Microsoft needs to optimize Windows before making an Xbox handheld

 Ayaneo 2S with Xbox Game Pass art on screen.
Ayaneo 2S with Xbox Game Pass art on screen.

Just like many other portable fans, the idea of an Xbox handheld is apparently living in Phil Spencer’s head rent free. The fact that Microsoft’s gaming head honcho is as enthusiastic about making a Steam Deck rival as the company’s faithful followers is ultimately a good thing, but I can’t help but feel like there’s a solution in the palms of many players already.

Microsoft might have never got around to making a fully fledged Xbox portable throughout its history, but many of the best gaming handhelds today use Windows 11. In a way, using the OS unites devices like the Asus ROG Ally, Ayaneo 2S, and MSI Claw against dominant forces like the Steam Deck OLED, as any improvements made in terms of optimization benefits all parties. Sadly, we’ve yet to see any such refinements to Windows emerge as of yet, and I’m not convinced Phil Spencer wants to go down that route.

For context, during a chat with Polygon at GDC, Spencer disclosed his desires for an Xbox handheld experience on the Lenovo Legion GO. “I want to be able to boot into the Xbox app in full screen, but in a compact mode.” laments the CEO, elaborating that he wants a full “social experience” paired with something that feels like an Xbox console dash. Simply put, Phil wants Windows to feature something like Valve’s Big Picture mode, which makes sense given that it’s what cements the Steam Deck’s claim to the throne.

Spencer goes on to reveal that Xbox hardware boss Roanne Sones and her team are looking into “different hardware form factors and things that [they] could go do.” Again, this is great, as it means the idea of portable support is on the table. That said, the company’s endeavors seemingly hinge on whether it should take a software or hardware approach, with the CEO caveating that while he’s a fan of multi-platform devices like portable PCs, he doesn’t want fans to feel “like a lesser Xbox [player].”

Do we need a dedicated Xbox handheld?

Ayaneo 2S with Xbox Game Pass on screen
Ayaneo 2S with Xbox Game Pass on screen

I love dedicated hardware as much as the next person, and I’ve been waiting for an Xbox handheld to arrive for years. Yet, I also think that ship has sort of sailed, and the fact there are so many portable Windows PCs on the market means that, in a sense, third-party manufacturers have beaten Microsoft to the chase.

That’s not remotely a bad thing, as you only have to look at the way Nintendo has stamped out its competition over the years to know that an Xbox handheld would probably have ended up in the same casket as the PS Vita. So, rather than trying to conjure up dedicated hardware and lock players into an ecosystem, the firm should charge on with bringing its console experience to PCs and fulfilling Phil Spenser’s dreams of an optimized ‘big picture’ mode.

It’s not like this is even the first time Microsoft has touched on the concept of handheld Windows 11 optimization. Last year, a leak by WalkingCat on Twitter showcased what an optimized UI might look like, complete with proper desktop scaling and that coveted Xbox app. Whether or not we’ll see that pitch come to life remains to be seen, but it’ll likely all hinge on if the company wants to continue being hardware focussed.

Personally, I’d be happy if Microsoft decided to go with a mixed approach, creating its own hardware that comes armed with a fully optimized version of Windows 11. That way, it’d allow the console titans to contribute its own vision of portable gaming while maintaining multi-platform support. I’m willing to bet fans would still buy an Xbox handheld even if it ends up being just like the ROG Ally or Legion GO, and it’d perhaps help encourage Sony to get more competitive when it comes to its potential PlayStation Vita 2.

Looking for more ways to play? Check out the best gaming PC and best gaming laptop for powerhouse rigs. Alternatively, swing by the best Steam Deck dock to turn Valve's portable into a hybrid.