The Steam Deck launched a wave of handhelds from some of the big names in PC gaming. Asus has its Windows-based ROG Ally, Lenovo just announced its own Legion Go handheld, and Logitech has launched a cloud-focused handheld. AMD has been quietly weaponizing a whole new wave of Steam Deck competitors, and it got me thinking: Where’s Microsoft’s Xbox handheld?
Ever since Xbox debuted over 20 years ago, fans have been clamoring for a portable version. Meanwhile, Sony has launched the PlayStation Portable (PSP) and PlayStation Vita, and now plans to launch a $199.99 PlayStation Portal in November that will stream PS5 games. Microsoft has shown little interest in its own Xbox handheld, despite prototyping a seven-inch gaming tablet over 10 years ago.
Instead, Microsoft has focused on a device-agnostic business model, where Xbox gamers can stream games to phones, tablets, and other devices.
To cloud or not to cloud?
Xbox’s cloud approach allows Microsoft to market its Xbox Game Pass subscription to millions, if not billions, of potential iOS and Android customers. Mobile controllers are a popular companion here, turning a phone into an Xbox controller on the go, though Xbox Cloud Gaming’s touch controls suffice for many.
However, cloud gaming on a phone is no substitute for a real handheld. Phones are pretty bad for cloud gaming, especially when someone tries to call you, there’s no Wi-Fi on a plane, or you get a notification in the middle of your game. Microsoft has improved its own Surface Duo to handle gaming in the cloud, but there’s still room for improvement.
A dedicated cloud gaming handheld that can also run mobile games — like the Logitech G Cloud — is a good alternative that at least eliminates notification and battery issues. Microsoft has worked closely with Logitech on its handheld, but there’s still no official Xbox cloud gaming handheld in sight.
Sources familiar with Microsoft’s Xbox projects tell me that the company was previously in the process of prototyping a cloud-focused Xbox handheld. Microsoft has developed a stripped-down version of the Xbox UI that can work on handheld devices, dedicated cloud consoles, and TVs. Although we’ve seen this interface appear on some Samsung TVs, the dedicated Xbox cloud console that Microsoft first announced in 2021 has been canceled as Microsoft shifts its focus to the TV streaming app.
The Xbox maker was set to launch its dedicated Xbox cloud console last year before scrapping plans just weeks before an announcement. The device, codenamed Project Keystone, was later spotted on Xbox chief Phil Spencer’s shelf in October, confirming the company had made some units.
Work on Xbox Cloud Gaming has slowed down over the past year at Microsoft, sources tell me. Microsoft previously promised that Xbox Cloud Gaming would support your existing game library by the end of 2022, but that never happened. Microsoft also dropped plans to launch a dedicated version of Xbox Cloud Gaming that gamers could subscribe to instead of paying for the Xbox Game Pass Ultimate subscription.
That’s likely because regulators around the world have focused on Microsoft’s cloud gaming efforts as they review its proposed deal with Activision Blizzard. The UK’s Competition and Markets Authority even blocked the deal citing cloud-related issues, and the European Commission shared similar cloud concerns but approved the deal thanks to cloud-related solutions .
It was also a key element of FTC vs. Microsoft hearing. In the weeks leading up to this hearing, a source told me that Microsoft began temporarily reassigning people working on Xbox Cloud Gaming to other parts of Xbox. During the FTC hearing, Xbox Creator Experience Manager Sarah Bond revealed that Microsoft decided not to create a separate version of Xbox Cloud Gaming after the company got more data on the hit. and the popularity of the service. “We’ve been more clear about the costs involved and have signed partnerships with others who provide these services,” Bond said in June.
Windows handhelds need help from Microsoft
All of this scrutiny over the future of Xbox Cloud Gaming makes it unlikely that a handheld or cloud-powered Xbox console will appear anytime soon. But Microsoft is also well positioned to create its own rival Steam Deck, powered by Windows and providing access to PC Game Pass, Steam and other key launchers. After all, cloud devices don’t outperform PC gaming on the go where no internet connection is required.
The Asus ROG Ally stands out as the essential device for PC Game Pass on laptops. Spencer is a fan of the ROG Ally, describing the handheld as his “Xbox on the go” in a recent interview with Eurogamer. He also played down the idea of Microsoft creating its own Xbox handheld in that same interview. “I don’t need people to buy gear from us specifically to go play,” Spencer said. “(ROG Ally is) an amazing Xbox experience, even though we didn’t build the device. And I think that’s absolutely fine.
If Microsoft wants to stick with the OEMs and partners that are leading the way in Windows handhelds, it still needs to significantly improve the user experience. Most reviews of Steam Deck competitors have one thing in common: Windows. Microsoft’s desktop-focused operating system doesn’t scale well to smaller devices, especially when a touchscreen or analog sticks are involved. Asus and Lenovo have tried to build their own layers on top of Windows, but with everyone from OneXPlayer to Aya and GPD trying to fix the Windows problem, Microsoft really needs to step in.
“We’re working hard to make the Xbox and GP experience great on devices like the Ally… There’s still a lot to do,” admitted Spencer in a tweet in July. What’s left to do may include bringing features like Quick Resume to Windows players.
A leaked hackathon project for a Windows gaming handheld mode concept offered some hope earlier this year, but there’s still no sign from Microsoft that the company is ready to ship its own launcher and user interface. Windows 11 special for handhelds designed for touchscreens and controllers.
I sincerely hope that Microsoft is seriously working to improve the Windows-based handheld experience. Otherwise, we’ll end up with years of hacked projects from OEMs that never quite work. Valve has put a lot of effort into the underlying SteamOS that powers the Steam Deck so you don’t have to navigate a desktop Linux environment to access your favorite games. Windows deserves something similar.
With analyst estimates of the Steam Deck hitting 3 million sales this year, Linux overtaking macOS on Steam, and rumors of a Nintendo Switch 2 on the horizon, PC gaming handhelds look set to top their initial niche of the last decade. Microsoft is fully aware that these handhelds are growing in popularity and it needs to do something about it. “I don’t think these are going to be niche devices, they’re going to achieve large scale,” Spencer said in the report. Eurogamer interview.
If Xbox Cloud Gaming is potentially at a standstill, Microsoft may need to invest more in the Windows side, especially since there is currently more growth potential for PC Game Pass than for the console. We may not get the Xbox handheld that people have been asking for for years now, but if Microsoft can give the ROG Ally and other Windows handhelds a closer Xbox-like user experience, we could then have an army of Xbox handhelds on the way. .