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If you’re of a certain age, you probably have fond memories of handheld video game systems. The technology has changed a lot, but handheld gaming consoles remain as popular as ever, thanks to both a wave of nostalgia and an increased demand for portable play and connectivity.
Nintendo has dominated the handheld console market since 1989, when the Game Boy was first released, and the Japanese electronics giant continued with a number of updates to the Game Boy family until the brand was discontinued a few years ago (You can still purchase brand new Game Boy consoles on sites like Amazon).
These days, a new generation of gamers are taking their gaming on the go, thanks to popular consoles like the Nintendo Switch and the Nintendo DS, which offer sharper, faster and more feature-packed gameplay compared to the previous models. Sony, meantime, has its PlayStation Vita console, which is noted for its crisp display and ability to stream music and video content, in addition to playing games.
If you’re looking to pick up a new handheld gaming console, here are four of the best handheld devices to get, based on consumer reviews, graphics and variety of games to choose from.
What You Need to Know Before Buying a Handheld Game System
There are many factors to think about when choosing the right handheld game system for you; below are the most important ones, which we considered while we were researching this list.
Size: The term handheld is objective because everyone’s hands are different, so what we mean is that these game systems are totally portable, and can run on battery powerful. We took ergonomics into consideration, and have solutions if we feel like the picks we chose could get fatiguing to play over time.
Game library: You’re buying a game system to play, well, games. Our picks all have huge libraries, so you’ll be satisfied whether you like first-person shooters, platformers, role playing games, or all of the above.
Storage: Modern handheld gaming consoles can all download games from digital storefronts, but if you’re building up a big library, you’ll need space to store those games. We took a handheld’s internal storage capacity into consideration when creating this guide, but also picked systems whose storage can be upgraded after you get it.
Battery life: One of the perils of handheld gaming in the modern era is that portable game systems run on rechargeable batteries. That’s great for the environment, and convenient for us, but it means it’s hard to charge your device on a trip. Again, we’ve offered solutions where applicable, but our advice is to keep your device fully charged before your next adventure.
1. Nintendo Switch
The Nintendo Switch is the famous game company’s latest handheld, but it comes with a twist. The Switch can be connected to a TV via a dock that comes with the system, so it’s a hybrid between a portable system and traditional home console. I’ve been a Switch owner since day one, and I’ve been impressed at how well that dual functionality works.
I’m not the only one, the handheld has been a runaway success since launch, which has inspired developers to fill its library with a ton of great games. Sure, there are Nintendo staples like Mario, Zelda, and Pokémon, but they’re joined by third-party titles like Dark Souls: Remastered, Minecraft, and The Witcher 3. That’s on top of thousands of independently developed games available digitally on Nintendo’s eShop.
The Nintendo Switch comes with 32gb of internal storage which is enough to hold a dozen or so games — how many games it can hold depends on their size — but speaking from experience, you’ll want more space. I recommend this 256gb MicroSD card, which has definitely eased my storage anxiety.
The Switch’s hybrid nature is great, but the system is much larger than a traditional handheld gaming system when its two controllers (they’re called Joy-Con) are attached to its sides.
The Joy-Con controllers are detachable, and the Switch has a kickstand, so you can mitigate hand and arm fatigue by propping it up on a table and playing with one controller on each hand. Nintendo also ships a more traditional gaming controller called the Pro Controller, which I can’t recommend highly enough.
Size is a bit of an issue, but the Switch does let you play full-sized console games on a 6.1-inch 720p screen. It’s by far the most powerful mainstream handheld game console ever released. But, with great power comes so-so battery life. The Switch can last up to five hours per charge depending on your screen brightness, and which game you’re playing. Complex, better-looking games will tax the system more, so you’ll get less playtime.
To combat this, you can hook the Switch up to a modern portable battery pack, which can recharge the system while you’re on the go, so you won’t have to wait to plug it into an outlet. I like this one from Anker, which let me play the Switch non-stop on a trip from New York to Japan.
PROS: Impressive game library, 720p screen, most powerful mainstream handheld system out there, upgradable storage.
CONS: So-so battery life, large size.
Note: If you want a Nintendo Switch that’s more portable, we recommend the Switch Light, which has a smaller screen, no detachable Joy-Con, no TV connectivity, but better battery life. It’s available for $198.99.
