Handheld gaming systems are having a moment. Yes, gaming on the go has been a thing since the Game Boy, but the runaway success of the Nintendo Switch and continued growth of mobile processors has brought an explosion of devices that let you play all sorts of games wherever you want. Figuring out the best gaming handheld for you, though, can be complicated. You already know that the Switch is worth buying, but depending on what you want to play, the right handheld could cost you less than $100 or close to $1,000. To help you narrow things down, we’ve extensively researched the handheld market and tested the major contenders, from beefy portable PCs to compact emulation machines.
What to know about the gaming handheld market
The market for gaming handhelds can be broken down into three broad tiers. At the top, you have x86-based portable gaming PCs like the Steam Deck or Asus ROG Ally. These are the most powerful handhelds you can buy, as they seek to replicate the experience of a moderately specced gaming desktop. The Steam Deck runs on Linux, but most others use Windows. If you want to play modern, recently released games on the go (and need something stronger than a Switch), this is the type of device you’d get. They can also emulate the widest range of retro consoles. However, they’re typically the largest and most cumbersome devices to hold and their battery life can be short. Naturally, they’re also the most expensive, costing anywhere from $400 to more than $1,000.
Further down on the price spectrum are mobile handhelds like the Logitech G Cloud or Retroid Pocket. These often run Android or Linux and can range from under $50 to $400-ish. They aren’t equipped to play modern console or PC titles, but they’re usually more compact than a portable PC and can still be used for mobile games and cloud streaming. While most are marketed toward those ends, many people actually buy them to emulate classic games through software like RetroArch. Getting emulators to work can be complicated, and accessing the BIOS and ROM files required to play games this way is legally murky. (Engadget does not condone piracy. Backing up files of games you already own for personal use only is considered more defensible, however, so for that a mobile handheld can be a more user- and wallet-friendly way to play the classics on the go.) Today, the ARM chips in top mobile handhelds can emulate games into the sixth generation of consoles.
We’ll call the last tier “handhelds that do their own thing.” This is a catch-all for things like the Switch or Playdate: portable gaming devices that run heavily customized software and aim to provide a unique experience. They aren’t necessarily ideal for emulation or playing the latest multiplatform titles; instead, they often have distinct game libraries. They might not have the widest appeal as a result (Switch excluded), but they’re often easier for less tech-literate folks to just pick up and use.
Best handheld gaming PC for most: Valve Steam Deck
It’s been well-documented over the past year but Valve’s Steam Deck still offers the best balance of price and functionality in the gaming handheld market. Specifically, we’re talking about the entry-level model, which costs $399 and comes with 64GB of eMMC storage (which is easily expandable with a microSD card). The $529 and $649 variants with faster SSDs and, with the highest-end model, a premium glass display are fantastic as well, but a few new Windows handhelds might put dent in their value proposition, at least for some people. (We’ll dig into this more below.)
Nevertheless, the entry-level Steam Deck is still a remarkably capable device. While not every game in the Steam library is compatible with the device’s Linux-based OS, thousands are and the list of officially verified and still-playable titles is growing all the time. It can play some games natively and stably that just aren’t possible on the Nintendo Switch, from Elden Ring to Final Fantasy VII Remake to the Resident Evil 4 remake. The process isn’t quite as plug-and-play as Nintendo’s console, as some games require tweaks to run optimally, and some newer AAA titles are starting to push the device’s limits. But SteamOS makes its settings relatively accessible, and in practice, this is essentially a last-gen console that plays in 720p but can be carried anywhere.
This power makes the Steam Deck a superb device for emulation as well. While some systems need a few tweaks (Wii) and others are more game-dependent (the oft-tricky PS3 and Xbox), most run flawlessly, and just about everything is at least playable. It can even play higher-end Switch games. Using a tool like EmuDeck makes setting all of this up about as easy as it could be, too. Beyond emulation, the Deck’s flexibility makes it a fine device for cloud streaming Xbox games. You can also pair it with a dock and play many (but not all) games at higher resolutions on a TV or monitor.
The Steam Deck’s biggest flaw is its size: At 1.5 pounds, about two inches thick and just under a foot long, it stretches the limits of a “handheld” device. Even if you have large hands, it can be tiring to hold for a couple of hours. Depending on what you play, its battery life can range from eight hours to less than two. The 7-inch IPS LCD display, while decent, isn’t as vibrant as the Switch OLED, and the d-pad is somewhat mushy. All that said, the Deck is a sturdy piece of kit. Its joysticks are pleasingly smooth, the face buttons and triggers are responsive and it dissipates heat comfortably. It doesn’t feel far off from using a normal controller, plus there are four customizable back buttons and two trackpads to make navigating PC-style game UIs easier. And while the whole thing is heavy, its contoured grips slide naturally into the hands. You can read our full Steam Deck review for more details.
