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Windows 11 could get a ‘Handheld Mode’ for Steam Deck – and I couldn’t be more excited

Windows 11 might get a ‘Handheld Mode’ in the future that could make it perfect for the Steam Deck, or indeed other portable gaming devices.

This exciting revelation comes courtesy of WalkingCat, a regular provider of Microsoft gossip on Twitter (as spotted by Windows Latest).

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The story is that Microsoft just held its Hackathon – where staff get together to explore potential new ideas – and one project discussed was the ‘Handheld Mode’ specifically mentioning the Steam Deck.

The Handheld Mode – which could apply to any handheld gaming device, not just Valve’s – would usher in a redesign of the desktop, making it a launcher-style affair (catering for various different stores, not just Steam) with an interface better suited to a (relatively) small touchscreen.

That would include a better virtual touch keyboard – one that could be operated with the Steam Deck’s controller as well – along with interface optimizations, such as a streamlined taskbar and better UI scaling.

The Handheld Mode could simply be switched on and off as needed (via the taskbar), and it would allow for the OS to be fully and globally navigated using the Steam Deck’s controls.

There’d also be options to choose between better performance or power-efficiency, which in the latter case would help extend battery life on the move for the Steam Deck.

Analysis: Deck done right with Windows?

As you likely know, it’s already possible to install Windows 11 (or 10) on the Steam Deck (though it’s a bit fiddly, we’ve got a guide here). However, it’s far from an ideal experience, being very rough around the edges, suffering from, for example, driver issues, and lots of thorny problems around the interface.

This is what all the above measures are intended to cure, with a lot of the work needing to be done on the interface front. (Most notably with the Windows virtual keyboard, which is very flaky on Valve’s handheld, and getting the Deck’s controls to work globally with the Windows UI – and with non-Steam games, too). The project leaders even mention collaborating directly with Valve on Windows drivers for the Deck.

To summarize, this could represent an end to many of the shortcomings with Windows 11 on the Steam Deck right now. Problems like games failing to work properly with the display, or failing to recognize the Deck’s hardware (not being able to access VRAM for example), and falling over as a result.

While SteamOS is great, as far as it goes, the Deck’s default operating system has its limitations in terms of what it can do, and what games it can run. Putting full Windows on the Steam Deck opens up things considerably so gamers can, say, enjoy titles that anti-cheat functionality currently scuppers for SteamOS, or games which are wonky for various reasons with Valve’s spin on Linux. And of course, you can run games from whatever source you want, and indeed Windows apps, for that matter.

Before we get too carried away with this Handheld Mode, though, we must remember, this is still very early work on the idea. It’s just a concept under discussion at the moment, and there’s far from any guarantee the mode will ever become an option that’s fully realized in Windows.

Still, it’s exciting stuff even to hear about this for Steam Deck owners, and indeed for other handhelds in the same sphere – let’s not forget the recently revealed Asus ROG Ally, an AMD-powered device which in fact runs Windows 11.

The emergence of Steam Deck rivals like this underlines the strong buzz around this area of hardware development, and that’s doubtless exactly why Microsoft is looking into the Handheld Mode in the first place.

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