2. New Nintendo 3DS XL
The “New” Nintendo 3DS is Nintendo’s most recent handheld-only game console, and it’s still a great choice for playing games while you’re on the move.
Like the DS before it, the “New” Nintendo 3DS’ main feature is its dual screen design, which features a 4.88 inch display on top, and a 4.18 inch touch display on the bottom. Its namesake comes from that top screen, which can be adjusted to create a stereoscopic 3D image (two separate images are sent out from the screen to each of your eyes). This effect can be turned off.
This design has allowed developers to come up with novel approaches to their games, like giving you quick access to a map and inventory on the bottom screen, while the action takes place up top. I’ve owned a 3DS since 2011, and can confirm this system works well, although the 3D can be hit or miss depending on how you hold the system.
In terms of sheer volume, the 3DS’ library is untouchable. Not only can it play games designed for the system, it’s backwards compatible with the entire original DS library. That means you have 16 years worth of games available to you, from Super Mario 3D Land, to Call of Duty, to Dragon Quest VIII — a game that was previously a PlayStation 2 exclusive. You can pick up your games on physical game cards or digitally through the Nintendo 3DS’ eShop (original DS games are only available physically, and may take some hunting to find).
If you plan on having a digital library, prepare to buy a MicroSD card. The 3DS has no internal storage, and ships with a 4gb card. 3DS games are smaller than Nintendo Switch games, but you’ll want at least 64gb of space to be comfortable.
Because the 3DS was designed exclusively with portability in mind, its size and battery life were clearly prioritized. The system itself is small enough to fit in a pocket, bag, or purse, and can last for up to seven hours per charge. That’s enough to get you through a cross country or cross continental trip.
The only place the 3DS suffers is its low-resolution display, which hasn’t aged particularly well. It doesn’t look bad by any means, but most of us gave gotten spoiled by the crisp, high resolution displays on our phones, computers, or tablets.
PROS: Incredible game library, great battery life.
CONS: Low resolution display, very little internal storage.
Note: If you want a slightly smaller system without the 3D screen that has access to all the same great games, we recommend the Nintendo 2DS XL, which costs $236.85.
3. PlayStation Vita
It may be getting discontinued, but that’s no reason to skip out on the PlayStation Vita, which is one of the best-reviewed gaming consoles from both critics and fans alike.
The Vita was designed to be a handheld version of Sony’s then-current PlayStation 3. Most of its biggest exclusive franchises including Uncharted and God Of War had Vita versions. These games are expensive physically, but you can get them digitally through the PlayStation Store. In addition to Vita games, the system can play digital versions of PSP (PlayStation Portable) and PS1 (PlayStation One) titles.
Unfortunately, Sony decided to require a proprietary memory card if you want to store your digital game library. We recommend getting a 32gb card, which is still available. That poor design choice stands out because the Vita is otherwise a great portable gaming machine. Its slim, sleek design, has held up well, and its high-resolution LCD display is still world class. It even gets six hours of battery life per charge, which is competitive with modern handheld systems.
PROS: Sleek design, high resolution screen.
CONS: Physical games are difficult to find, its proprietary memory cards are expensive.
4. Your Smartphone (With a Wireless Controller)
You might not realize it, but you’re probably using a great handheld gaming system right now: Your smartphone. Whether you’re using an iPhone or Android device, both the App Store and Play Store are full of incredible games. Some games are even ports (a gaming term for version) of games available on dedicated gaming hardware.
The problem is that gaming on your phone’s touch screen doesn’t offer the same fidelity as a traditional controller, but you’re in luck. Both Apple and Android phones let you pair your phone with a traditional game controller over Bluetooth.
Yes, this requires you to carry an additional accessory with you, which is a little more annoying than hitting the power button on a dedicated handheld, but you already have the major piece of hardware. Smartphones have a lot of storage, huge digital game libraries and excellent battery life. You’ll burn more power playing games, but you’ll get a comparable amount of play time per charge.
I’ve connected my phone to a controller before, and I recommend Microsoft’s official Xbox One controller. It was designed for gamers, so it’s ergonomic, and feels comfortable to hold for extended periods of time. It runs on a pair of AA batteries, but in my experience they’ll last for months before you need to change them.
PROS: You already own the handheld, so pairing to a game controller is easy.
CONS: Bulkier than a traditional gaming handheld.