Portable gaming PCs have come a long way. Much of the recent attention has fallen on Valve’s Steam Deck, which just started shipping, but Valve didn’t invent the category — it’s following in the footsteps of several other products from smaller companies.

A few years ago, I reviewed the GPD Win, a breakthrough device that essentially repurposed netbook hardware into a pocket-sized Windows gaming laptop. Performance in this category has been steadily improving, and the new Aya Neo Next is the most advanced Windows gaming handheld we’ve seen yet. Aya Neo is a relatively young company that formed in 2020, but it’s already put out a few well-regarded portables, and the Next is its first big redesign. It’s available to preorder now on Indiegogo with shipping set for mid-April.

Comparisons to the Steam Deck are inevitable, and I encourage you to read our review of that device as well. In some areas, like price and performance, Valve has a clear advantage. In others, though, the Aya Neo Next stakes a strong claim for relevance.

The Aya Neo Next has a more conventional design than the Steam Deck. Both devices are built around similar 7-inch 1280 x 800 LCD panels, but while Valve has added haptic trackpads and stretched the D-pad and face buttons way out to the edges, Aya Neo has opted for a more straightforward layout in line with a Nintendo Switch. This makes for a smaller device than the Deck — 267mm wide versus 298mm, and 30mm thick versus 49mm — at the cost of a little control flexibility. Valve included haptic trackpads so that the Steam Deck can play games that weren’t designed to work with controllers, which isn’t really something that the Aya Neo Next will support unless you want to hook up a mouse. (As we’ll get into later, though, there are plenty of games it can play that the Steam Deck can’t without jumping through hoops.)

The controls that are here are generally solid. The analog sticks and triggers have a good amount of travel and use magnetic Hall-effect sensors, which Aya Neo says improves reliability and longevity over traditional physical components. I don’t love the D-pad, which has a high pivot point that can make it a little tricky to use for fast diagonal input in fighting games, but it works accurately enough for four-way movement. There’s an Aya button below the right stick that brings up Aya Space, Aya Neo’s custom software layer, while another customizable button next to it takes you to the Windows desktop by default. Up top, there are volume buttons and a power button with an integrated fingerprint sensor. (The Steam Deck doesn’t have any form of login protection once you give it access to your account, not even the option for a password.) Aya also gives you a USB-C port on both the top and bottom edges, which is a thoughtful touch that gives you more flexibility to charge (or dock) the device while using it in various situations. A headphone jack is located on the top, and there are stereo speakers on the bottom.

I wouldn’t describe the Aya Neo Next’s build quality as premium, exactly, but it’s minimalist and unfussy. The soft-touch plastic on the back (which Aya Neo upsettingly calls a “BabySkin texture”) helps with comfort, as do the controller-like protrusions on the bottom. I have big hands and find it easier to hold and use than a Switch, though that isn’t saying much. At a little over 1.5 lbs, though, you won’t want to hold it upright for too long without having somewhere to rest your elbows.

The screen isn’t spectacular but gets the job done. It’s an IPS panel with exactly the same size and sharpness as the Steam Deck’s, and while I haven’t had a chance to compare them side by side, the Aya Neo Next’s color reproduction is good. It doesn’t get extremely bright, though, and the glass is quite reflective (there’s no option for the etched glass of the most expensive Steam Deck model) — as well as being a fingerprint magnet. I’m not sure I’d take this to the park on a sunny day.

The internal hardware is centered around an AMD Ryzen 7 5800U or 5825U APU. That gives you eight Zen 3 cores that can run up to 16 threads, which on paper should lead to better CPU performance than the quad-core Steam Deck (which also runs at a lower clock speed). The downside is the integrated GPU, which is based on Vega 8 technology and isn’t as fast as the Steam Deck’s newer RDNA 2 silicon — and GPU power is, of course, more than a little important for gaming. The RAM is also LPDDR4X, while the Steam Deck has LPDDR5.

The specific model I’ve been testing is the Aya Neo Next Advance, which recently launched in limited quantities and sold out ahead of the wider Indiegogo campaign. The main difference between the Next Advance, the Next, and the Next Pro, is that the Advance uses the 5800U, and the other two have the 5825U, which has a slight 100MHz speed increase at a base clock of 2.0GHz and 4.5GHz boosted. The Pro also has 32GB of RAM compared to 16GB on the other two models.

I can’t really continue at this point without bringing up the price. The Aya Neo Next starts at $1,385, and the Steam Deck starts at $399. That’s not just a stark difference; it’s a MacBook Air-sized gap. But there’s a little more to the comparison. First, the entry-level Aya Neo Next model has a 1TB NVMe SSD (and a 2TB drive is a $100 upgrade), while the $399 Steam Deck has just 64GB of much slower eMMC storage, and even the most expensive $649 model only has a 512GB NVMe SSD. The Steam Deck does have a microSD slot, but that’s another slower form of storage, and the biggest cards available are only 1TB. It is definitely nice to install a ton of games onto one fast 2TB SSD without having to think about where they’re going to be located or how quickly they’re going to load.

