Handhelds are hot again. Here's how Xbox and PlayStation could capitalize.
A stagnant market has roared to life once again.
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
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 in a web browser (Android users also have the option of using the official Xbox Game Pass app). 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
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.
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.
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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.