The default Linux operating system Steam Deck and the Proton translation layer can run a surprising number of PC games well, but for maximum compatibility and flexibility (and for use as a PC when you’re not gaming), Windows installation is always possible. There are also alternative laptop designs such as AY Neo which comes with Windows by default.
But Windows isn’t the ideal operating system for a Steam Deck, at least not out of the box. Its mouse and keyboard oriented user interface is not comfortable to use on a small portable system like the Steam Deck. Windows 11 makes some adjustments for touch screens, but its buttons and menus are still hard to hit on such a small screen. The controller does not work outside of Steam, including on the Windows touch keyboard, and installing drivers and running games for the first time can be a problem.
Microsoft is aware of the issues running Windows on Steam Deck and other similar Windows portable PCs, and at least some developers within the company have taken the time to think of ways to resolve them. That’s the point of the leaked presentation (published V two parts Twitter user _h0x0d_) about the new “portable mode” for Windows developed as part of a Microsoft internal hackathon in September 2022.
As presented, the portable mode includes several components: a new initial setup screen that simplifies driver installation and configuration; an improved touchscreen keyboard that fits better on a 7-inch screen and can be controlled in an Xbox style with built-in buttons and joysticks; simplified game launcher in the style of Nintendo Switch; and improved controller support for the whole OS thanks to open source Windows Steamdeck Controller Driver Project (SWICD). The presentation also calls for other changes to Windows’ default behavior, such as always opening apps in full screen mode in portable mode, better UI scaling for smaller screens, and “mapping controls to common Windows features.”
While it’s interesting, we have no idea if portable mode will get support from the rest of the Windows team, and it’s not featured in any of the many Windows Insider Preview channels that Microsoft uses to test new features publicly. The Windows 11 interface changes slightly when running on a tablet or convertible PC in tablet mode, but past attempts to bring a completely separate alternative interface to Windows—media center for TVs, the Windows 8 Start screen for tablets—failed.
However, the ideas presented are conceptually interesting and thoughtful, and incorporating even basic ideas such as improved controller support in Windows can greatly improve the Steam Deck experience. Meanwhile, third-party launchers such as Steam Big Picture Mode and LaunchBox Premium can partially solve the user interface problem – although they are primarily intended for TVs, both are simpler controller-controlled interfaces that also work well as game launchers on a small portable screen.