The Aya Neo Next also has to account for the cost of a Windows 10 Home license, as well as being made by a company that needs to make a profit on hardware. Valve doesn’t have to make a penny on Steam Deck sales as long as it’s beneficial for the broader Steam ecosystem. That shouldn’t matter to consumers, most of whom will entirely understandably consider the Steam Deck to offer a better bang for their buck. But it doesn’t mean there’s no place for the Aya Neo Next.

A big reason why is that, well, it runs Windows. Microsoft’s venerable operating system may not offer the ideal UI for a touchscreen gaming handheld, but it does have the advantage of having provided the software foundation for virtually the entire PC gaming platform for decades. Valve’s Linux-based SteamOS 3.0 has come in pretty hot, and there are a lot of games that the Steam Deck can’t run that the Aya Neo Next has no problem with.

Valve just enabled Windows compatibility for the Steam Deck last week, but it’s still early days — you can’t dual-boot with SteamOS, for example, and there’s still no speaker support. After testing Windows on the Steam Deck for four days, my colleague Sean Hollister says he ran into even nastier glitches than he did with Linux, and doesn’t recommend most people try it until Valve or the community has secured better drivers.

Meanwhile, you can get a reasonable facsimile of the Steam Deck experience simply by setting the Aya Neo Next to boot Steam in Big Picture mode on launch, which gives you a simplified interface that’s designed for controllers. It’s still running the older UI, though Valve has said it plans to replace Big Picture mode with the new Deck interface on all PCs at some point. If all your games are on Steam, Big Picture works well and means you don’t have to interact with Windows very often. Aya’s own Aya Space overlay is also accessible with a single button press and can serve as a game launcher while also letting you update firmware and adjust hardware settings like fan speed and power consumption. The Steam Deck lets you fine-tune power on Linux, but not Windows, and there’s currently no fan adjustment.

Windows being Windows, you can install anything you want. (You could conceivably use the Aya Neo Next as a desktop PC with a USB-C dock, though I didn’t try this out.) The Epic Games Store runs natively on the Aya Neo Next, meaning you can play Fortnite, other Epic exclusives like Final Fantasy VII Remake, or the library of weekly free games you may have been amassing for years. Microsoft’s Xbox app is another useful option, meaning Game Pass subscribers can play games like Forza Horizon 5 and Halo Infinite on the Aya Neo hardware while syncing their progress with Xbox consoles. With Linux, the Steam Deck can’t even play Game Pass games over cloud streaming, much less install them.

The Aya Neo Next also doesn’t have the issues where, for various reasons, games that are actually on the Steam store still won’t run on Valve’s hardware. Destiny 2, for example, is perfectly playable on the Aya Neo Next, whereas Bungie has threatened to ban players who attempt to get it to run on Linux. Other major Steam titles that are currently unplayable on the Steam Deck include PUBG, Lost ArkHalo Infinite, and Dead by Daylight. I wouldn’t expect anyone to play multiplayer games at a high competitive level on the Aya Neo Next, but I will say it’s the perfect device for quickly knocking out some battle pass quests.

Of course, Windows’ user interface sometimes poses problems, and sometimes you’ll miss not having a physical keyboard, even a tiny one like the GPD Win’s. Windows and Steam both have virtual keyboards, but unlike previous Aya Neo models, there’s no longer a dedicated button to bring it up, so often, you’ll have to bring up the desktop and tap the tiny icon on the taskbar. While you can navigate around Windows with the controller to some extent, this confuses the operating system when you’re in the middle of a game, so it isn’t really practical in regular use. Tasks like installing mods into a game’s folder are a pain without connecting a mouse. And you’ll run into bugs sometimes — one weird glitch we found on both the Aya Neo Next and the Steam Deck with Windows is that we couldn’t get Red Dead Redemption 2 to run in fullscreen mode, even though it’s fine on SteamOS.

For the basic use case of installing and launching games, though, you rarely need to interact with Windows, and when you do have to, it works more or less as you’d expect. The Steam Deck’s software is designed for the form factor but feels unfinished; the Aya Neo Next’s is technically more solid but just feels like an awkward fit.

As for performance, I would say it’s generally in the same ballpark as the Steam Deck but closer to the bleachers than field level. As expected, the Steam Deck’s faster GPU translates to better performance in most games we’ve tested directly against each other. But I didn’t encounter anything that was outright unplayable on the Aya Neo Next — at least not because of its horsepower. On newer, demanding games like Cyberpunk 2077, and God of War, I mostly played with a mix of low and medium settings at native resolution — which usually looks good on a screen of this size — and targeting 30 frames per second with V-sync on.