Sunday, June 23, 2024

A wave of new handhelds is arriving at the worst possible time

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Another Crab's Treasure running on the MSI Claw.Jacob Roach / Digital Trends

We saw the floodgates open on a new range of handhelds at Computex 2024. After the success of devices like the Steam Deck and ROG Ally, smaller companies like Zotac, Antec, XPG, and Adata are all getting in on the handheld craze, eyeing a slot among the best handheld gaming PCs. It might be the worst time to release a new handheld, though.

Contents

  • Big chip implications
  • All about efficiency
  • Best to wait

Although it’s great to see competition among handheld gaming PCs, we’re facing down the next generation of mobile chips from AMD and Intel. These new chips are said to come with a big boost to efficiency and graphics performance, both of which have massive implications for a handheld gaming PC. If you’re in the market for a new handheld, don’t be swayed by the new crop of devices showing up — it’s best to wait for now.

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Big chip implications

Intel

The crux of the story here comes down to chips. At Computex, AMD announced its Ryzen AI 300 processors and Intel previewed its upcoming Lunar Lake generation. Both are mobile chips designed for laptops, which is exactly what we’ve seen in devices from the Steam Deck OLED to the Ayaneo 2S. And these processors look a lot faster than what we currently have in handhelds.

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Both come with updated graphics. For AMD, it’s using the RDNA 3.5 architecture, which is a revision of the architecture we’ve seen in desktop graphics cards like the RX 7900 GRE. It may be a revision, but it’s much faster. Early leaked benchmarks show the Ryzen AI HX 370 scoring around 40% higher than the Ryzen 9 8945HS. Keep in mind as well that the Ryzen 9 8945HS is more powerful than the chips we see in most handhelds.

AMD

It’s not just AMD, either. Intel’s Lunar Lake chips come with the next-gen Battlemage architecture for graphics. Although we don’t have any leaked benchmarks, Intel says that the graphics chip on Lunar Lake is up to 50% faster than what we saw in the previous generation. In some cases, it can scale even higher. For instance, Intel implemented hardware support for the ExecuteIndirect command, which is a common command found in DirectX 12 games.

Intel even showed the graphics running F1 24 at 1080p and 60 frames per second (fps), and that was with the High graphics preset and ray tracing enabled. That’s unheard of performance on the handhelds we have now.

Lunar Lake Xe2 running F1 24 at FHD @ 60 FPS using XeSS pic.twitter.com/dM39X9qWN7

— Hassan Mujtaba (@hms1193) June 4, 2024

As we’ve seen with devices like the Steam Deck, a new chip doesn’t always net much higher performance. In the case of Ryzen AI 300 and Lunar Lake, however, we’re dealing with new graphics architectures that look upward of 50% faster than the previous generation. Even a fraction of that performance would be massive for a handheld, where you often have thin margins to achieve smooth performance in demanding games.

We don’t have Ryzen AI 300 and Lunar Lake CPUs yet, but they’re arriving shortly. Some handhelds, such as the MSI Claw 8 AI+, have already committed to a Lunar Lake chip, and that device is set to arrive in September. The crop of handhelds were seeing now will certainly be outclassed at this point next year, and maybe even within a matter of months.

All about efficiency

Jacob Roach / Digital Trends

The flipside of performance with Lunar Lake and Ryzen AI 300 is efficiency. Both ranges were designed to compete with the Snapdragon X Elite in laptops, which promises unheard of battery life for Windows laptops. Getting a taste of that battery life in a handheld could change everything when devices like the ROG Ally can die in as little as an hour under a full load.

Intel has described Lunar Lake as a “radical low-power architecture,” and that’s more than marketing fluff. The chip uses a hybrid architecture with performance (P) cores and efficient (E) cores, but unlike previous generations, Intel is focusing mainly on the E-cores. They’re the main performance driver, while the P-cores simply step in for more demanding workloads. That should mean you’re draining less battery when sitting on your desktop or playing lighter games, which would extend your battery life.

Intel

AMD hasn’t made such bold claims about efficiency yet, but Ryzen AI 300 is shaping up to save battery. A leaked benchmark showed the Ryzen 9 HX 370 beating its last-gen counterpart despite running in a “silent” performance mode. These modes generally reduce power as much as possible, so if AMD is able to achieve last-gen performance while only sipping power, that’s a strong testament to the efficiency of Ryzen AI 300.

As with performance, we have to wait until these chips are actually here before seeing if AMD and Intel’s claims hold up. Leaked benchmarks and demos show promising advancements, however. Even if we’re able to see identical performance to the last generation of handhelds, that would be fine if it comes with a big increase to battery life. That’s especially true for Windows handhelds like the MSI Claw, which can suck down power even on the Windows desktop.

Best to wait

Jacob Roach / Digital Trends

Although refreshes like the ROG Ally X promise better battery life and additional features, right now isn’t a great time to buy a handheld gaming PC. I suspect most brands are already looking toward the next generation of chips for complete redesigns, and the MSI Claw 8 AI+ is a testament to that. At the very least, if you’re set on buying a handheld gaming PC now, I wouldn’t pay full price for it.

Hopefully we’ll see some next-gen handhelds in a matter months. If they’re coming, I suspect we’ll hear about them toward the beginning of next year. By that point, last-gen options will have fallen in price, and you’ll be able to score a deal.

Outside of new processors, a new batch of handhelds also come with all of the benefits of a second generation. As we’ve seen with the Steam Deck OLED, software improvements can completely transform the handheld experience. An updated ROG Ally or Lenovo Legion Go can benefit from the same improvements.

Between software, performance improvements, and battery life increases, the next generation of handhelds is exciting. Unfortunately, that puts a damper on the suite of handhelds that were just announced.

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