Windows is holding back the future of handheld gaming

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Digital Trends

I’ve utilized astir of nan handheld gaming PCs that person released this year, but I ever go backmost to my Steam Deck. It’s not nan astir powerful, it has immoderate quirks, and I still struggle pinch a frustrating bug that tin drain nan artillery successful minutes. But it’s still nan best handheld gaming PC you tin buy, and that’s owed successful ample portion to nan truth that it doesn’t tally connected Windows for illustration different handhelds.

It’s not that I don’t for illustration Windows. As a PC hardware nerd, I’m good alert of some nan benefits and idiosyncrasies of PC gaming. Things don’t ever activity nan measurement you expect them to, and that’s conscionable portion of nan process to get nan champion gaming acquisition possible. When it comes to this evolving shape facet of handheld gaming PCs, however, those issues are amplified and pushed to their breaking point.

We’ve been present before

Windows moving connected a phone.Microsoft

When it comes down to it, nan problem pinch Windows-based handhelds is simple: you can’t return a desktop operating strategy and unit it onto a handheld. For arsenic elastic arsenic Windows is, it presents a slew of issues for handheld PCs. Overlays conflict pinch each other, immoderate guidance options are restricted to a mini touchscreen, and modern comforts for illustration suspending a crippled aren’t moreover a thought. We request a dedicated type of Windows for these types of handhelds, but Microsoft doesn’t person a awesome way grounds connected that front.

Microsoft has tried to make a “lite” type of Windows for decades. That’s not an exaggeration. Attempts astatine a mobile type of Windows day backmost to 2000 pinch Pocket PC, and since then, we person seen various forms of Windows for tablets and mobile. For nan astir part, these versions only saw a mates of releases connected a fewer niche devices earlier dying retired entirely.

The latest illustration of Microsoft’s attempts is nan ill-fated Windows 10X. This lightweight type of Windows 10 was expected to motorboat for dual-screen tablets, but it was canceled successful 2021. Some features worked their measurement into Windows 10, and we tin spot remnants of nan update successful Windows 11’s enhanced tablet mode connected devices for illustration nan Surface Laptop Studio 2.

Even pinch glimmers of a stripped-down type of Windows, we haven’t seen Microsoft do it successfully durin g its decades of attempts. I person nary uncertainty that Microsoft will proceed to iterate, and we mightiness 1 time get nan lite type of Windows that Microsoft has promised for years. Still, we’re agelong past nan constituent of waiting for that to happen, and it’s clip to move on.

An Xbox location surface shows Starfield.Microsoft

There is 1 area wherever Microsoft has successfully adapted Windows to different shape factor, though, and that’s Xbox. Microsoft primitively based its Xbox System Software connected Windows 8 pinch nan merchandise of nan Xbox One earlier moving connected to Windows 10 Core a fewer years later. This halfway operating strategy was nan ground for respective different versions of Windows, including versions for HoloLens and nan Surface Hub.

This unsocial shows that Microsoft can make an adaptable OS that tin fresh into respective shape factors. For handheld gaming PCs, though, we conscionable don’t person a circumstantial version. Instead, devices for illustration nan Asus ROG Ally, Lenovo Legion Go, and Ayaneo 2S are pushing up pinch a desktop type of Windows 11 that doesn’t fresh nan intent of these devices — and that’s wherever nan problems stem from.

But wait, there’s more

Phil Spencer giving a position astatine Microsoft Build.Microsoft

If Microsoft tin make a stripped-down type of Windows for handheld gaming PCs, why don’t we person it? Microsoft surely tried to bring Windows to each instrumentality pinch its first Xbox push, but it seems that effort has each but died aft a drawstring of hardware failures.

Windows Core was built astir Universal Windows Platform (UWP) apps. This format allowed developers to vessel apps to each versions of Windows, including those moving connected Xbox, pinch a azygous file. It was nan building artifact for thing great: an ecosystem of Windows that useful crossed devices pinch nan aforesaid apps. Microsoft has slow dismantled this ecosystem complete nan past respective years, though.

