Devices like the Steam Deck, Ayaneo 2, and even the Nintendo Switch have taken the world by storm in recent years. Portable handheld consoles open up a new world of experience. While Nintendo has been making handhelds for years, the first two offer PC gaming on the go, complete with good performance, excellent battery life, and the ability to do so much more with the software.
However, the Steam Deck has a leg-up over the Ayaneo 2 in one big department: the operating system. It’s so much easier to do whatever you want on SteamOS, a fork of Arch Linux, not to mention the reduced overhead. On the one hand, this decreases the cost since there’s no need to shell out for a software license for its distribution. However, there are disadvantages to using Linux, such as the requirement for the Proton compatibility layer to ensure that games built for Windows are still playable.
Nevertheless, it seems clear that the future of handheld gaming is likely going to be a combination of both Android and Linux, and there are a few reasons why.
Linux is open and free
In terms of software, Linux is an obviously attractive choice for any company looking to build a new gaming machine. Not only is it an open and free kernel to start from, but there are plenty of distributions out there that companies can inherit and develop their systems on top of. (See SteamOS, based on Arch.) As handhelds aim to try and cut costs as much as possible while making the most of limited hardware, Linux becomes a more attractive option.
Of course, the biggest downside is that the Linux base would likely require the operating system to be open-source. For example, you can browse through the code of SteamOS, even if the Steam Client itself is proprietary. Companies like Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo rely on anti-piracy and locked-down systems to protect their game sales, and an open-source operating system may scare those companies off.
However, handhelds like the Nintendo DS showed that even in the face of rampant piracy, games can still sell incredibly well and prove profitable. With PC being as open as it is, cracked games are everywhere, but players still buy games. Proving that to the companies is in itself a feat, but it can be done, and the PC market proves that people, by and large, will buy their games instead of pirating them.
Android gaming handhelds are already here
Meanwhile, the precedent for gaming handhelds running Android has already been set. Devices like the Logitech Cloud and the Razer Edge are Android-based, and there’s already a huge variety of games playable on those systems. Not only that, but smartphone GPUs are quite powerful. After all, the Nintendo Switch uses a Tegra X1, and the Maxwell GPU on that SoC (which runs at a lower clock speed when undocked, too) has long been outclassed by GPUs like the Adreno 740 in the Snapdragon 8 Gen 2.
That’s not even mentioning how people have been emulating games on Android for years. Mobile gaming has also only been increasing in popularity, with graphically intensive titles like Genshin Impact and call of duty mobile topping the charts. Android is already a serious gaming platform, and handhelds taking advantage of that are starting to release more frequently.
Sure, primarily gaming on mobile still carries a stigma among others in the video game community, but that perception is starting to shift as even the most skeptical realize the true power of what a modern Android flagship can do. The Logitech Cloud is basically a mid-range Android smartphone, but its cloud gaming capabilities are made possible through the openness of the operating system.
Even the Nintendo Switch makes use of Android
A little-known fact is that even the Nintendo Switch uses Android to a certain extent. It uses a display manager called “SurfaceFlinger” inside the host service, alongside the Stagefright multimedia framework. These are implemented with modifications to make them fit with HorizonOS, the codename for the Nintendo Switch’s operating system. This was likely done because Nvidia had already done the legwork on making a graphical display manager that worked with the Tegra X1 chipset it used in Android-powered devices.
Interestingly, years ago, it was asserted by now-defunct Cyanogen founder and CEO Kirt McMaster that Nintendo had wanted to work with Cyanogen to create an operating system for an upcoming device that later became the Switch. He had told them to “stick it,” which is why it never materialized. This isn’t exactly surprising, especially given the Tegra roots of the Switch.
If Android’s graphics stack is good enough for a handheld like the Nintendo Switch, one of the best-selling gaming devices since its 2017 debut, then it’s clearly good enough for companies to consider using as their primary operating system for gaming as a whole.
Thanks to Mark from the Skyline team for his assistance in this portion of the article!
Consoles and handhelds will use Android and Linux in the future
I’m not sure if it’ll be the next generation, but I’m certain consoles and handhelds will use some version of an Android or Linux basis in the future. It saves on development costs and time, allowing even smaller companies to test out these operating systems for gaming.
That isn’t to say that companies will grant access to the system should it come with an Android or Linux distribution. In fact, it’s quite unlikely that they would. For example, PlayStation runs Orbis OS, an operating system based on FreeBSD. While it’s possible to run Linux on it if you jailbreak it, Sony has locked down its most recent consoles. For the next generation of handhelds, companies will probably use heavily locked-down versions of Android and Linux, possibly unrecognizable aside from a mention in a license disclosure in the settings. It’s unlikely that companies would rescind their control over the software in fear of piracy and even cheating in online games.
Nevertheless, it’s pretty clear that companies are beginning to factor Android and Linux into their software roadmaps for consoles. Nintendo already considered it for the Switch (and even executed on it to an extent), and companies like Valve with the Steam Deck have shown that it can work very, very well. It’s an exciting time to be a gamer, and the technology being used is a big part of the reason why.