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5 things we'd want to see in an Xbox portable console
Microsoft has yet to make an Xbox handheld console, despite the Xbox brand being nearly 20 years old. During that space of time, in fact, Sony has seen three PlayStation handhelds come and go, while Nintendo has burned through countless iterations of the Game Boy and DS. Breaking into handhelds now would be difficult — the majority of mobile gamers play on phones and tablets, and the Nintendo Switch has a firm grip on the console angle. Valve’s Steam Deck seems set to make handheld PC gaming viable.
That said, there are ways Microsoft could make an Xbox portable appealing, maybe even enough to carve out its own niche. Here are five things we’d want to see if Microsoft ever decides to launch an Xbox handheld.
1. Access to every Xbox game
One of Sony’s obsessions with handhelds was making portable spinoffs of bigger game franchises like God of War. There wasn’t anything inherently wrong with the idea — a few of those spinoffs became classics in their own right — but there was occasionally the sense that you were getting an inferior B-team product, with a smaller scale, weaker graphics, and/or a side story that didn’t move the plot forward. That doesn’t really fly in the 2020s, not when Switch players can play The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild wherever they go.
An Xbox handheld would therefore need to run most or all Series X/S games. Lower resolutions and NVIDIA DLSS scaling could go a long way toward making this work since there’s not much point to 4K textures on a smaller screen. At least some developers would have to produce low-res assets, but that might be an acceptable hurdle to expanding a game’s audience.
We'd want to see a handheld get a version of Game Pass equal to that on the Series X/S.
Developers who can’t scale their graphics back could use Xbox Cloud Gaming for delivery, mirroring the cloud tech Nintendo uses for games like Control and Hitman 3. Xbox Cloud Gaming is currently limited to Game Pass Ultimate subscribers — and Microsoft will probably keep it that way for financial reasons — but it would certainly be better than nothing. Cloud tech might even let a handheld play both Xbox and PC titles, as long as they share the same control scheme.
Whatever the case, we’d want to see a handheld get a version of Game Pass equal to that on the Series X/S, with a robust library. The pitfall to avoid is Game Pass for the PC, which has an anemic selection by comparison.
2. Touchscreen, trackpad, and motion controls
The standard Xbox control layout is a given. That means twin analog sticks, a D-pad, and four face buttons, plus triggers and shoulder buttons.
A touchscreen might not be essential, but would certainly be expected since virtually every other handheld has had one for the past decade. It would make navigating the Xbox UI easier, particularly when it comes to typing.
Related: The best handheld consoles
A trackpad would meanwhile open up mouse-style control for everything from Halo Wars to Call of Duty. Indeed, this is why there are two trackpads on the Steam Deck, along with a motion sensor that can be used to fine-tune aiming. Adding these to an Xbox portable system would be crucial if Microsoft also wants to take on Steam by offering PC game support on the go.
3. A mobile cinema experience
Strangely enough, the Switch is completely deficient in native video streaming apps, even though it seems like an obvious way of increasing a console’s value. The only options are YouTube, Hulu, and Funimation, leaving major gaps like Netflix, Disney Plus, and HBO Max. The Steam Deck should be in a better position, but only because it will be able to open services on the web — it could stand to have its own native apps for improved playback and offline caching. None have been announced so far.
An Xbox portable should have access to a full suite of third-party streaming apps, plus access to Microsoft’s video store and rentals. It could also have the presentation to back this up, including Dolby Atmos support, and a widescreen HD display measuring at least 7-inches. HDR (high dynamic range) would be welcome, though that would probably demand 1080p resolution, higher than the 720p on the Switch’s built-in display.
4. A dock
The Switch proves that as nice as it is to play on the go, when you’re at home, it’s better still to drop a system into a dock and play on a TV. Even the Steam Deck has an optional dock to match Nintendo’s home-handheld hybrid setup. While this could cannibalize Series S sales if the pricing was similar, Microsoft likely wouldn’t care as long as it’s getting your money in some way.
See also: PS5 vs Xbox Series X
In a base spec, an Xbox dock would hopefully offer 4K upscaling and gigabit Ethernet. Ideally, it would also include alternate sound outputs and USB ports for connecting controllers and other peripherals. That could theoretically include cheaper storage, though it would be jarring to pull a device out of a dock and suddenly lose several games.
5. Great networking options — at home and away
While Microsoft would almost certainly keep up with its competitors, it’s worth reiterating that a good handheld should let people play together wherever they are, with or without an internet connection. At home, an Xbox portable would need to let people connect multiple controllers — on the go, peer-to-peer networking would be a must. It keeps kids busy on roadtrips and adults can only play so much Monument Valley or Words With Friends on their phones.
Perhaps more interesting is how Microsoft could go a step further. Imagine, for instance, if the company let an Xbox handheld connect to a Series X/S as a controller. At a minimum that would be a great fallback, especially when friends are over. If touch and trackpad input was supported, it could make a handheld the best control option.
A handheld would almost certainly enable a high-performance, all-in-one experience for Xbox Remote Play. At the moment Remote Play lets Series X/S owners stream to iPhones, iPads, and Android devices, but to get the full effect they have to connect a separate gamepad, often with a mount or stand. A dedicated handheld would streamline the technology.
Microsoft could conceivably add 4G and 5G cellular, although that would be tricky. 5G is an infamous battery drain, and regardless, gamers would still have to pay for a monthly data plan.
Is there a chance an Xbox portable console will actually happen?
If it exists, it’s small. As mentioned, gamers already have many mobile options, and an Xbox handheld would presumably be costlier than the $350 Switch OLED. It would also be redundant with the Series X/S for people already set up for Remote Play on a smartphone.
What would be the most important factor for you in a portable Xbox?
To succeed Microsoft would probably have to go for Valve or Nintendo’s jugular, taking a loss on hardware in order to hook people into the Game Pass ecosystem. The payoffs could be huge, but the challenge of selling enough units to gain a (secure) foothold means it may not be not worth the risk. Stranger things have happened in the tech industry, so we’ll never say never.