Handheld gaming is back. The phenomenal success of the Nintendo Switch proves that smartphones are a long way from killing off portable consoles.
Indeed, there are more mobile gaming devices around now than almost ever before. Games are big business, and everyone wants a slice. Amazon is now flooded with various Android-based handheld consoles and a myriad of pocket-sized devices made solely for emulation. But which is right for you?
Here’s our buying guide to help you choose the perfect handheld – and our pick of the best handheld consoles out there right now.
How to buy the best handheld console for you
Choosing a handheld games console can seem like a tricky task. But working out exactly what you want from a device can narrow the field considerably.
For instance, if you want a lightweight device for playing the latest games on the go, Nintendo’s devices are really your only option. If you want gaming plus online videos and music, a high-end Android tablet or a Sony PlayStation Vita is a better bet – as we discuss below.
What games can handheld consoles play?
The range of games on offer varies considerably from device to device. The Nintendo Switch offers a full home console experience, while the 3DS XL is a more lightweight system that mostly plays exclusive titles. Android devices can run emulators and play retro games, as well as newer games downloaded from Google Play. Most handheld consoles support both cartridges and digital downloads; one advantage of picking a Nintendo or Sony device over a smaller manufacturer is the likelihood of finding secondhand cartridges, along with the expectation of better support if something goes wrong.
Can I play retro games on a handheld console?
The 3DS and PlayStation Vita offer backwards-compatibility with older handheld devices, and you may find remakes of classic titles. However, if you want to run an emulator you’re better off with an Android tablet – there’s a bigger range of high-quality emulation software out there.
What about battery life?
Whichever device you choose, you can expect a minimum of three hours of play. Most devices will give you five hours, and some will last up to six or seven hours. Longer is better, obviously, but in reality, you’ll rarely be playing a device for hours on end, and once you switch your device into standby it’ll hold its charge for days or weeks – so you should have more than enough charge for a couple of train journeys without needing to top up.
The best handheld consoles you can buy
1. New Nintendo 3DS XL: Best compact handheld
Price: £200 | Buy it now from Game
Nintendo has been the king of handheld consoles ever since the days of the Game Boy. The New Nintendo 3DS XL enjoys an extensive library of exemplary handheld games from some of the best developers in the world. The screen may not be as sharp as your mobile phone, but it’s detailed enough to make games look great.
Because the 3DS XL uses proprietary cartridges, there’s a big market in second-hand games, making this great for gamers on a budget – although you can also download digital titles via the Nintendo eShop and store them on a microSD card. A selection of different liveries is available too, including a SNES-styled look, and you can even switch out the case panelling to customise them yourself.
Essentially, if you’re looking for pocket-sized gaming, the New Nintendo 3DS XL is really the best the market has to offer.
Key specs – Dimensions: 160 x 21.5 x 93.5mm (WDH) when closed; Weight: 329g; Display: 4.88in (top), 4.18in touchscreen (lower), 800 x 240 pixels; Storage: microSD (4GB card included); Connectivity: 802.11b/g, NFC, headphone jack, proprietary charger; Battery: 1,400mAh (~3.5 to 7 hours)
READ NEXT: The best Nintendo 3DS games
2. Nintendo Switch: The ultimate handheld console
Price: £280 | Buy it now from Amazon
The Nintendo Switch is more than a handheld gaming device. At home, you can hook it up to your living-room TV like a regular console; then, when it’s time to go out, you can simply pop it out of its dock and carry on gaming on the built-in screen.
The games are very much up to home console standards too: star titles include the 100+ hour-long The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, and the superb Super Mario Odyssey. There’s also a slew of great multiplayer titles and the intriguing upcoming Nintendo Labo. Almost all major Switch games come on cartridges, but they’re also available digitally, along with a long list of indie games only available via the Nintendo eShop.
There are a few downsides to the Nintendo Switch, however. The price is high – not surprising considering how powerful it is – and it’s distinctly larger than the 3DS XL. Since it’s a relatively new release, it can also be hard to find stock at every retailer, and second-hand games are thin on the ground.
