As we recently reported, the new mode was introduced as part of the November update, and it streamlines the interface for a smaller screen.
In other words, it’s specifically targeted at gaming handhelds running Windows such as the Asus ROG Ally (which just dropped in price in a big way) and Lenovo Legion Go. But it could be useful in a number of scenarios on portables and even elsewhere, of course, and it’s worth diving into this in a bit more depth – as we think it could have wider ramifications in terms of where Microsoft is headed here.
To recap, compact mode collapses the sidebar (on the left of the app) into icons, removing the labels attached to those icons. This enables that part of the interface to be something like a quarter of the size that it previously was.
It’s a small interface change, but one with a big impact, as that frees up quite a lot of screen real estate when it comes to a compact display like the ones found on the various Windows-powered Steam Deck rivals.
Microsoft says it’s working with device manufacturers to get compact mode turned on by default on gaming handhelds where it’s going to be most beneficial, which certainly makes sense – you’ll definitely want to use this on such hardware.
For now, though, you can turn on the new feature via your profile at the top-left of the Xbox app (make sure the app has been updated first).
Looking at the Big Picture
Windows-powered Steam Deck rivals like the Asus ROG Ally and Lenovo Legion Go have taken a lot of flak for their cumbersome UI, and how Windows 11 is light years behind SteamOS in terms of the experience on a small screen. This compact mode is a relatively small change, as mentioned, but a very important one.
Moreover, it shows that Microsoft appears to be committed to improving the Windows gaming experience on handhelds, with the company noting that: “We’ll continue to focus on updates to deliver a great Xbox app experience for Windows handheld screens.”
We’ve previously heard about a full-on ‘handheld mode’ for Windows 11 that Microsoft was at least discussing behind closed doors – well, that’s the rumor anyway – and this latest move makes it seem like we’re actually seeing something concrete towards that end.
Whether we get a full handheld-friendly desktop down the line, we shall have to see, but if Microsoft wants to help make Windows 11 portables a more serious contender, this will really help a great deal to that end. Another important advance will be power-efficiency improvements to drive better battery life, which has been another major criticism of these Windows handhelds. (And we’ve just witnessed a change in testing along these lines, too).
The new compact mode could also be useful for gaming on smaller laptop screens, or indeed in scenarios where you’re hooking up a PC to a large-screen TV for gaming, and want to use an interface more like Valve’s Big Picture mode rather than the fiddlier traditional desktop.
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Darren is a freelancer writing news and features for TechRadar (and occasionally T3) across a broad range of computing topics including CPUs, GPUs, various other hardware, VPNs, antivirus and more. He has written about tech for the best part of three decades, and writes books in his spare time (his debut novel - 'I Know What You Did Last Supper' - was published by Hachette UK in 2013).