A note on more powerful Steam Deck alternatives
Owning Steam lets Valve undercut most handheld PCs on price, so the entry-level Steam Deck should remain a killer value at $399. If you’re working with a higher budget and want the most powerful handheld possible, though, it might be worth waiting on a few upcoming devices first.
Both the Asus ROG Ally and Ayaneo 2S run on beefy new AMD chips that should be able to play more demanding games at higher frame rates. The ROG Ally could be particularly appealing: Its 7-inch display has a higher resolution (1080p) and faster refresh rate (120Hz) than the Deck, it’s slightly thinner and lighter, and it’ll start at a relatively reasonable $600. Reviews fromothersites say that it is indeed more powerful. And since it comes from an established manufacturer, it’s available at major retailers like Best Buy. It comes in two variants: The higher-end model costs $700 and will start shipping in June, while the base SKU doesn’t have a firm release date just yet. We’ll have a full review of the ROG Ally in the coming weeks and will keep on top of the Ayaneo 2S when it arrives.
Both the ROG Ally and Ayaneo 2S run on Windows 11, which means they can play games from not just Steam, but other gaming clients like Epic, GOG, Itch.io or the Xbox app. Yes, it’s technically possible to play non-Steam games on SteamOS, but that’s not the point of the Deck. And while Valve is doing an admirable job of getting more Windows games working on a Linux-based OS, it’s still running a layer. Every now and then, an update will break something in a given game.
But Windows certainly isn’t immune to things going haywire, and so far, no Windows handheld has really nailed a portable UI as well as the Steam Deck. Battery life is often shorter, too. The early consensus on the ROG Ally seems to be that these are still issues there. Plus, the performance jump may not always be massive; its gains over the Deck appear to be most notable at higher power modes, but running at a higher wattage also means nuking the battery. Still, it’s faster. And if everything is working right, a handheld running Windows should have fewer limitations.
Of the Windows handhelds we’ve tested, we’ve found the Ayaneo 2 and Ayaneo Air Plus to be competent alternatives to the Steam Deck with generally higher performance. The GPD Win 4 is relatively well-regarded, too. But the software experience on these devices isn’t nearly as polished as SteamOS, and devices with better hardware are on the way. We’ll update this guide once we’re able to review the ROG Ally or another handheld with a Ryzen 7000 series chip.
Best budget handheld gaming system: Retroid Pocket 3+
The Retroid Pocket 3+ is an Android device with far less power than the Steam Deck or portable Windows PC, so the only way it can play modern games is via cloud streaming. But if you primarily want a handheld to emulate older games when you’re away from your home console or gaming PC, this is a generally comfortable and, at $149, reasonably affordable way to do so.
We praised this handheld’s predecessor, the Pocket 3, in 2022. The Pocket 3+ is effectively the same device, but with a stronger chipset (the Unisoc T618) and more RAM (4GB). The design is like a smaller Nintendo Switch Lite, which is to say it’s slim, lightweight (235g) and not fatiguing to use for hours at a time. The 4.7-inch touch display isn’t huge, but it’s bright and saturated, with a sharp-enough 750 x 1,334 resolution and a 16:9 aspect ratio that plays nice for cloud streaming and emulating systems like the PSP. (You’ll get borders with some older consoles, though.) The hardware still has some quirks: The face buttons are on the beady side, the start and select buttons are oddly placed on the left-hand side and the analog triggers aren’t pressure-sensitive. The joysticks are on the shallower side, too, though they’re smooth and accurate in action. For the money, the Pocket 3+ is built well and easy to transport.
The Pocket 3+ can emulate consoles up to the Dreamcast/PSP range fairly comfortably, so you’ll have few troubles if you’re mainly looking to play older games from the SNES, PS1 and earlier. With a recent firmware update, the device’s performance has also improved with more demanding machines like the PlayStation 2 and GameCube. It’s still not flawless (particularly with the PS2), but numerous games are at least playable, which is impressive at this price. You can also play most native Android games or stream games from a PC, Xbox or PS5. Battery life will depend on what you’re playing but typically lasts between five and seven hours.
