Imagining an Xbox gaming handheld console to compete with Nintendo Switch

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

Source: Windows Central (Image credit: Source: Windows Central)

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.

Thanks to Windows 10X and web apps, Microsoft could have a more "feature complete" gaming tablet to rival the Nintendo Switch.

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.

Form factor

Source: GPD GPD makes a range of impressive handheld gaming PCs. (Image credit: Source: GPD)

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.

Source: Windows Central (Image credit: Source: Windows Central)

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?

Source: Windows Central8bitdo's Xbox controller for Android phones. (Image credit: Source: Windows Central)

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.

Could it really happen? In my opinion, that's a firm yes.

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.

Jez Corden
Co-Managing Editor

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!

  • I don't think so. But I would think Microsoft could:
    A) Announce cloud gaming in the browser at the same time Windows 10X launches.
    B) Release a true Xbox Gaming laptop, to the PCMR folks. The margins in the mobile space just aren't there. I think MS's current approach makes more sense when you consider it's current risk/reward. Nintendo went all-in on Switch because it could. Microsoft can't and wouldn't. Spencer even said as much.
  • Lol *ms spends 19.7b c.o.h.* "Microsoft can't..."
  • Microsoft also just announced a business-focus camera without a Windows feature that has existed for over five years. I think "Microsoft can't" is applicable. Microsoft has not built the corporate culture to allow a Nintendo strategy.
  • It's not that MS can't.
    ($130B cash in the bank, with $5B *net* coming in each month says they can "sit anywhere they want".)
    They just don't see the need.
    Their plans are way bigger than fighting Nintendo for a few "measely" bucks. 😉
  • They should team up in handheld devices and put games on each other's platform instead :P
  • Microsoft will never compete against Nintendo... Xbox don't aim for that audience, what Mario, Zelda and so on is for Nintendo and the fan base will is a level that Xbox can't hit, and even if Xbox made a handheld device it will never make a difference for Nintendo.
  • Oh, they will. Even Qualcomm has a handheld gaming device reportedly coming out in early 2022. Game streaming and 5G is going to drive this, not some weird avoidance of Nintendo.
  • It's not that they're avoiding Nintendo, it's that I don't think their stuff translates well. They don't have a good foot in mobile, in terms of brand recognition or product. They're very reliant on Android to make things go, along with devices from other OEMs, since their only mobile device is in a form factor that doesn't lend itself as well to heavy gameplay sessions. On top of that, Nintendo wins on compelling content. As it stands, I think you're almost exclusively talking about a Game Pass user base that would use its existing subscription on mobile, if given the chance. I don't know how well xCloud would translate to NEW Game Pass subscription, which I think has to be the goal of the design costs. Over time, it becomes more palatable when MS starts finally releasing some new content. Nintendo's not the competition here, mobile gaming in general is. Even then, it's not so much as competitor because you're talking a console library against an app store that aren't overlapping much. The big thing's going to be what kind of hardware is going to convince me to play Xbox games on a phone. Ori? That's easy, as are other smaller, simpler games. What's going to get me to play Forza on there, or other games that I'd invest a lengthy Game Pass subscription into? They need stuff to play, and I'm not sold that they'd get a bunch of new Game Pass users on mobile from the ability to play games from 5-15 years ago.
  • Nintendo doesn't have Game Pass. Game Pass is more appealing to people than some the games Nintendo is offering till this day. The lack of or speaking about big games or totally new thought off games at Nintendo is real. Even if Xbox made a dedicated handheld. It would do extremely well since people have been asking for one for a long time. Nintendo isn't as good as the good old days when they still had the magic.
  • One option is to create magnetically attached gamepad, the analog of the keyboard that would go with the Surface Neo. I know that's not what's being suggested here but it would be really cool. It's not like MS doesn't know anything about controllers!
  • The problem is that people are going to be far more vigorous with a gamepad than they are with a keyboard, so it would need to be attached far more firmly than just magnets could do and you'd also risk scratching the screen it was overlaying unless the back was well padded.
