We’re celebrating 20 years of Xbox this year, and it comes at a time when Microsoft is more devoted to gaming than ever. The huge studio acquisition push Microsoft’s made these past few years have turned it into a publishing juggernaut. Xbox Game Pass continues to chalk up wins, with Forza Horizon 5 and Halo Infinite both receiving critical acclaim in 2021. The company’s gaming initiatives are succeeding on both PC and console, but something is missing. That something is an Xbox handheld. And frankly, I’m stunned we still don’t have one.
What purpose would an Xbox handheld serve?
We need to be honest about the state of cloud gaming right now: it’s not ready for prime time. Streaming can still be problematic on a perfect connection at home. Expecting a flawless experience while using a cloud service on a mobile device is asking way too much right now.
An Xbox handheld fills the gap in the same way Microsoft’s home consoles do. Microsoft isn’t so all-in on streaming that it stopped making Xbox machines. It knows the limitations of the cloud and the wants of core console gamers. Why not give portable fans the same ability to access their favorite games on a dedicated piece of hardware?
What could an Xbox handheld look like?
One only needs to look toward the Steam Deck for the model Microsoft could follow.
Valve’s SteamOS-powered portable runs on AMD’s RDNA 2 architecture, just like Microsoft’s Xbox Series X and Series S. The key differences are in power — you won’t be seeing near the fidelity on the Deck as you do on Microsoft’s home machines — and in choice of OS.
Microsoft could pump out a similar piece of tech that runs on Windows (which the Steam Deck is also capable of doing, by the way) and rig it up to play games from PC Game Pass. That would give users the flexibility to tune their settings, but isn’t quite as plug-and-play as the typical handheld experience.
Another option — though its one that could actually do more harm than good — is Microsoft could position the Xbox handheld as a third, much-lower spec point in its Xbox lineup. The handheld could run all the games available on Xbox consoles just as the Series S and Series X do now. The difference would be that developers would have to create yet another version of their game to handle portable performance. Some devs already aren’t happy about having to work with both Series machines. Adding a third certainly wouldn’t help matters.
Microsoft needs a better handheld option
Microsoft has toyed with Nintendo Switch support in the past. It’s allowed one-time console exclusives to venture over onto Nintendo’s portable several times. Yet the company has dialed that back as of late without introducing its own dedicated handheld Xbox alternative.
What the company needs to realize is that the cloud can’t cut it right now, and it is leaving opportunities for engagement on the table by not doing its own portable gaming machine. A world where gamers can flow freely between their home console and a handheld, playing all the games they own — not just the ones on Xbox Cloud Gaming — should be the one we live in. I hope Microsoft finally catches on and drops that Xbox Series V (or Series M or P or whatever it’s called). I’ll be one of the first in line to buy it.