Handhelds are hot again. Here's how Xbox and PlayStation could capitalize.

Steam Deck
Steam Deck (Image credit: Valve)

Handheld gaming devices were a huge hit during the late '80s and throughout both the '90s and the 2000s, but the market for them largely stagnated once most audiences moved towards home consoles or desktop gaming PCs. However, with the industry-dominating success of the Nintendo Switch (as well as the 3DS handheld before it), the rise of mobile gaming on smartphones, and the development of cloud game streaming services, gaming on handheld devices is popular again. But will some of the biggest names in the industry move to capitalize?

With the announcement of the Steam Deck portable handheld gaming PC, Valve has (surprisingly) pushed into the portable gaming market and might have Nintendo beat at its own game thanks to the device's impressive specs and versatility. But what about Xbox and PlayStation — what will Microsoft and Sony do to get in on the handheld fun? Here's a look at what both companies could (and should) do to invest in handheld gaming moving forward.

Xbox: Game streaming, 'Xboy' Switch rival

Source: Jez Corden | Windows Central (Image credit: Source: Jez Corden | Windows Central)

Microsoft is poised for success already, but why not make an "Xboy"?

Right out of the gate, Microsoft is poised for success in the handheld gaming space thanks to its robust and well-developed Xbox Cloud Gaming (xCloud) services, which are available through subscriptions to Xbox Game Pass Ultimate. Xbox Cloud Gaming's game library includes many of the best Xbox games and is growing steadily, and recently, Microsoft even upgraded the service with custom Xbox Series X server blades for top-notch load speeds, performance, and visuals. Xbox Cloud Gaming is also more widely available than ever before, as Android, iOS, MacOS, and Windows 10 users can all access it by heading to xbox.com/play (opens in new tab) in a web browser (Android users also have the option of using the official Xbox Game Pass app (opens in new tab)). Since Windows 10 (or Windows 11) can be installed on the Steam Deck, users will be able to enjoy Xbox Cloud Gaming on that device as well.

Something Xbox currently lacks, though, is a dedicated handheld device that can compete with the Nintendo Switch. My colleague Daniel Rubino has written about why there's no excuse for Microsoft not making an "Xboy" to rival Nintendo Switch, and I fully agree with him — especially now that Xbox Game Pass has become a global hit and Xbox Cloud Gaming has become a very refined and polished experience. Imagine an "Xboy" with Steam Deck-level specs that could be used to play Xbox Game Pass titles natively or stream them through Xbox Cloud Gaming. The potential here is nothing short of insane, and Microsoft would be foolish not to make a handheld device like this.

Sony: Revive the PS Vita, improve PS Now

Source: Sony (Image credit: Source: Sony)

Sony has to make up ground in the handheld gaming market, and it only has itself to blame.

Compared to Microsoft, Sony has to make up ground if it wants to seriously compete in the handheld gaming space. Sony only has itself to blame for its absence in this market, though, as it failed to properly support and nurture its PlayStation Vita project from 2012. Instead of doubling down and making improvements to the Vita like Nintendo did with its 3DS when initial sales were low, Sony basically abandoned its handheld and left it to die when it didn't immediately succeed ("Vita" is Latin for "life," which is some delicious irony in this case). Despite the system's lackluster game library and absurdly expensive proprietary memory cards, though, many of the Vita's fans swear by the device's design and ergonomics. If Sony actually had more faith in its own machine, the Vita could have thrived.

Sony can't go back in time and rectify those mistakes now, but it can revive the PS Vita by either developing a modern version of it or using what it learned from the Vita as a foundation for a completely new handheld. If Sony gives it solid specs and support for PlayStation Now, the company will no doubt blast back into the portable gaming market.

Speaking of PS Now, Sony could also put in some work to expand the game streaming service to handheld platforms. As it exists currently, PS Now is only supported on PS4, PS5, and Windows PCs. By taking a page out of the Xbox Cloud Gaming playbook and making PS Now usable on iOS, Android, and MacOS, Sony would have an answer to Microsoft's game streaming.

