Someone inside of Microsoft is thinking about how to make a hyper-tailored version of Windows designed to run on Steam Deck-like handheld devices. Because, well, duh—of course that’s happening.
First, some key details. The “Windows Handheld Mode” videos shared by prolific Microsoft leaker WalkingCat are from a pitch created for an internal hackathon, not a proper Microsoft project. It very well may never see the light of day. It focuses on key features a Windows-powered Steam Deck rival would need such as an optimized onboarding experience, game launcher, driver handling, and more. The videos, embedded below, are definitely worth watching.
The only surprising thing about this leak is that it’s from a hackathon.
“We looked at taking some of the first steps in creating a truly optimized Windows experience for the handheld PC market, a market that is really just starting to grow right now thanks to a device called the Steam Deck,” an unnamed voiceover says in the Windows Handheld Mode video.
Valve’s Steam Deck launched early last year and instantly became the hottest thing in PC gaming, selling over a million units despite being severely supply constrained with long wait times for most of 2022. One firm expects it to top three million sales by the end of 2023. Very few singular PC products hit that level of adoption, much less right out of the gate. Handheld PCs like the Aya Neo existed before but the Steam Deck truly perfected (and essentially created) the market—and a large part of its success is due to Valve’s homebrew SteamOS.
Valve spent years carefully building and tuning SteamOS and its foundational live-or-die Proton Linux software as a potential escape hatch after Microsoft’s Windows 8 disaster. The entire operating system revolves around making your Steam games run as awesomely as possible on Valve’s affordable handheld, on Linux. Sure, you can run Windows on it, but that kind of sucks.
Handheld PCs are red hot. Running Windows on them pours cold water on the fun. And that’s Microsoft’s core problem. Cheaper Steam Deck rivals are on the way, along with pricier, higher-powered alternatives like the recently revealed Asus ROG Ally. Since Valve hasn’t made the Deck-optimized version of SteamOS available for other PC manufacturers to install, those competitors need to run Windows. That delivers an inherently worse experience than SteamOS right now, putting potential Windows-powered Steam Deck clones behind right out of the gate.
So yes, duh, of course Microsoft is working on a Windows Handheld Mode. It’s a bit concerning to see the concept only in hackathon stage as of last September, but hopefully a deeper dive into the project has been assigned by now. The next wave of handheld gaming PCs depends on it…unless Valve releases SteamOS for other devices first, which would probably be disastrous for Microsoft’s ambitions.
But who knows? Microsoft doesn’t always make the smartest decisions when it comes to Windows. On a related note, here’s how to make Windows 11 look like Windows 10.
Author: Brad Chacos, Executive editor
Brad Chacos spends his days digging through desktop PCs and tweeting too much. He specializes in graphics cards and gaming, but covers everything from security to Windows tips and all manner of PC hardware.