Apple Should Create a Handheld Game Console

I have no idea what's in store for Monday night's Scary Fast event, and although some have noted the overlap of the curiously late event with Japanese business hours (and yours truly's wee hours) and thus a gaming focus, this is not a prediction of what's to come.

That said, Apple should create a handheld game console.

Why? Because I think it would be a pretty good option.

The highest volume handheld console is the Nintendo Switch, slated for an upgrade before the end of next year, but as of yet running Nvidia's 2015 platform Tegra X1 (the Switch launched in 2017 and even the pre-launch NX rumors focused on a revised and upgraded Tegra X1), true to Gunpei Yokoi's lateral thinking with withered technology.

It has sufficient capability and beautiful games are still being put out for it, but it is also slightly comical that it can't output 4K, HDR or above 60 Hz, or often maintain a respectable, consistent framerate in 3D games. (Tears of the Kingdom was marred by what looks like AI upscaling artifacting in the Zonai shrines and some background set details being low-poly enough for the Nintendo 64.)

The exemplar for the rest of the handheld consoles is Valve's Steam Deck, running a mobile AMD Ryzen "APU" (CPU with integrated GPU) with RDNA graphics, being sufficiently top of the line sufficiently recently that it packs a believable punch. It runs Linux and Valve's Proton layer for DirectX emulation (for Windows titles; Linux-targeted titles run natively with Vulkan or OpenGL) and is able to support a generous portion of the Steam game library, especially now that developers see it as an option.

Beyond the Steam Deck lie a sea of similar portable-PCs-as-game-consoles-with-joysticks-and-buttons of varying capacities, capabilities and outcomes. The Aya brand seems to be at the top of the pack.

Because it's got everything we need

In 2007, during the introduction of the first iPhone, Steve Jobs explained the selection of "OS X" for the platform (deliberately leaving out the "Mac" part of "Mac OS X"), leading in with this:

Why would we want to run such a sophisticated operating system on a mobile device? Well, because it's got everything we need.

Apple itself is in a similar place for a handheld game console.

  • It has famously high-performing but power-sipping M-series chips, and a mature software platform to go with it.

  • It has a hardware-hugging graphics layer with Metal, along with a series of underdog but steadily improving GPUs that are now capable of ray tracing under mobile device conditions (power, heat).

  • It has unified memory, letting the GPU have access to a large amount of working memory, physically close, with a high bandwidth link and shared with the CPU.

  • It has a handful of honest-to-goodness AAA games, who are as of recent developments capable of delivering graphics on par with their current, high-end, living room console versions.

  • It has high-bandwidth, integrated solid state storage management. Doesn't everything with PCI Express and NVMe support have this? Both PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X have solutions for working with data right from the SSDs in ways that bypass the file system and caching; loading data from optical media died this current console generation. Doing this from within the same chip as the GPU, there could be great possibilties.

  • It has a growing awareness that gaming, while enjoyable on a touchscreen if you do it right and with some games, is also measurably improved with the tactility, precision, feedback and haptics that come from a controller.

  • And finally, it does have Apple Arcade, being some sort of "own" or at least exclusive lineup of games. I am not personally acquainted enough with them to know if they're good, but it's a starting point.

Any pretender to the handheld gaming throne would chomp at the bit to have these parts at their disposal. Nintendo, Sony, Microsoft or Valve probably would not say no to integrating a thing or two, like the Apple Silicon architecture ARM cores, into their own pipelines.


What's left is just whether they will do it. Unless there are reveals coming on Monday to recontextualize the past few years, Apple doesn't get gaming. They don't have cultural credibility. From the non-console side, they are laughed at for not making PC tradeoffs (flexibility and performance). From the console side, Apple hasn't made a game.

But, in a handheld console, PC tradeoffs are either irrelevant or likely to hurt. And both Microsoft and Sony were in similar, culturally philistine positions when they embarked on the Xbox and PlayStation respectively. The bigger issue is the bumbling with which they have tried to get into gaming, always doing just the wrong thing, holding parties for getting traction with individual games and extrapolating a golden future that so far has not arrived, instead marking a precipitous drop from the Mac comparatively riding high a few years ago, being passed on the sidelines by desktop Linux, of all platforms. We'll leave the open warfare against one of the two major game engines and one of the biggest game studios and the mutual disenchantment with one of the two major GPU vendors for another day.

What's more important is that their eyes are, as always, fixed on where the puck is going to be, not where it has been. So-called "spatial computing" (AR) and self-driving cars. But there's room for the eternal "hobby" Apple TV, the hardware device, that has also tried to be a living room console, despite not having any standout features other than "running tvOS, UIKit and Metal".

There might also be room for a widescreen handheld console, somewhere between the iPhone 15 Pro Max and iPad mini, with integrated control sticks and buttons, with better battery life than most handheld consoles, with better performance and graphics than any similarly built handheld console. In a marketplace where there are chunkier devices with worse battery life just to stream games from someplace else, this would be a standout device. And it would actually be something that "only Apple can do".

Previous post: Of 15s, Pro Following post: Macs Schreck