Retroid recently launched a handheld called the Pocket Flip that’s more or less the Pocket 3+ with a clamshell design. It costs $10 more and uses sliders instead of joysticks, but if you’d prefer a form factor that’s closer to a Nintendo DS than a Switch Lite, feel free to get that instead.
A more powerful Android option: AYN Odin
The AYN Odin is worth considering if you like the idea of the Retroid Pocket 3+ but are willing to pay a little more for better emulation performance with systems like the GameCube, PS2 and Wii. Its Snapdragon 845 processor and Adreno 635 GPU still can’t run 100 percent of games from those systems, but the Odin can do more than the Pocket 3+, and the handful that are playable on both devices will generally perform better here. The device is even capable of playing some 3DS games.
The Odin is also a better piece of hardware than the Pocket 3+. Its layout is pretty much the same, but it has gentle curves on the back that make it easier to grip, a couple of customizable back buttons and analog triggers that’ll play nicer with more modern games and cloud streaming. It has a larger 6-inch 1080p display, and it should still get around five to seven hours of battery life on average. It’s not as portable as Retroid’s handheld, but it has a more substantial feel on the whole.
All of this makes the Odin a better device than the Pocket 3+, but it’s hard to call it a better value. AYN sells three different Odin models: The base version, which often goes for $240, is probably the “Goldilocks” option for most people. A more powerful Odin Pro comes with twice the RAM (8GB) and storage (128GB) but costs $290; at that price, you’re getting pretty close to the Steam Deck, which is comprehensively superior. There’s also the $200 Odin Lite, which is technically more capable than the Pocket 3+ but less of a jump than its siblings. It’s worth noting that AYN has a new “Loki” series of handhelds on the way as well. Nevertheless, the Odin is a standout among mobile gaming handhelds. You can read our full Odin Pro review for more details.
Another good (but pricey) option: Logitech G Cloud
If the Logitech G Cloud cost $150 or so less, it might be the best Android handheld on the market. Its 7-inch, 1080p display is bright, vibrant and altogether more pleasing to look at than the Retroid Pocket 3+, AYN Odin and even the entry-level Steam Deck. Despite having the same screen size as the Deck, it weighs a half pound less and its contoured grips are easy to hold for hours. Its haptics work as they should, and it gets a good 10 to 12 hours of battery life. The big panel makes it a treat for game streaming, and in terms of emulation, it can play into the Dreamcast/PSP range comfortably. Since Logitech is an established firm, you don’t have to worry about extended shipping fees or wait times, either; just grab one from your retailer of choice and you’ll have it in a few days.
Alas, the G Cloud has typically sold for $300 in recent months. While that’s $50 less than its launch price, it’s still too much when the Pocket 3+ and Odin get you most of the way there for much less, and when the Steam Deck can do far more for $100 extra. The Odin is more powerful, too; the G Cloud can still play some GameCube, 3DS and PS2 games, but not as comfortably, particularly at higher resolutions. Plus, while the G Cloud doesn’t feel cheap, its triggers are somewhat shallow, and its face buttons are just OK. (The triggers are analog, though.) And because the device only supports the FAT32 file system, it can’t play any games larger than 4GB off a microSD card. All that said, the G Cloud is still a more luxurious experience than the Odin and Pocket 3+ in many ways. If money is no object, or if you ever see on sale around $200, it’s worth considering.
A premium device for vintage portable games: Analogue Pocket
The Analogue Pocket is the ultimate Game Boy. As we note in our review, its vertical design is built like a modernized version of Nintendo’s classic handheld. The general layout is the same, and it can even work with classic accessories like the Game Boy Camera. But in contrast, it has four face buttons instead of two, a couple of triggers on the back, microSD and USB-C ports and a rechargeable battery rated for six to 10 hours of playtime. Most notably, there’s a gorgeous 3.5-inch display that’s backlit and incredibly sharp (615 ppi) but can look like an old Game Boy screen through different filter modes. This is an elegant handheld with a premium feel, plus it can output to a TV with an optional dock.
Unlike the retro handhelds mentioned above, the Pocket is designed to play actual cartridges, not just emulate ROM files. It can play Game Boy, Game Boy Color and Game Boy Advance games through its cartridge slot, with games from the Sega Game Gear (and eventually, other systems like the TurboGrafx-16 and Atari Lynx) playable through optional adapters. Like past Analogue devices, the Pocket uses field programmable gate array (FPGA) motherboards to mimic its target systems on a hardware level. In practice, this means the Pocket’s “emulation” of older titles is near-perfect, with a level of responsiveness and visual faithfulness that software-based emulation can’t match. Pop a Game Boy or GBA cartridge in here and you can essentially play it as nature intended.
