Microsoft is seemingly experimenting with a gaming handheld mode for Windows, which could make the operating system a lot more capable on devices like Valve’s Steam Deck.
A leaked video posted by Twitter user WalkingCat, as flagged by The Verge, shows off a hackathon project from inside Microsoft designed at making Windows 11 better optimized for handheld PCs. This includes a gaming shell designed to work with touchscreens and controllers.
The hackathon reportedly ran from last September, which leads us to speculate we could see an update to Windows 11 that brings in better support for running Windows on the likes of the Steam Deck and other handheld PCs from brands such as Ayaneo.
https://t.co/OWiw0f2k2v pic.twitter.com/RdSGMmhgBdApril 13, 2023
While the Steam Deck can run Windows (and includes drivers for it) the experience is rather rough, and as the video notes it’s “not ready for prime time” with problems from dealing with controller-centric navigation to accessing VRAM properly. But the hackathon has found some ways to work around these issues, such as putting in a touch keyboard that can be navigated with joystick controls.
From one of the shots in the video, we can see the ability to choose game launchers, from Steam to Xbox and EA Play. Though this is just a prototype version of this handheld-focussed Windows UI, so we’ll need to wait and see what makes the cut, if indeed Microsoft does pursue this hackathon further.
Windows 11 gaming handheld potential
While SteamOS has proven to be a bit of a marvel, allowing for modern games to run decently on what’s effectively mobile/laptop-grade hardware, there are limitations. For example, getting Xbox Game Pass to run on the Steam Deck requires a good few workarounds.
Meanwhile, handheld PCs that run Windows out of the box tend to have some performance overheads, in addition to costing quite a bit more than the Steam Deck.
If Microsoft can optimize Windows 11 for Steam Deck use, it could tap into a growing audience of handheld PC owners and thus help spread services like Game Pass; after all, the Xbox and PC game subscription and streaming service would make a great partner for the Steam Deck.
With the Asus ROG Ally actually coming, improvements to handheld gaming on Windows 11 could be exactly what such a device needs if it’s to compete with the Steam Deck; or simply stand out as its own gaming device.
But such work could also improve the experience of gaming on Windows overall. While the operating system is pretty much the standard for desktop PC gaming, it’s not so good when used in other ways, such as in tablet mode when using a 2-in-1 laptop that has enough power to run games. Adding in optimization could change this meaning if you’re using say an Asus ROG Flow Z13 in its tablet mode, you’d be able to navigate the whole OS using a controller.
And one of my hopes would be that such work leads Microsoft to take a punt on creating its own handheld PC, potentially under the Surface brand. Redmond’s engineers make some rather lovely laptops and tablets, so I’d be cautiously confident they could design a decent handheld machine with some gaming potential. Admittedly, that’s wishful thinking on my part.
If you want to explore impressive portable gaming experiences right now, then check out our selection of the best handheld gaming consoles.