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Windows 11 is holding gaming handhelds back

ROG AllyImage: Asus

Handhelds fall into two categories, those from original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) that rely on their own software like the Steam Deck, and other third-party handhelds like the ROG Ally and Lenovo Legion Go that use Windows as their operating system.

While the former aren’t free of issues, there has been tons more criticism recently about the latter category as gamers grapple with a handful of different problems they encounter. The main cause? Windows just isn’t optimized for these devices.

Why Windows is hurting third-party handhelds

Don’t get me wrong, you can just as easily play Baldur’s Gate 3 on the ROG Ally as you can on the Steam Deck; the ability to play games isn’t the issue. Looking at Windows based handhelds on their hardware merits alone, they’re almost all impressive systems, with powerful hardware, decent battery lives, and displays worthy of some of the best graphics on portable gaming devices.

Our favorite windows gaming handheld

Asus ROG Ally

Asus ROG AllyRead our reviewPrice When Reviewed:From $599.99 | Model reviewed $699.99Best Prices Today:$599.99 at Asus | $699.99 at Best Buy

But it’s the quality and smoothness of the user experience and the compatibility you’re likely to get that just isn’t comparable to Steam Deck or Nintendo’s Switch console right now, and that’s a big shame.

While Valve’s Linux-based SteamOS will take care of most of the game-stopping quirks while you’re playing, users of the third-party handhelds have been reporting more annoyances than you can poke a stick at, from general clunkiness in the UI, to overlay conflicts and frame rate issues in older games.

Then there are the constant updates, or the updates that just won’t execute, error messages that preshadow crashes, and — a frequent complaint — problems trying to suspend games.

Some of the biggest issues are summed up and debated by my colleague Adam Patrick Murray and PCWorld contributor Will Smith in a recent video entitled “Does Windows suck for gaming handhelds?” They present a balanced argument, which is well worth watching. You can see the full chat below.

Why is Windows 11 so clunky on handhelds?

To be fair, Windows 11 was never made for handhelds. It’s optimized for windows PCs which have a different set of instructions for a whole bunch of things like the controllers, screen sizing, and interfacing — even for how the power supply is utilized.

That’s all good and well for PCs but it’s not ideal for handhelds when the OS is roughly adapted for the smaller, uniquely different systems. Manufacturers and Microsoft will usually find workarounds to most issues. But whether gamers should have to put up with issues in the first place when they’ve paid neigh on $700 for a new handheld is the big question.

After all, gaming is meant to be recreational, the kind of activity you squeeze in between work and a myriad of life’s other commitments. So, any kind of extra tinkering or problem solving just to get a game running smoothly or to stop your system crashing can really get one’s goat — and rightly so.

What can be done about it?

There’s no doubt a lightweight version of Windows 11 that has been especially optimized for handhelds would solve most of these issues. It could certainly restore confidence in a legion of gamers ticked-off by the less-than-optimal experience. It could also prevent manufacturers of third-party handhelds looking for alternatives to Windows as an OS for their future console releases.

Rumors have been stirring about a possible lightweight version of Windows 11 for some time now. In fact, since April 2023 there’s been talk of the holy grail actually being a reality — that Microsoft is currently experimenting with a Handheld Mode of Windows 11. But so far there’s been no solid confirmation of that.

Asus

But a recent Microsoft move may provide a little hint. Microsoft took a first step towards a version of Windows 11 for handhelds in December last year by introducing a new compatible mode for the Xbox app on PC, which optimizes the interface for a smaller screen.

Microsoft is also keenly aware of the issues surrounding Windows OS on handhelds too if that’s anything to go by. In a recent interview with Polygon Microsoft Xbox and gaming chief Phil Spencer said, “The things that usually frustrate me are more Windows-based than device-based,” when referring to gaming on Windows handhelds. If the rumors are true, we can only hope the project doesn’t go the way of the ill-fated Windows 10X OS.

What a handheld version of Windows 11 should look like

If Microsoft does step up to the plate and make a version of Windows 11 for handhelds there’s lots I’d like to see included.

First and foremost would have to be an adaptive interface that allows for larger icons and the use of intuitive gestures.

I’d also be chuffed with a customizable layout and more touch optimization, with the addition of features like pinch-to-zoom. Add to that a bunch of game enhancements that optimize performance and compatibility with peripherals and a dedicated app store that makes it easier to run legacy software, and you’d have one happy camper in me. I could go on, but these things would be a good start.

Only time will tell if third-party handhelds get the version of Windows 11 they deserve. Until then be prepared to spend a little more time tweaking and working around issues. Yes, it’s not ideal, but on the bright side you’ll know your handheld’s settings menus inside-out.

Based in Australia, Dominic Bayley is a hardcore tech enthusiast. His PCWorld focus is on PC gaming hardware: laptops, mice, headsets and keyboards.

Recent stories by Dominic Bayley:

What are hybrid switches in gaming mice?Asus ROG Keris II Ace review: Near perfection in an esports mouseDoes lift-off distance matter in a gaming mouse?

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