The Ayaneo Air Pro is a step forward for laptops |  Engadget

The Ayaneo Air Pro is a step forward for laptops | Engadget

It’s been a bumper year for on-the-go gaming. For a while, it felt like Nintendo was the only name in town, but it’s since become one of the most exciting corners of gaming. Today, there are portable options for everything from AAA to Indie to Retro and beyond. Plus, the current generation of mobile processors means we’re seeing some surprisingly capable hardware. The main problem, now, is that the software side of things hasn’t quite caught up. There’s perhaps no better demonstration of this than the Ayaneo Air Pro: a stellar example of what can be done and what needs to be improved in the burgeoning world of laptops.

If you’re unfamiliar with Ayaneo, that’s understandable. The company hasn’t been around that long, but it’s already making a name for itself with remarkably good hardware that brings PC gaming into the portable realm. If you imagine a Steam Deck, but with Windows and a fraction of the size, you wouldn’t be far off.

Before diving into the gaming experience, the hardware itself deserves a closer look. The Air Pro is incredibly well made. It has a similar footprint to Nintendo’s Switch Lite, but it’s thicker (0.85 vs. 0.55 inches) and heavier (0.88 lbs vs. 0.55). In terms of build quality, honestly the Ayaneo feels way superior. The analog sticks and Hall effect triggers are smooth with nice travel. The D-pad is responsive and the buttons are the right type. The centerpiece is the stunning 5.5-inch OLED display – a first on the Windows gaming handheld that Ayaneo likes to remind us of. It’s a delight to hold and feels premium in almost every way. Even the fingerprint reader in the power button adds a bit of sophistication.

Close-up of the left side of the Ayaneo Air Pro portable gaming PC.

James Trew / Engadget

Since this is essentially a PC, there are several different configurations available. Some using AMD’s 5560U chipset and others running the 5825U with assorted amounts of RAM and storage depending on your budget. And you will need a substantial budget as you will 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 more than playable fashion. And while the Steam Deck trumps it in terms of processing power, the Air Pro is legitimately portable without compromising too much on performance.

Beyond size and internals, the other main difference is price. Valve’s handheld tops $650 for 512GB version while Air Pro departures at $699 (5560U/16GB RAM/512GB storage). You can bump that figure up to $1,399 if you want the faster silicon, 32GB of RAM and 2TB of storage – that’s obviously quite pricey. The model we tested fell somewhere in the middle to high end with the top processor, 16GB of RAM and 1TB of storage (although all models have expandable memory via a microSD card slot).

There are other gaming handhelds that run Windows, but many are too underpowered to handle many larger games. Anbernic’s Win600, for example, runs on an older AMD Athlon Silver 3050e chipset with Radeon Vega 3 graphics. That’s a big step up, but the Win600 is only $375. Ayn’s Odin can also run Windows, but the ARM-based version has compatibility issues. GPD has been in this space for a while, but its Win 3 looks a bit underpowered now (although its Win 4 is coming this month and looks suitably beefy).

Perhaps most telling is that there are plenty of other handhelds in the works from companies like Ayn, the aforementioned GPD and others. There’s even a new flagship from the company itself, the Ayaneo 2, which should really cause some headaches for potential Steam Deck buyers. These new models all have one thing in common: AMD’s 6800U chipset. It seems like there’s always been an appetite for PC gaming on the go, but we didn’t quite have the hardware to run it. Until recently.

Technical limitations are one thing, but there’s another, more philosophical question to answer: why build a Pocket PC when you can stream lots of AAA games without the need for expensive, power-hungry dedicated hardware? While it’s true that streaming is more viable than ever, this approach requires you to have a gaming console or PC in the first place or a subscription to something like GeForce Now or Xbox Cloud which isn’t economically favorable for lots of people (not to mention the libraries might not have what you want). Not to mention its reliance on a network connection – good luck with that on in-flight WiFi.

A screenshot of Ayaspace, the game launcher that Ayaneo uses on its Windows-based gaming handhelds.