  • I don't think Microsoft would. IMO, they would be better-served bringing Game Pass to Switch and letting Nintendo's handheld deliver them a strong user base to get Game Pass subs. Their efforts in hardware have been inconsistent of late. I also don't think the Neo would make sense as a solution. It's WAY too big to be held like a gamepad, and that's before considering the terrible ergonomics of holding it in that laptop "posture" for an extended period of time. It might be doable with a Duo, but it's still gotta get refreshed with better internals and iron out a boatload of bugs. On the mobile front, I think the best solution for now is to let Android carry Microsoft's water for xCloud. Attaching a smartphone to an XB1 controller mount is the best solution, and I don't think it's particularly close. Microsoft COULD make a single-screen phone with this in mind, but I suspect they'd sooner leave it to the existing devices on the market, rather than pour a bunch of money into an Android phone to deliver Game Pass.
  • This. Any controller that isn't an actual Xbox controller won't be as good. No reason to reinvent the wheel. Get it running well on Android and iOS, and your user base is covered. You don't get to sell extra hardware though.
  • Ha, I made this exact comment just yesterday. The Duo is a device that struggles because the use-case for it isn't clear as people can't take advantage of the dual screens. Today, there are few meaningful connections happening between both screens on the Duo. If you can't get a useful workflow between both screens, then the device is not much more than eye candy. One great use-case for Duo (or Neo) would be gaming. You could build an experience that is simply not possible with a candy-bar form factor. Anyway, back to your regular programing.
  • Isn't that what the Duo is for in the near future?
  • How about Xbox Cloud with a Xbox controller connected to a surface ar glasses.
  • If the handheld is only to stream xCloud games, then I don't see a point. I still wouldn't want it if it played games locally. It would have to be an ARM based device and would most definitely hold back the Series X, unless it was considered its own platform, which would add even more confusion.
  • Considering their strategy revolves around internet connection, requiring WiFi or even 5G to function, it only makes sense to launch it on a connected Phone or Tablet. Perhaps it could be a part of a future Surface or Duo device, as long as they made a controller addon that didn't feel like a plastic afterthought like those chunky Razer devices. The Nintendo switch would be a perfect fit, but making something like that themselves would fail since it wouldn't run any games offline.
  • A simpler solution: A phone from Samsung (or competitor) with a connector (and tracks) to solidly lock a controller accessory.
    Existing controller ad-ons mostly cradle the phone instead of locking it in solidly.
    The docking connector would allow a USB connection instead of Bluetooth; the (collapsible?) rails would lock it in, with either a thumb wheel or a tension lever.
    Half a dozen solutions are possible.
    Once the infrastructure can properly support xCloud (and other streaming services) the phone makers will respond. For differentitiation, if nothing else.
    MS doesn't have to do anything on the hardware side.
  • I think such an idea is pointless, given the ecosystem, The OEMs are already doing just that, take a look at the AYA Neo
  • To me it seems like a waste of money and time, just focus on getting xCloud into more hands instead.
  • I would just prefer to have a dedicated pocket PC handheld like the GPD Win Series or the Aya Neo and to have MS do a better job of improving the touch experience in Windows for navigation purposes. If they out out a cloud-based dedicated Xbox handheld, it just winds up being another bill to pay, both for the internet and the for GamePass and the experience isn't even guaranteed to be on par with a device that plays games locally because it is dependent on internet connection. I would love for Nintendo to have competition but cloud gaming isn't enough to make them sweat yet, imo.
  • Insert "shut up and take my money" meme here.
  • so more crap games ? only thing fun was zelda on switch. i have a phone if i want dumb games.
  • I thought PlayStation could, back in the day with the PSP. Far superior hardware from Sony and it could not touch Nintendo. I still play and love my PSP. But Nintendo owns this space as handheld king. I would have liked a Xbox handheld years ago, but not so much now. Just beef up the Duo2 with a magnetic controller attachment (like the keyboard they showed for Neo) and you'll have magic.
  • I have the Tapwave Zodiac 2, super thin with an awesome analog stick. They could use that design in the magnetic attachment for the Duo controller.
  • Why? Literally why? Isn't the duo supposed to be a kind of somewhat sort of two screen landscape handheld gaming machine? At least, that's what the advert told us when it launched. I cannot imagine a single instance where a 10 year old kid would opt for a microsoft windows device (with built in teams and excel on the go 😁😁) over a Nintendo switch
  • Don't worry, Nintendo, it's not a time.
    Samsung Qualcomm Switch Pro, what in stores ?