It’s been a successful year for gaming on the go. For a while it felt like Nintendo was the only name in town, but it’s since become one of the more exciting corners of gaming. Today, there are handheld options for everything from AAA to indie to retro and beyond. Additionally, the current generation of mobile processors means we’re seeing surprisingly powerful hardware. The main problem now is that the software side hasn’t quite caught up. There is perhaps no better demonstration of this than the Ayaneo Air Pro: a superb example of what can be done and what needs to be improved in the burgeoning world of handheld PCs.
If you don’t know Ayaneo, that’s understandable. The company hasn’t been around that long, but it’s already making a name for itself thanks to remarkably good hardware that brings PC gaming into the portable realm. If you’re imagining a Steam Deck but with Windows and a fraction of the size, you wouldn’t be far off.
Before we dive into the gaming experience, it’s worth taking a closer look at the hardware. The Air Pro is impressively well made. It has a similar footprint to Nintendo’s Switch Lite but is thicker (0.85 vs 0.55 inches) and heavier (0.88 pounds vs 0.55). In terms of build quality, the Ayaneo honestly feels far superior. The Hall Effect analog sticks and triggers are smooth and have a nice throw. The D-Pad is responsive and the buttons are the right kind of snappy. At its heart is the stunning 5.5-inch OLED display – a first on a Windows gaming handheld that Ayaneo fondly reminds us of. It’s a pleasure to hold and feels premium in almost every way. Even the fingerprint reader in the power button somehow adds a pinch of sophistication.
Since this is basically a PC, there are a few different configurations. Some use AMD’s 5560U chipset and others use the 5825U with varying amounts of RAM and storage depending on your budget. And you’ll need a sizable budget, as you’ll soon find out.
The Air Pro doesn’t quite have the grunt of Valve’s venerable Steam Deck, but it runs Windows 11 out of the box and can run a surprising amount of high-end games in a more than playable manner. And while the Steam Deck outperforms it in terms of processing power, the Air Pro is legitimately portable without compromising performance too much.
Aside from the size and internals, the other main difference is the price. Valve’s handheld starts at $650 for the 512GB version, while the Air Pro begins at $699 (5560U/16GB RAM/512GB storage). You can push that number up to $1,399 if you want the faster silicon, 32GB of RAM, and 2TB of storage – which is obviously pretty pricey. The model we tested was somewhere between mid-range and high-end with the superior processor, 16GB of RAM, and 1TB of storage (although all models have expandable storage via a microSD card slot).
There are other gaming handhelds that run Windows, but many are underpowered to handle many larger games. For example, Anbernic’s Win600 runs on an older AMD Athlon Silver 3050e chipset with Radeon Vega 3 graphics. That’s a significant step down, but then the Win600 is only $375. Ayns Odin can also run Windows but the ARM based version which brings some compatibility issues. GPD has been in this space for a while, but its Win 3 is looking a bit underpowered now (although its Win 4 is coming this month and it looks suitably beefy).
Perhaps most tellingly, there are many more handhelds in the works from companies like Ayn, the aforementioned GPD, and others. There’s even a new flagship game from the company itself, the Ayaneo 2, which should really give potential Steam deck buyers some headaches. These unreleased models all have something in common: AMD’s 6800U chipset. It seems like there’s always been a desire for PC gaming on the go, just we didn’t have the required hardware to run it. Until recently.
Technical limitations are one thing, but there’s another, more philosophical question that needs answering: Why build a pocket PC when you can stream lots of AAA games without the need for expensive, power-hungry dedicated hardware? While true streaming is more viable than ever, this approach requires you to have a console or gaming PC in the first place, or a subscription to something like GeForce Now or Xbox Cloud, which isn’t economical for many people (not to mention the libraries may not have what you want). Not to mention the reliance on a network connection – good luck with that on in-flight WiFi.