James Trew / Engadget

Which brings us back to the real problem: Windows isn’t ready for use on small screens, and most of the games that run on it aren’t either. Ayaneo has tried to improve this problem by adding its own launcher called Ayaspace. It serves as the interface for all your games and manages to provide a vague console-like experience. But it’s not long before the spell is broken and you find yourself using an analog stick as a mouse trying to log into Steam, then using a small on-screen keyboard to choose your credentials.

Ayaneo has at least tried to fix some of these inevitable issues. The Air Pro, for example, has two buttons at the top (between LB and RB) that will open the on-screen keyboard, dual for ESC and other essential Windows shortcuts to make navigation bearable. But you’ll probably need to hook up a mouse and keyboard to some point just to do something simple.

It will also soon become apparent that AAA games weren’t necessarily designed for a small screen. For the most part, games look amazing on the Air Pro’s OLED screen. Even when playing games at 720p (the display is 1080p) they still look amazing – but that’s often a necessary trade-off for performance. You’ll probably find yourself wishing the display was just a little bit taller. Not least to get rid of those glasses, but just for general quality of life.

Especially for games where there is a lot of text. Titles like Disco Elysee, for example, have a lot of written dialogue – and while they’re pretty easy to read for the most part, they’re significantly more tiring than if you were on a desktop computer. Fortunately, the display is crisp and the resolution is high enough that everything is still very readable, but there’s just that vague feeling of a user interface that wasn’t designed for a display of this size.

Ayaneo Air Pro Portable Gaming PC

James Trew / Engadget

If you’re thinking “Why not just run SteamOS on it”, you wouldn’t be alone. This has been done with varying degrees of success. The biggest issue might just come down to convenience (millions of games available, wide hardware support) and Windows reach. There are a few more mundane challenges with SteamOS that don’t make it an instant replacement for these handhelds. Mainly, game compatibility. If it’s not available on Steam, you can probably still install it on SteamOS, but that may involve switching to desktop mode or other workarounds that break the “console” experience you may be looking for- be in the first place.

More importantly, some users are actually reporting better battery life with Windows on the Steam Deck when they expected it to be worse. Claims are that it’s broadly equivalent but in some cases even better than Valve’s native OS thanks to a combination of factors. PC gaming has a lot of variables, so it’s not necessarily that surprising. It won’t always be the case, but it’s at least not a strong incentive to make SteamOS the go-to platform for portable PC gaming.

Battery life is especially important with a handheld and it would be a lie to say that’s something the Ayaneo Air Pro excels at. Or even done adequately to. Depending on what you’re playing and the power consumption – usually referred to as TDP – needed for it to operate satisfactorily. More demanding games will need a TDP of 12 Watts or more and you can expect battery life of around an hour and 45 minutes at this intensity. Some games can run very well at 8W, which will extend the playing time to around 2.3 hours. You can get over three hours of life on the lowest 5W setting, but that won’t be enough for anything other than the lightest games, but it’s good for general setup tasks etc.

Needless to say, it’s not 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 in this true on-the-go PC game in a user-friendly format and on fantastic hardware feels like it could finally be here. It’s the challenges that are a bit more complicated. Windows has many advantages, but also many practical disadvantages. Whether it’s fitting hardware around these, or just some clever software overlay is being figured out in real time, it seems.

Ayaneo Air Pro Portable Gaming PC

James Trew / Engadget

Making a true “console” experience will take smart thinking and equally smart software. Ayaneo, for its part, is also working on its own Linux-based operating system Ayaneo like SteamOS. It remains to be seen if this will solve some of the challenges, but it is clearly something that is being worked on. But that’s only one company. With other Windows-related manufacturers like GPD, there’s a risk of ending up with a hodgepodge of approaches. Hopefully, with more competition comes more innovation (or more ideas to “borrow”).

For some, the most exciting thing is finally having more options for enjoying high-end gaming away from the PC. Not everyone is looking to spend more time on a desktop computer, 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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