The Xbox app now plays nice with handheld consoles thanks to a new “Compact mode.” Windows-based handheld console users no longer need to pilot through tiny text and jumbled sidebars on relatively small screens. But Microsoft, you know what would be even better? A full version of Windows 11 made for handheld.
The compact mode update arrived earlier this week and made a few meaningful changes to how the app works on non-mobile small screens. The sidebar now collapses into icons, which allows more space to see the games available.
Microsoft said it’s worked with Asus to make compact mode default on the ROG Ally, and it is working with “other manufacturers” on the same. The update also allows users to show unread notifications only when they click on the notifications drop-down tab and added a “Gaming Services Repair Tool” to help deal with issues that may crop up.
To be frank, it’s a very minimal update, but it is a good step in the right direction. It’s still a little too annoying to pilot from the main page to the sidebar with thumbsticks or a d-pad. SteamOS, for all its faults, is still a better rendition of a handheld console UI. Let’s also not neglect the Nintendo Switch, which makes navigating through all your installed games very easy. The Xbox app isn’t quite there yet.
Windows 11 doesn’t have any modern feature that would make it more compatible with today’s handheld environment, whether that’s UI scaling, control mapping, or a full-scale launcher for quickly jumping into games without first needing to load Steam, Epic Game Store, or even the Xbox app individually.
When we reviewed Lenovo’s $700 Legion Go handheld console, one of our main critiques was its UI. The Legion Space app was a thin sheet of rice paper pasted over Windows 11 to make it a bit more usable for gamers, but users still needed to go through external apps admire Steam to access their game libraries. It’s the same issue with the Asus ROG Ally, and since Microsoft hasn’t been keen to share whether it’s planning to make a more compact version of Windows for all these new handheld consoles, non-Steam Deck users have been stuck with a suboptimal user encounter.
A leaked internal video from inside Microsoft shows that developers experimented with making a basic version of Windows for the handheld market. Those developers gave a rather rough outline for how they could rejigger Windows into something that’s much more easily manageable on small, 6-, 7-, or 8-inch screens that utilize joysticks and face buttons.
SteamOS is Linux-based, so that you could install it on one of these competing handheld consoles. Really, though, you shouldn’t have to in order to have a smooth encounter from the jump.