Windows Phone died out, nan eager HoloLens task shifted to a sole endeavor focus, and UWP apps connected PC slow faded distant owed to Microsoft shutting down its advertisement level for UWP. Now, we’re successful a spot wherever Microsoft still supports immoderate UWP apps, but nan overmuch larger excavation of games disposable connected Windows are accepted Win32 apps.

The original thought down a halfway type of Windows would person allowed Microsoft to quickly accommodate a caller type to fulfill nan needs of nan increasing marketplace for handheld gaming PCs. With nan mishmash of features and support we person now, though, it’s nary wonderment that astir devices opt for nan afloat desktop type of Windows 11 instead. At nan very least, you tin guarantee that astir games will tally connected nan instrumentality without issues. It’s a laptop, conscionable pinch a controller alternatively of a keyboard and trackpad.

That quality couldn’t beryllium much important. Windows 11 useful connected handhelds for illustration nan ROG Ally, and that’s a feat alone. But there’s 1 instrumentality that genuinely understands nan value of package for this emerging shape factor: nan Steam Deck.

There’s an answer

Steam Deck held betwixt 2 hands.Jacob Roach / Digital Trends

There’s different level that’s highly modular and adaptable to different shape factors: Linux. From smart devices to afloat desktops to Android, nan ground of truthful galore different devices is Linux. That elasticity makes it a cleanable partner for handheld gaming PCs.

That’s apt why Valve chose to usage its ain SteamOS alternatively of Windows connected nan Steam Deck. This isn’t an wholly caller operating strategy developed by Valve; SteamOS 3 is based connected Arch Linux, which is simply a celebrated distribution of Linux. It besides bundles Valve’s Proton compatibility furniture to get Windows apps moving connected Linux. This, too, is based connected nan existing Wine exertion for Linux.

Valve didn’t get SteamOS correct immediately. Original versions were constricted successful features and showed worse capacity compared to autochthonal Windows apps. Now, however, SteamOS 3 tin not only lucifer Windows successful nan immense mostly of games, but it tin moreover transcend Windows successful immoderate cases. We’ve seen that pinch nan Steam Deck and ROG Ally, wherever nan ROG Ally’s capacity doesn’t standard successful nan measurement its hardware advantage would suggest.

Performance betwixt nan Asus ROG Ally and Steam Deck.Jacob Roach / Digital Trends

There are limitations of Valve’s approach, pinch third-party storefronts not ever moving and games pinch anti-cheat package refusing to run. However, there’s enough support. Unlike Microsoft’s attack pinch nan Windows Core, Valve has a robust ecosystem of package and features already built into Steam. Those came earlier SteamOS 3, not nan different measurement around.

There are immoderate clear advantages to Valve’s approach, too. For starters, you’re capable to decently suspend nan strategy while playing a game. That’s immense for handheld gaming, and it’s an facet of devices for illustration nan ROG Ally and Ayaneo 2S that’s almost universally glossed over. In addition, you person a azygous location guidelines for nan software. On Windows-based devices, you person a drawstring of utilities and overlays that tin conflict pinch each other, pinch each fighting for a apical slot connected nan screen.

Even aft spending an hr pinch a instrumentality for illustration nan ROG Ally, nan advantage of a purpose-built handheld operating strategy becomes clear. That’s why nan Steam Deck has truthful overmuch staying power, and really it remains specified a celebrated instrumentality moreover erstwhile faster devices — for illustration nan ROG Ally — are disposable for a reasonable price.

Master of none

Asus ROG Ally pinch nan Windows fastener screen.Jacob Roach / Digital Trends

The magnitude of package disposable for Windows successful unmatched, which is nan biggest spot of nan operating strategy and besides its biggest weakness. Microsoft needs to cater to nan galore different ways group usage Windows, which intends devices dedicated to a peculiar type of users (i.e., gamers) often don’t get each of nan attraction they deserve.

I’m still hopeful we’ll spot a stripped-back type of Windows 11 successful nan early that tin make devices for illustration nan ROG Ally guidelines supra nan Steam Deck. I’d happily jump ship. For now, though, developers request a measurement to cater to a circumstantial type of user, and that measurement is Linux, not Windows.

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