Final thoughts

Both Microsoft and Sony have excellent opportunities to expand into the handheld gaming market, and with both Nintendo and Valve focusing heavily on the space, I hope that the other two gaming juggernauts in the industry follow suit. Seeing an "Xboy" get made would be fantastic, and it would also be sweet to see Sony revive its PS Vita project. The global silicon shortage affecting tech companies around the world will likely delay any attempts to create devices like these, but when it finally passes, I can't wait to see what Microsoft and Sony have in store for portable gaming.

Brendan Lowry is a Windows Central writer and Oakland University graduate with a burning passion for video games, of which he's been an avid fan since childhood. You'll find him doing reviews, editorials, and general coverage on everything Xbox and PC. Follow him on Twitter.

  • Please don't call it Xboy lol
  • Agreed! I can't believe how frequently it's used. It just sounds terrible
  • Ide see them calling it something like Xbox series p 😉
  • the other option is Xbox Boy.
  • No one really wants another Xbox or PlayStation walled garden portable. They might say they do, but they don't. The Steam Deck's openness, from its mods, controller options and emulation potential, make it a much more attractive selling point than just another walled garden portable. What Sony needs to do is expand and bring PS Now to mobile devices, via cloud, and make their games day and date with console on it.
  • PS Now definitely should expand, no disagreement there.
  • The thing that will be really helpful for Xbox here is Gamepass. No one is giving a deal as good as that rn.
  • The problem is that PCs have a bunch of problems like: having to use inefficient x86 architecture instead of ARM, devs don't have access to low level APIs, the architecture of the SoC is more limited, devs won't make versions of their games tuned for the hardware, etc.
  • The use of PC games is the only chance this console has. The only chance.
    Even gaming juggernauts like PlayStation struggled in the handheld space with the Vita. Imagine coming in with zero IP, and expecting developers to optimize games for some specialized custom silicon. x86 based games are the only way to go for this to even be remotely considered feasible.
    Only very few companies can pull off the custom silicon thing today (Nintendo, Apple, Microsoft, Sony), and in the case of Nintendo, that's because of established franchises like Mario, Zelda, Pokémon, Pikmin etc.. Nintendo can get away with selling Mario and Smash Bros alone and their consoles will still sell a lot. Valve has to ride on the existing PC games. It's really the only chance they have.
  • They can do themselves some favors by releasing sequels to favorites like Team Fortress and Half Life, which might move more inventory as well
  • But, Xbox isn't really a walled garden, if you consider that games can be played on PC, home consoles and now most any device capable of running Xcloud. Sony is the true walled garden. They have nothing, but console.
  • "but the market for them largely stagnated" In what Universe? The Nintendo DS sold 125 million, the Gameboy Advance sold 75 million, and the 3DS sold 78 million. Even the PSP sold 80 million across its variants. Although the Vita sold significantly less than all of these.
  • So the Vita sold significantly less than the PSP and the 3DS sold significantly less than the DS. You answered your own question.
  • In the universe where the only relevant handheld for roughly 5-7 years aside from smartphone mobile gaming was the 3DS.
  • What Reason does MS have to make a dedicated handheld? If the goal of Xcloud is to allow you to stream it from any device, however you want, why invest in a dedicated handheld? They should continue what they are doing which is treat it as a platform, and let OEMs come up with their own solutions. Hell there's already people who plan on wiping the stock OS from the Steam Desk and installing windows. From there, they have access to xbox game pass natively, along with Xcloud and MS' other services
  • Because it could be used to play Game Pass games natively, and that gives it an advantage over Steam Deck that can only access XGPU PC games. If you make a worldwide hit of a subscription service, making a portable device that can play or stream all of those hundreds of games is pretty valuable.
  • Microsoft doesn't need to make a device. They have dozens of OEMs making portable PC gaming devices that are perfectly capable of running Xbox PC games.
  • What about the Game Pass games not on PC? The XGPU library on PC isn't as large as the one that people have access to on Xbox consoles.
  • Sony tried a lot of times, they did it and now don't want to so it anymore. Xbox on the other hand has the upper hand of newness (and not being Sony which is always a plus).