDNA2 CUs at lowish clocks and DDR5 beats out Renoir/Cezanne’s 8 Vega CUs? Mainly I want to figure out how well Rembrandt will do… Read more »

Dr Moth
Dr Moth
16 days ago

This is your MSI Afterburner equivalent:
https://github.com/flightlessmango/MangoHud

linuxium
16 days ago

Thanks for this recommendation. I will install it and add a comment with further FPS stats as a result of using MangoHud.

Faith
Faith
16 days ago

Establishing the average FPS in games is difficult in Linux due to the lack of tools like MSI Afterburner.

There is a tool called MangoHud which not only has performance metrics overlay, but also a benchmarking feature.

linuxium
16 days ago

Thanks for this recommendation. I will install it and add a comment with further FPS stats as a result of using MangoHud.

varok
varok
14 days ago

Its about what to expect for compatibility testing and keeping mind games may come with optimized visual pre-sets for Steam Deck which can make a big difference. Some of the biggest issues are going to be software and GUI, as excellent as KDE is it lacks any kind of advanced hardware settings PC gamers are accustomed to having via GUI on windows. Hopefully valve have some kind of solution with a dedicated GPU control panel and other gaps filled in that are missing. Video decoding & encoding is a mess on Linux but the new Vulkan video support spec offers… Read more »

Yistaan
Yistaan
13 days ago

I think this test might have been better utilized on a GPD Win 3

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