Windows is holding back the future of handheld gaming

digital trends

I’ve used most of the handheld gaming PCs released this year, but I always go back to my Steam Deck. It’s not the most powerful, it has some quirks, and I’m still struggling with a frustrating bug that can drain the battery in minutes. But it’s still the best handheld gaming PC you can buy, and that’s largely due to the fact that it doesn’t run Windows like other handhelds.

It’s not that I don’t like Windows. As a PC hardware expert, I am well-versed in both the benefits and peculiarities of PC gaming. Things don’t always work out the way you expect, and that’s just part of the process of getting the best gaming experience. However, when it comes to this evolving form factor of handheld gaming PCs, those issues are magnified and pushed to their breaking point.

we’ve been here before

The phone is running Windows.

When it comes down to it, the problem with Windows-based handhelds is simple: You can’t take a desktop operating system and impose it on a handheld. As flexible as Windows is, it presents many problems for handheld PCs. Overlays conflict with each other, any management options are limited to a small touchscreen, and modern features like suspending the game aren’t even thought about. We need a dedicated version of Windows for these types of handhelds, but Microsoft doesn’t have a good track record on that front.

Microsoft has attempted to create a “lite” version of Windows for decades. This is not an exaggeration. An attempt at a mobile version of Windows with Pocket PC occurred in 2000, and since then, we have seen various forms of Windows for tablets and mobiles. For the most part, these versions only saw a few releases on certain specific devices before being phased out completely.

The latest example of Microsoft’s efforts is the ill-fated Windows 10X. This lightweight version of Windows 10 was to be launched for dual-screen tablets, but it was canceled in 2021. Some features worked their way into Windows 10, and we can see remnants of the update on devices like Windows 11’s Enhanced Tablet Mode. Surface Laptop Studio 2.

Even with glimpses of a different version of Windows, we haven’t seen Microsoft do this successfully in decades of attempts. I have no doubt that Microsoft will continue to iterate, and we may one day get the Lite version of Windows that Microsoft has promised for years. Yet, we are well past the point of waiting for that to happen and it is time to move forward.

The Xbox home screen shows a starfield.

However, there is one area where Microsoft has successfully adapted Windows to another form factor, and that’s Xbox. Microsoft originally based its Xbox system software on Windows 8 with the release of the Xbox One, before moving to Windows 10 Core a few years later. This core operating system was the basis for several other versions of Windows, including versions for the HoloLens and Surface Hub.

This alone shows that Microsoft can do Build an adaptable OS that can fit multiple form factors. However, we don’t have a specific version for handheld gaming PCs. Instead, devices like the Asus ROG Ele, Lenovo Legion Go and Ayano 2S are moving forward with a desktop version of Windows 11 that doesn’t fit the purpose of these devices – and that’s where the problems arise.

But wait, there’s more

Phil Spencer giving a presentation at Microsoft Build.

If Microsoft could make a separate version of Windows for handheld gaming PCs, why don’t we have one? Microsoft certainly tried to bring Windows to every device with its initial Xbox push, but it looks like that effort is all but over after a series of hardware failures.

Windows Core was built around Universal Windows Platform (UWP) apps. This format allowed developers to ship apps to all versions of Windows with a single file, including versions that run on Xbox. It was a building block for something great: an ecosystem of Windows that worked across devices with the same apps. However, Microsoft has slowly destroyed this ecosystem over the past several years.

Windows Phone died out, the ambitious Hololens project shifted to a sole enterprise focus, and UWP apps on PC slowly died out due to Microsoft shutting down its advertising platform for UWP. Now, we’re at the point where Microsoft still supports some UWP apps, but the vast majority of the pool of games available on Windows are traditional Win32 apps.

The basic idea behind a major version of Windows was to allow Microsoft to quickly adapt a new version to meet the needs of the growing market of handheld gaming PCs. However, with the mismatched state of features and support we have now, it’s no surprise that most devices opt for the full desktop version of Windows 11 instead. At least, you can be sure that most games will run without any issues on the device. It’s a laptop, with only a controller instead of a keyboard and trackpad.

That difference couldn’t be more important. Windows 11 works on handhelds like the ROG Ellie, and that alone is a feat. But there’s one device that really understands the importance of software for this emerging form factor: the Steam Deck.

there is an answer

The steam deck was held between two hands.
Jacob Roach/

There is another platform that is highly modular and adaptable to different form factors: Linux. Linux is the foundation of many different devices, from smart devices to full desktops to Android. This flexibility makes it an ideal partner for a handheld gaming PC.

This is likely why Valve chose to use its own SteamOS instead of Windows on the Steam Deck. This is not an entirely new operating system developed by Valve; SteamOS 3 is based on Arch Linux, a popular distribution of Linux. It also bundles Valve’s Proton compatibility layer to run Windows apps on Linux. It is also based on the existing Wine application for Linux.

Valve didn’t get SteamOS right away. The original versions had limited features and poor performance compared to native Windows apps. Now, however, SteamOS 3 can not only match Windows in most games, it can even surpass Windows in some cases. We’ve seen this with the Steam Deck and the ROG Ellie, where the ROG Ellie’s performance doesn’t keep up with its hardware advantage.

Showdown between the Asus ROG Alley and the Steam Deck.
Jacob Roach/

There are limitations to Valve’s approach, with third-party storefronts not always working and games with anti-cheat software refusing to run. However, there is Sufficient Help. Unlike Microsoft’s approach with Windows Core, Valve already has a strong ecosystem of software and features built into Steam. They came before SteamOS 3, not the other way around.

There are some obvious benefits to Valve’s approach, too. For starters, you are able to suspend the system properly while playing games. This is a huge deal for handheld gaming, and it’s an aspect of devices like the ROG Ally and Ayaneo 2S that’s almost universally missed. Plus, you have a single home base for the software. On Windows-based devices, you have a series of utilities and overlays that can contend with each other, with each fighting for the top slot on the screen.

Even after spending an hour with a device like the ROG Ellie, the benefits of a purpose-built handheld operating system become clear. This is why the Steam Deck has so much staying power, and how it remains such a popular device even when faster devices – such as the ROG Ellie – are available at reasonable prices.

nobody’s master

Asus ROG associates with Windows lock screen.
Jacob Roach/

The amount of software available for Windows is unmatched, which is both the operating system’s greatest strength and greatest weakness. Microsoft needs to cater to the many different ways people use Windows, which means devices dedicated to a particular type of users (ie, gamers) often don’t get all the attention they deserve.

I’m still hopeful that we’ll see a stripped-back version of Windows 11 in the future that can make devices like the ROG Ellie stand out above the Steam deck. I would happily jump ship. However, right now, developers need a way to cater to a specific type of user, and that way is Linux, not Windows.

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