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Microsoft experiments with Windows handheld mode for Steam Deck and more

Microsoft is exploring early concepts around a Windows handheld mode for devices like the Steam Deck. A leaked video posted on Twitter by h0x0d shows early concept and prototype work for an optimized Windows 11 UI for handhelds, and a launcher and Windows gaming shell that’s designed for touchscreens and controllers.

The video is part of a hackathon project inside Microsoft from September, where employees regularly present ideas or projects that sometimes end up getting support from Microsoft executives and end up shipping.

While it’s not clear who’s narrating the video, they do a good job of highlighting all the current issues of running Windows on a handheld gaming device like the Steam Deck. Valve offers drivers for Windows on Steam Deck, but the Windows UI is difficult to navigate with touch or a controller, and there’s no dedicated launcher like SteamOS has.

The video references some prototype handheld work created by Dorothy Feng, a senior UX designer at Microsoft. It includes a launcher that can open games from Steam, PC Game Pass, EA Play, Epic Games Store, and more. This handheld gaming prototype also includes a keyboard optimized for the Steam Deck that can be navigated using a controller, and even a floating taskbar that we’ve seen Microsoft tease before.

The team working on this hackathon project also started working with a developer that created a way to use Steam Deck controls across Windows. There’s even a gaming shell customized for Windows and created by Hayden McAfee, a senior software engineer at Microsoft who works on gaming experiences for Windows.

The hackathon project resulted in a setup experience where drivers and services are installed, the controller works, and there’s a launcher to quickly launch games from different stores. It looks like super early work and there’s a long list of issues and optimizations that would be needed in Windows and the Xbox app for Microsoft to make this a reality.

At the end of the video there’s a call to action for fellow Microsoft employees to “get serious about handheld gaming on Windows” that can help improve Microsoft’s image and credibility in the PC gaming community. 

While this project may never ship, it’s encouraging to see Microsoft employees pushing for it to happen. Microsoft was quick to support Xbox Cloud Gaming on the Steam Deck, but we’ve heard little about its Windows ambitions for handheld gaming outside of this leaked presentation.

A number of Switch-like handheld gaming devices from GPD and OneXPlayer or even the Ayaneo 2 have been relying on Windows without an optimized UI from Microsoft. That means companies have to build their own interfaces and launchers to make Windows more controller and handheld friendly.

There are signs that we’ll start to see even more Windows handheld devices soon, too. Asus just announced its ROG Ally, which aims to go head to head with the Steam Deck and is powered by a customized Ryzen APU from AMD and Windows 11. A Windows handheld mode certainly make a lot of sense right now.

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