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  • Writer's pictureStewart | Eleven International

Industry Insights: The Rise of the Handheld Gaming PC


Is it just me, or are handheld gaming devices making a comeback? As a segment of the gaming industry that seemed to be struggling for relevance, there’s a part of me that is quietly happy to see Steam Deck and ROG Ally become more than just novelty products for a niche audience. Is it possible that Valve, ASUS and now Lenovo are on to something, and that handheld gaming is set to enjoy an unexpected renaissance? If so, how is this happening, and why is it happening now?


Handheld Gaming - Wasn’t that Shelved Already?

Since the arrival and success of the Nintendo Gameboy, the handheld gaming industry has proved to be a very difficult nut to crack. Several major brands have tried and failed to create a device and ecosystem that could challenge Nintendo. From Nokia to Nvidia, Sega to Sony, handheld gaming became a doomed corner of the market where major brands no longer dare tread.


The almost total ubiquity of smartphones surely landed a death knell that rendered handheld gaming devices irrelevant, and possibly even a bit silly. Try to explain to anyone under the age of 21 that proper gaming requires a dedicated device with a set of proper buttons and a joystick. Good luck with that.


High-end (or even mid-tier) smartphones now boast incredible performance compared to just a few years ago. The displays look amazing, they’re lightweight, battery life is no longer an issue. What’s not to like? Consider also the sheer size and value of today’s mobile gaming app market. 


By 2020, handheld gaming appeared to be so dead and buried that even Nintendo seemed loath to update Switch, the one remaining success story in town. Game over. Then sometime in mid-2021, from a distant corner of the gaming diaspora, a lone voice could be heard:


“I think a lot of gamers have always felt that there’s not a great mobile gaming hardware device out there for us to use. So, if I’m a customer I’m either using touch, you know, which is terrible for first person shooters, or I have to go in a proprietary direction that has really limited access to titles.” - Valve president Gabe Newell



Steam Deck - From Doubters to Believers

Announced in July 2021, Steam Deck arrived in gamer’s hands in February 2022, immediately making a big impression on those who could get hold of one. Since then, the device has sold like handheld hot cakes, proving to many doubters (myself included) that there was still some life left in the handheld gaming segment.


Its popularity with many gamers stems from a very simple idea - how about making a handheld based around the latest PC hardware? It’s not a new idea of course. Microsoft and Sony have been using PC hardware for several generations already. In fact, when Steam Deck arrived, it featured the same Zen 2 architecture processors from AMD that the latest generation Xbox and PlayStation models use. 




Manufactured on TSMC’s 7nm process, AMD Zen architecture processors are no slouches and pack genuine bang-for-buck in terms of integrated graphics. Steam Deck uses a quad-core (eight-thread) APU based on Zen 2, and a fairly hefty GPU based on AMD’s RDNA 2 graphics architecture. This is more grunt than most Windows laptops. 


The fact that we can now put good old fashioned x86 silicon in a comfortable, light handheld that doesn’t overeat is an illustration of just how mature these platforms are. While Intel and Nvidia look on in envy as AMD marries solid CPU and GPU performance in a single, low-power chip, Microsoft, Sony and now Steam were among the first to take advantage of AMD’s new status as a gaming device hardware partner. But it’s not just about hardware.


Steam Deck runs on SteamOS 3, a freely available Linux-based operating system that you can install on any x86 (AMD/Intel) computer. Designed specifically for playing games, Steam OS hooks you straight into the same Steam gaming ecosystem that you use on your PC. You have access to the same library of games, only now you get to play them on a portable handheld device.


The game experience is not equal to that of your high-end gaming rig at home, but in truth, it’s not trying to be. This is something different. This is PC gaming on a handheld, and it feels good.


The Dawn of the Portable PC Gaming Era

Gabe Newell and Valve were first to prove to gamers that the Steam PC gaming experience could be transposed to a portable device. In June of this year ASUS stepped forward to prove how handheld gaming could work on Windows 11 - an acquired taste for some, but with gamers tethered to PC gaming ecosystems outside of Steam, it seemed a logical step.

 

ROG Ally can play games from Nvidia GeForce Now, PC Game Pass and Epic Games Store. And if you haven’t gotten the hint yet, the device arrives out-of-box with a free 3-month subscription to Microsoft Xbox Pass. ROG Ally gives PC gamers easy access to gaming ecosystems they have already bought into.


Being the younger sibling to Steam Deck, ASUS upped the hardware ante with Ally, packing an even more potent AMD APU based on Zen 4 and RDNA 3 architectures. In good old fashioned PC hardware tradition, you can even opt for a model that uses an AMD Ryzen Z1 Extreme processor which packs more CPU cores and an even beefier GPU. Bragging rights are important to the PC Master Race.


Just days ago, Lenovo announced its plan to embrace the idea of a portable gaming PC, revealing the new Legion Go handheld.  Also running Windows 11 Home, Legion Go will get plenty of attention thanks to its larger QHD+ 8.8-inch touchscreen display and detachable controllers. The device uses AMD Zen 4 hardware and also ships with 3 months of free Xbox Pass.



Smaller brands are also primed to step into this new arena, including console maker Ayaneo who recently revealed the Ayaneo Kun, a handheld device that the Chinese brand insists will be the “...most powerful Windows handheld console yet.” It will be interesting to see which other brands will enter the fray in the months to come.


The Future of Handheld Gaming, is PC Gaming

Handheld gaming seems far from dead. Aside from the new breed of devices running PC hardware, other brands are also plotting their own path.


The Sony PlayStation Portal wants to stream your gaming experience from your PS5 over a Wi-Fi connection. If nothing else, it will do a good job of keeping you well and truly tethered to the Sony ecosystem, even down the proprietary earbuds and headphones. 

Logitech has also entered the market with the Logitech G Cloud, an Android-based handheld that can either stream games or run them using emulators. It’s an elegant, nicely constructed device, but if you’ve ever dabbled in the dark arts of game emulators, you’ll know it can be (literally) hit or miss at times.


Personally, I think Steam Deck, ROG Ally and Legion Go symbolize a generational shift. Gamers want a leading-edge gaming experience, and they want to be able to play all the games that currently reside in their online library. More significantly, they also want the experience (at times at least) to be portable.


For years the PC gaming segment defied the whims of the console market, giving birth to a hardcore PC gaming segment that demands access to the latest hardware, and the best experience possible on the latest games. Today it seems, they’re also demanding the freedom to roam. Having faced a similarly doomed prognosis, handheld gaming now finds itself reinvigorated, and reinvented by PC gaming.


In short. Handheld gaming is alive and well, and it’s called portable PC gaming.

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