Which brings us back to the real problem: Windows isn’t ready to be used on tiny screens, and neither are many of the games that run on it. Ayaneo has endeavored to fix this problem by adding its own launcher called Ayaspace. It serves as the front-end for all your games and manages to offer a vaguely console-like experience. But it doesn’t take long before the spell is broken and you find yourself using an analog stick as a mouse to log into Steam, then using a tiny on-screen keyboard to peck out your credentials.
Ayaneo has at least tried to solve some of these inevitable problems. The Air Pro, for example, has two buttons at the top (between LB and RB) that pull up the onscreen keyboard, doubled for ESC and other essential Windows shortcuts to make navigating bearable. But you’ll probably need to connect a mouse and keyboard some Period, just to get something simple done.
It also soon becomes apparent that AAA games weren’t necessarily designed for a small screen. Most games look incredible on the Air Pro’s OLED display. Even playing games at 720p (the display is 1080p) they still look incredible – but that’s often a necessary compromise for performance. You’ll probably wish the ad was like this Only a little bigger. Not least for getting rid of those bezels, but simply for the overall quality of life.
Not least for games with a lot of text. title like Disco Elysium, for example, has a lot of written dialogue – and while it’s easy enough to read for the most part, it’s noticeably more tedious than if you were on a desktop. Thankfully, the display is sharp and the resolution high enough that everything is still legible, but there’s just a vague sense of an interface that wasn’t built for a display of this size.
If you’re thinking “why not just run SteamOS on it,” you’re not alone. It has been carried out with varying degrees of success. The bigger issue might be related to Windows’ practicality (millions of games available, broad hardware support) and reach. There are some more mundane challenges with SteamOS that don’t make it a replacement for these handhelds. First and foremost, game compatibility. If it’s not available on Steam, you can probably still install it on SteamOS, but it might require switching to desktop mode or other workarounds that break the “console” experience you might have been looking for originally.
More importantly, some users are actually reporting better battery life with Windows on the Steam deck when they expected worse. Claims say it’s broadly equivalent to, but in some cases even better than, Valve’s native operating system thanks to a combination of factors. PC gaming has a lot of variables, so this isn’t necessarily that surprising. It won’t always be the case, but at least it’s not a strong incentive to make SteamOS the platform of choice for portable PC gaming.
Battery life is particularly important on a handheld, and it would be a lie to say that the Ayaneo Air Pro excels at it. Or even enough. Depends on what you’re playing and the power consumption – usually referred to as TDP – required to keep it running satisfactorily. More demanding games require a TDP of 12 watts or more, and you can hope for around an hour and 45 minutes of battery life at this intensity. Some games can run smoothly with 8W, which extends the gaming time to around 2.3 hours. You can live on the lowest 5W setting for over three hours, but that’s not enough for anything but the lightest of games, but it’s good for general setup tasks and the like.
Needless to say, this isn’t ideal for a handheld, especially since your battery probably won’t cut it – unless it can deliver 65W, which most can’t.
In short, the Ayaneo Air Pro represents a lot of hope and highlights some challenges. The hope for true on-the-go PC gaming in a pocket-friendly format and on awesome hardware seems finally to be here. It’s the challenges that are a bit more complicated. Windows has many advantages, but also many practical disadvantages. Whether it’s adjusting the hardware around it or just a matter of some intelligent software overlay is apparently being figured out in real time.
Creating a true “console” experience takes some clever thinking and equally clever software. For its part, Ayaneo is also working on its own Ayaneo operating system, which, like SteamOS, is based on Linux. Whether this will solve some of the challenges remains to be seen, but it’s clearly something that’s being worked on. But that’s what makes a company. With other Windows-related manufacturers such as GPD, there is a risk that a mishmash of approaches will emerge. Hopefully, however, with more competition comes more innovation (or more ideas to “borrow”).
For some, the exciting part is finally having more options to enjoy high-end gaming off the PC. Not everyone wants to spend more time at a desktop, or maybe you just want to scratch that Elden itch while waiting for a flight. Whatever your preference, things are about to get a whole lot more interesting.
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