While industry-leading video game consoles remain a big part of Xbox's toolkit, future growth will rely on new markets. With Xbox Game Pass as a vehicle, Microsoft can grow its gaming aspirations beyond the slim margins of the home console, expanding across PC, and crucially, into our pockets, via cloud-based delivery on Android and iOS devices.
All of this remains anchored in Xbox consoles, though. Cloud games are built to be console-first, with UI scaled for TV, controls that are gamepad-first, and cameras that assume a larger screen space at a 16:9 aspect ratio.
Microsoft does have an API for building "cloud-aware" games, which can present differently if a smaller screen is detected, complete with bespoke touch controls. This API will improve over time, as will the uptake from developers, but a dedicated Xbox-style "handheld" could solve the UX gap in one fell swoop.
I've always thought of the Nintendo Switch as the ultimate Xbox Game Pass cloud device. It's the perfect screen size, has two separate controllers for split-screen co-op games, and the joysticks are even offset Xbox-style. Alas, whether or not Nintendo would allow a version of Xbox Game Pass to grace its platform is firmly up for debate.
Just for fun, though, what would it look like if Microsoft itself made an Xbox handheld, designed and dedicated for Xbox Game Pass cloud gaming?
OS and features
Microsoft is working on a lightweight ChromeOS competitor dubbed Windows 10X, which will orient as web app-first, with a side order of UWP. This could be a pretty great vehicle to serve Xbox Game Pass on a mobile-first device, complete with services like Spotify, Netflix, Disney+, Microsoft Movies & TV, YouTube, Funimation, web browsing, and various other services that exist on the web. Thanks to Windows 10X and web apps, Microsoft could have a more "feature complete" gaming tablet to rival the Nintendo Switch, which is lacking entertainment apps in general.
Combined with a bespoke shell that focuses on full-screen apps optimized for touch and joystick navigation, a Windows 10X-based Xbox handheld could potentially do far more than competitors in the space. In essence, it would just be a Windows 10 PC, condensed down into a tablet form factor. Theoretically, you could even have other companies like Razer build their own tablet devices based on this Xbox-ified Windows 10X SKU, leading to more options and price points. I can't imagine Microsoft would go as far to put a sim card tray with 5G into this sort of device, but maybe a competing device would, at a higher price point.
Since it would be based on Windows 10 and come with similar features, you could have an HDMI-out port to move your experience up onto a larger display. You could throw in USB-C ports for peripherals, and even Bluetooth. This could be a fun device that not only serves as a gameplay tool but also a portable Office Web workstation, with a display larger than a standard phone.
The only Windows 10X device we've previously known about is the Surface Neo. The Neo is (or, was) a folding tablet device, complete with a magnetic keyboard attachment. The status of the Surface Neo is unknown. Given its lengthy delay, I wouldn't be surprised if it had been canceled. If not, though, the innovative design could serve as a potent vehicle for any prospective "Xbox handheld." Perhaps you wouldn't even need a dedicated device, but instead some sort of display attachment that turns the bottom half of the screen into a physical gamepad. Achieving that sounds easier in my head than it likely would be in reality, but Microsoft's engineering prowess and innovation could probably see it through.
Though, I do feel as though Xbox and Surface have very different goals when it comes to consumers. Any prospective Xbox handheld would likely target affordability, whereas Surface is certainly more of a luxury.
In theory, Microsoft could build some sort of handheld that undercuts the Nintendo Switch's $300 price point, given that it wouldn't need beefy graphics or processing if it was going all-in on cloud gaming. Wi-Fi 6 is a given, with a decent-size 7-inch 1080p display, perhaps, with some solid battery life for good measure.
There are a few similar handheld PCs on the market that Microsoft could potentially reference. The GPD Win clamshells come to mind, which come with Intel chips. I imagine a Windows 10X gaming tablet would be ARM-based, however, with a fanless design. Microsoft could opt for a thin tablet-like display similar to the Nintendo Switch itself, or perhaps go for something more like the GPD Win clamshells, complete with a mini keyboard for slandering your opponents in Xbox Live messages. And hey, if Microsoft does buy Discord, having a mini QWERTY keyboard would probably make sense.
Could it really happen?
I know you're thinking "why not just target phones?" The answer to that is, well, they are. As you can see in the above image, the current solutions for playing Xbox Game Pass on your phone just feel clunky. Even the best phone clips for Xbox Game Pass cloud streaming are clunky to use. The Nintendo Switch and the iPad both prove that people are willing to carry two separate devices that have specialized purposes.
In my experience, the best devices for Xbox Game Pass cloud streaming are tablets, thanks to their larger displays. Phone notifications are intrusive while gaming and the impact on battery life is obvious. Sometimes you just need things to be separate, and an Xbox handheld would solve that conundrum.
An Xbox handheld would also drive interest in the Xbox Game Pass service, particularly if it meets a level of quality that puts it up against the Nintendo Switch and other famous handhelds.
There have been rumors and even Microsoft Research papers for years exploring the idea of an "Xbox handheld," but could it really happen? In my opinion, that's a firm yes. Microsoft has all the expertise in-house to achieve something like this, and arguably already has with the Surface Duo.
It wouldn't be a stretch of the imagination to envision a lightweight Windows 10X-powered device that can provide Xbox Game Pass cloud streaming, alongside some potent web-based apps and services for good measure. And I for one hope they do do it.
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Jez Corden a Managing Editor at Windows Central, focusing primarily on all things Xbox and gaming. Jez is known for breaking exclusive news and analysis as relates to the Microsoft ecosystem while being powered by caffeine. Follow on Twitter @JezCorden and listen to his Xbox Two podcast, all about, you guessed it, Xbox!