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There's no need for a handheld Xbox console – we already have them

 An image of an Xbox controller, smartphone running Xbox Game Pass on top of some Xbox games.
An image of an Xbox controller, smartphone running Xbox Game Pass on top of some Xbox games.

There are all sorts of things that could make Xbox a success over the next few years: the launch of The Elder Scrolls 6, Fable 4, expanded Game Pass options, a killer expansion for Starfield, and a host of exclusives. But the one thing I don’t think will change the success of Xbox and the position of the Xbox Series X in the market is a handheld console.

Murmurs of some form of Xbox handheld have been bubbling away for years, but few rumors have really ignited. But more recently Jez Corden from our sibling publication Windows Central reported that Microsoft has handheld prototypes, and Microsoft Gaming boss Phil Spencer has told Polygon that the company is exploring "different hardware form factors and things.” So this would pour some fuel on the smoldering rumor fire.

Yet while I love new hardware, I’m not sure we need an Xbox handheld games console.

Slick streaming

Best Xbox Game Pass streaming accessories
Best Xbox Game Pass streaming accessories

The simple fact is that you already have a handheld Xbox console in the form of your smartphone. If you fork out for Xbox Game Pass Ultimate to get access to Xbox exclusives, games spanning multiple generations, and PC games – which means Game Pass Ultimate remains one of the best deals in gaming – you also get access to Xbox Cloud Gaming, which lets you stream games to all manner of devices, but most notably phones and tablets.

All you need is the Game Pass app and you can access a suite of Xbox games, old and new, on one of the best Android phones or an iPhone; the latter does need an app that points to a web browser bookmark, but it’s trivially simple to set up.

Ideally, you’ll have a Bluetooth Xbox controller and some form of bracket to attach your phone to it, or a controller accessory that turns your phone into a pseudo-Nintendo Switch. But if not, there are some games that Microsoft has retrofitted with on-display controls – think virtual buttons rather than custom touchscreen controls – which work reasonably well for a brief gaming session. And with access to 5G, even cheap phones can tap into Xbox Cloud Gaming.

Now I’ll admit the service isn’t perfect, especially in terms of lag, but it’s far from bad. And even if you don’t think a smartphone is big enough for a good handheld gaming console, well there’s a solution to that in the form of Valve’s Steam Deck.

Steaming ahead

Woman playing PUBG on Steam Deck
Woman playing PUBG on Steam Deck

With a little bit of manipulation on the Steam OS desktop, you can coax the Steam Deck to not only access Xbox Game Pass via a web browser but also recognize the Deck’s controller. Once I set it up this way, I actually finished Starfield on my Steam Deck.

Of course, if some code wrangling isn't your scene then you can opt for one of a growing crop of Windows 11-based handheld gaming PCs, like the ROG Ally, that run Game Pass out of the box and can also run Xbox games natively.

So with such hardware and streaming capabilities, I don’t really see a place for a dedicated handheld Xbox device. Unless Microsoft can make such a console at a cost that undercuts the aforementioned Steam Deck, I’m not sure there are a lot of people clamoring for such a device.

The fact that Sony's PS Vita never really found its feet on a large scale, and the PlayStation Portal is a niche device, shows that even PlayStation struggles with handheld consoles. So one would be forgiven for asking “Why would Xbox ever bother?”

And before you say it, yes I know people will look towards Nintendo as an example of making handheld gaming work. But Nintendo has decades of experience and goodwill to call upon, starting with the Game & Watch, then the iconic Game Boy then the various DS models, and culminating with the Nintendo Switch OLED - and potentially a Switch 2. I’d love to be proven wrong, but I can’t see Microsoft coming up with a device that would get within spitting distance of even Nintendo's 'weakest' handhelds.

However, if Microsoft revealed a mobile Xbox device made with the same care and precision as its Surface machines, I’d be all over it. But putting aside gadget lust, I feel the current options we already have mean that there are already handheld Xbox consoles available in different form factors.

Instead of pursuing new hardware, I’d much rather Microsoft and the Xbox division worked to make cloud-based game streaming even better and optimize games for use on the Steam Deck and other handheld PCs. Heck, it would be amazing if some older Xbox exclusives even got ported over to the Switch, though that could be a bit pie-in-the-sky thinking.

In short, I don’t need or want a handheld Xbox console. But I do need and want Microsoft to build out the Xbox experience on handheld hardware; I don’t think that’s asking for too much.

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