That said, thanks to a big update last year and an active community around the device, the Pocket can also run ROMs off a microSD card and thus play systems like the SNES and Sega Genesis. At $220, the Pocket isn’t cheap, and its shoulder buttons aren’t as crisp to press as the excellent face buttons or d-pad. Still, if you have a collection of Game Boy, Game Gear or GBA games, the Pocket is the most luxurious way to play them, and it’s only become more versatile since launch. Its biggest problem is that it’s extremely hard to get — expect to wait several months for any new order to ship.
A charming indie game machine: Playdate
The Playdate, from app developer and Untitled Goose Game publisher Panic, might be the most niche device in this guide. It’s a tiny yellow box with a 2.7-inch monochrome display, two face buttons, a d-pad and a physical crank built into its side. Our review called it a cross between a Game Boy and a business card, and it is indeed incredibly compact, measuring about three inches tall and just 0.18 pounds. Its game library largely consists of oddball indies, most of which focus on one or two core ideas instead of stuffing in as many mechanics as possible. A couple dozen of those games come with the Playdate for no extra cost, a few others are available through a built-in store and hundreds more can be sideloaded from shops like Itch.io.
None of this is designed for emulation or capital-m “Modern” gaming, and at $200, it’s wildly expensive given its limitations. Plus, while the display is smooth and sharp enough, it’s not backlit, so it’s difficult to view in dim lighting. But beyond that, the Playdate is as polished as it is adorable, and many of its games are simple fun. Battery life is decent at six to eight hours as well. In a sea of devices that try to be everything for everyone, the Playdate’s goals are admirably focused and low-key. For the most part, it achieves them. If you’re into smaller-scale games and have some cash to burn, it’ll be a charming little toy. Like the Analogue Pocket, however, actually getting a hold of one will take some time: As of this writing, Panic says new Playdate orders won’t ship until “late 2023.”
The Razer Edge sits in a similar no man’s land as the Logitech G Cloud. As we said in our review, the hardware isn’t bad at all. It’s about as powerful as a flagship phone from 2022, so it can play just about all Android games at max settings and emulate GameCube, PS2 and Wii games well. Its 144Hz OLED display is impressive, and both its speakers and battery life are solid.
But the design is odd: It’s essentially a standalone tablet attached to a Razer Kishi V2, so it doesn’t feel quite as stable as something like the AYN Odin or Logitech G Cloud. The display also has a superwide 20:9 aspect ratio that isn’t well-suited to most retro games, so the effective screen space for emulation isn’t much more than what you’d get from a smaller device. It may be one of the more powerful Android handhelds, but at $400, the whole thing is way too expensive.
The Miyoo Mini+ is more affordable than our top picks and comes in a well-built, Game Boy-style form factor that fits nicely with older games. Its 3.5-inch display really pops for something in the $70 to $80 range, its battery lasts as long as it needs to, and we found it to emulate retro consoles up to the PlayStation 1 without much issue. As a Linux handheld, its software is extensively customizable, though it can require a bit of tinkering to get the most out of it as a result.
Unfortunately, between stock shortages and its lack of availability at major retailers, the Mini+ has been difficult to actually buy. If you can’t find one, Anbernic’s RG35XX should be a decent alternative; it’s a bit easier to pick up and use once it’s set up, though it lacks built-in WiFi.
We weren’t able to test it, but the Anbernic RG405M should be a good alternative to the Retroid Pocket 3+ for those who want something more compact. The two devices run on the same chipset, but the RG405M has a 4-inch display and a more substantial metal frame. Its 4:3 aspect ratio means you won’t have to deal with black bars as much for retro games, too, though it can feel crunched with newer systems and cloud streaming. At $175 or so, it’s also pricier than the Pocket 3+.
At their core, all of the mobile handhelds we’ve mentioned are just modified Android or Linux tablets. If you play more casually, you can get a similar experience by hooking up your existing smartphone to a mobile gamepad like the Backbone One. This connects directly to your phone’s USB-C or Lightning port and immediately works with any game with controller support. Its face buttons are somewhat noisy, and its d-pad is a bit spongy, but it’s comfortable for its size and has all the inputs needed to play modern games, including analog triggers and clickable joysticks. There’s also a headphone jack and pass-through charging port, plus a useful app for starting party chats. The One costs $100, which isn’t cheap, but it feels much more natural than using a console controller with a clip.
This article originally appeared on Engadget at https://www.engadget.com/best-handheld-gaming-system-140018863.html?src=rss
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