Although the Steam Deck’s default Linux operating systems and the Proton translator layer can run an astonishing number of PC games, it is possible to install Windows to increase compatibility and flexibility. Alternate handheld PC designs, such as the AYA Neo, ship with Windows by default.
Windows is not the ideal operating system for Steam Deck. Its mouse-and-keyboard-oriented user interface isn’t comfortable or convenient to use on a small handheld system like the Steam Deck. Windows 11 allows touchscreens to be used, but buttons and menus can still prove difficult to use on a small screen. It doesn’t work with Steam or Windows’ touchscreen keyboard. Installing drivers and launching new games can be difficult.
Microsoft is aware that Windows on Steam Deck, as well as other handheld Windows PCs are having problems. At least some of its developers have spent time considering solutions. That’s the thrust of a leaked presentation (posted In two parts by Twitter user _h0x0d_) about a new “Handheld Mode” for Windows, developed as part of an internal Microsoft hackathon in September 2022.
Handheld Mode, as presented, includes several components. A new screen for first-time setup that makes it easier to install and configure drivers; an improved touchscreen keyboard that fits on a 7 inch screen and can be controlled Xbox-style using the built-in buttons. There is also a simplified Nintendo Switch-esque game launcher. And the Steamdeck Windows Controller Driver (SWICD), which improves OS-wide controller support. Other changes are also suggested in the presentation, such as opening apps in full screen mode when you’re in Handheld Mode; scaling down UI for smaller screens and mapping controls to common Windows functions.
Although this is an interesting feature, we do not know if Handheld Mode will receive buy-in from other Windows teams. Also, it’s not currently available in any of Microsoft’s Windows Insider Preview channels, which Microsoft uses for testing new features. Windows 11’s interface does change in subtle ways when running on a tablet or a convertible PC in tablet mode, but past attempts to graft an entirely separate alternate interface onto Windows—Media Center for TVs, Windows 8’s Start screen for tablets—have ended in failure.
The ideas are still interesting and thought-provoking. Even basic ideas, such as better controller support for Windows, could significantly improve the Steam Deck experience. In the meantime, third-party launchers like Steam’s Big Picture Mode and LaunchBox Premium can partially solve the user interface problem—while primarily designed for TVs, both present simpler controller-navigable interfaces that also work OK as game launchers on a small handheld screen.
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