Key specs – Dimensions: 239 x 14 x 102mm (WDH); Weight: 398g; Display: 6.2in 1,280 x 720-pixel touchscreen (outputs to 1080p when docked); Storage: 32GB built-in, expandable via microSD; Connectivity: 802.11ac, Bluetooth 4.1, NFC, headphone jack, USB Type-C, USB 3 (on dock), USB 2 (on dock); Battery: 4,310mAh (~3.5 to 7 hours)
READ NEXT: The best Nintendo Switch games
3. New Nintendo 2DS XL: Best handheld console for children
Price: £130 | Buy it now from Argos
The New Nintendo 2DS XL runs all the same games as the New Nintendo 3DS XL, but it lacks the 3D screen. This makes it quite a bit cheaper, so it’s the perfect handheld console for children, and there’s a wide range of titles suitable for ages five and up. Indeed, almost every 3DS game is child- and family-friendly, and Nintendo also provides excellent parental controls on the console so you can block certain content, bar access to the eShop and even set playing time restrictions.
The New Nintendo 2DS XL doesn’t have the case-swapping capabilities of its older sibling does, but you can pick one up in this incredibly cute Pikachu-style finish. If you’re buying a handheld console for your child, you can’t go wrong with the New Nintendo 2DS XL
Key specs – Dimensions: 160 x 20 x 86mm (hwd) when closed; Weight: 260g; Display: 4.88in (top), 4.18in touchscreen (lower), 800 x 240 pixels; Storage: microSD (4GB card included); Connectivity: 802.11bg, NFC, headphone jack, proprietary charger; Battery: 1,300mAh (~3.5 to 7 hours)
4. PlayStation Vita: Best handheld console for Japanese games
Price: £150 | Buy it now from Game (Preowned)
Sony’s second entry into the handheld console market is a phenomenal device – but, unfortunately, it was discontinued in the UK a few years ago. If you want a PS Vita, therefore, you’ll have to track down a used one via eBay, Amazon or CeX.
If you’re a fan of weird and wonderful handheld games, however, it’s well worth seeking one out. Second-hand game cartridges can be had quite cheaply, and you’ll also find some exquisite Limited Run editions of quirky indie games to pick up. You can still buy new titles digitally on the PlayStation Store too – and, because the Vita is region-free, you can pick up a wealth of games from Japan, where the PS Vita is still going strong.
For retro gaming fans, the PS Vita also plays a wealth of original PlayStation games and PlayStation Portable titles. You can even connect it to your PS4 (either over your home Wi-Fi or via the internet) and play the latest games remotely.
Key specs – Dimensions: 183.6 x 15 x 85.1mm (hwd); Weight: 260g; Display: 5in 960 x 544-pixel touchscreen; Storage: 1GB built-in, expandable up to 64GB with proprietary memory; Connectivity: 802.11bgn, 3G (optional) Bluetooth 2.1, headphone jack, micro-USB; Battery: 2,210mAh (~4-6 hours for games, 7 for video, 12 for music)
5. Nvidia Shield K1: Best handheld console for retro gamers
Price: £260 | Buy it now from Amazon
The Nvidia Shield K1 is strictly a tablet rather than a console – but don’t think it’s just another Android device. Nvidia’s powerful Tegra K1 processor makes it an exceptional on-the-go gaming platform.
Since it runs Android, you’ll have access to all the most popular smartphone games, as well as a wealth of emulators. The K1 is powerful enough to run PlayStation, N64 and Dreamcast games, and some Gamecube games will work too. Nvidia has also worked with game studios to optimise classic titles for the platform, so you can play the likes of Tomb Raider and Metal Gear Solid Revengeance on it too. As if that weren’t enough, you also get Nvidia’s GeForce Now streaming service, so you can play PC-quality games anywhere you have a Wi-Fi connection, or stream your own PC games to the Shield K1 if you fancy a spot of PC gaming on the sofa.
The only catch with the Shield K1 is its price – and the fact that it’s becoming difficult to obtain new, as Nvidia shifts focus to the Shield TV and its other projects.
Key specs – Dimensions: 221 x 9.2 x 126mm (WDH); Weight: 356g; Display: 8in 1,920 x 1,200-pixel touchscreen; Storage: 16GB, expandable microSD to 256GB; Connectivity: 802.11abgn, Bluetooth 4, GPS, micro-USB 2; Battery: 5,200mAh (~8.5 hours)
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