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BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We only make money if you purchase a product through our links, and we never accept free products from manufacturers. Read more  
BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We buy all products with our own funds, and we never accept free products from manufacturers.Read more 
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Why trust BestReviews?
BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We only make money if you purchase a product through our links, and we never accept free products from manufacturers. Read more  
BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We only make money if you purchase a product through our links, and we never accept free products from manufacturers. Read more  
BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We buy all products with our own funds, and we never accept free products from manufacturers.Read more 
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We purchase every product we review with our own funds — we never accept anything from product manufacturers.

23 Models Considered
9 Hours Researched
1 Experts Interviewed
187 Consumers Consulted
Zero products received from manufacturers.

We purchase every product we review with our own funds — we never accept anything from product manufacturers.

Buying guide for best handheld video game consoles

Last Updated November 2019

Although it seems like everyone is gaming on their smartphones these days, the real action is happening on handheld gaming consoles — which have come a long way since the Nintendo Game Boy. Handheld video game consoles are now almost as popular as their TV-tethered equivalents, and the titles being released are just as compelling. (In fact, there are actually more Mario titles for mobile platforms than there are traditional video game consoles.)

If you’re ready to explore your favorite gaming franchises on a smaller screen — or if you’re just tired of the constant farming and candy crushing of mobile games — get ready for a console that can deliver big gaming in a small package.

Here’s everything you need to know about handheld video game consoles: what they’re good at, what they’re not good at, and how to pick out the perfect one for yourself.

Nintendo’s DS line features multiple consoles that all play the same games, including the 2DS and 3DS. Both consoles work with the same cartridge games.

Your first decision: retro arcade or cutting-edge gaming?

Across the portable video game market, there are two distinct types of portable consoles: retro arcades that play popular titles from the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, and modern handheld consoles that play games with updated graphics and current franchises. Each offers a very different experience. Here’s what you need to know to make the right decision.

  • Retro arcade handheld gaming consoles are typically smaller versions of older home video game system like the Sega Genesis or Atari 2600. They include a few dozen built-in games and usually have small screens ranging between three and seven inches. They deliver pitch-perfect replicas of the classic video games of yesteryear, down to the last pixel.

  • Modern handheld consoles are more powerful, more expensive consoles with better everything: better graphics, better controls, better games. They even innovate by introducing new features like game streaming, so with the right setup, you can play your existing PC or console games on a portable interface. If you’re not a fan of retro games, or if you keep up with specific gaming franchises, opt for a modern handheld video game console.

Portable fun

Nintendo’s best-selling console is totally portable, so you can take it with you anywhere and enjoy cutting-edge gaming on a smaller screen. The included “joy con” controllers can be two separate controllers or part of one larger one with the screen. The best Nintendo titles are all here, from Mario Kart to Zelda: Breath of the Wild.

Features

Some portable gaming systems do a lot more than play video games. Here are the features that are worth holding out for.

Downloadable games

Some gaming systems have built-in games; others require you to buy games on cartridges; and some allow you to purchase games as digital downloads. Nothing can really beat the ease and convenience of buying and downloading a new game, so it’s worth thinking about how you plan on getting new games. If you prefer downloads over physical copies, buy a handheld video game console that lets you purchase more games and download them directly to it.

Online multiplayer games

The only thing better than playing video games on the go is playing video games on the go with your friends! Whether you’re looking to play chess with a grandparent or engage in intense hand-to-hand combat with a buddy, you can do it with a handheld video game console — just so long as you buy one that has online multiplayer support.

Rechargeable batteries

Some handheld video game consoles still rely on AA or AAA batteries, which can be costly over time. If you can, opt for a system that’s got a built-in lithium ion battery that you can recharge with a USB cable. They’re a lot easier to manage, and they produce less waste for the environment.

Multiple screens

Nintendo’s DS line of gaming systems have pretty much cornered the market on multiple screens, and players have loved their dual-screen games for more than a decade. Dual-screen games keep the action on one screen and use the secondary screen for secondary interactions. For example, in a role-playing game, you may see your character avatar on the top screen and your character inventory on the bottom one. Dual-screen gaming adds a whole new dimension to gaming, and a lot more fun.

EXPERT TIP

Most portable gaming devices have built-in batteries that you’ll need to recharge with a USB cable, but some still rely on AA or AAA batteries.


Staff  | BestReviews
EXPERT TIP

Pay close attention to how much the games cost for any given system. This affects cost of ownership, and prices vary widely. For example, Nintendo 3DS games can cost anywhere from $15 to $30, while Nintendo Switch games start at $60.


Staff  | BestReviews

Handheld video game console prices

In the handheld console market, it can be easy to mistake a bargain for a bad deal. Here’s what you need to know about how far your money will go.

Between $50 and $99, you’ll find mostly retro consoles: portable versions of the gaming systems of yesteryear with small screens and multiple games on board. Handheld consoles in this price range are great for nostalgia and casual gaming but not much else. If you want to play modern games or try features like online player-versus-player games, you’ll need to spend a little more.

Between $100 and $299, you’ll find the best values: dedicated gaming systems that can play a wide variety of titles (with new titles coming all the time — something the retro gaming market lacks). If you’re looking for a system from Nintendo’s DS family of portable gaming systems, you’ll find the best deals in this price range.

Above $300, expect to see handheld video game consoles that function as both home gaming units and portable gaming devices. There are only a few of these, but they deliver on their promise: they’ve closed the gap between portable games and traditional console games.

For lovers of 2DS and 3DS

This is the best handheld console in the entire 3DS line. It’s got solid controls, the biggest screen, and unparalleled durability and speed. If you’re a fan of the 2DS and 3DS platforms, this is the hardware to get.

Tips

  • If there are specific games you want to play, check to see if they’re exclusive to a specific handheld console. A lot of the most popular video game characters and franchises are exclusive to specific hardware. For example, any games featuring Mario, Luigi, or Princess Peach can only be found on Nintendo consoles. That’s not always the case — it’s easy to find Sonic the Hedgehog games across multiple platforms — but if you’re jonesing to play a specific game, check to see which consoles can play it before you start shopping.

  • If you want to also enjoy your console’s games on a bigger screen, consider buying one with HDMI output. Many handheld video game consoles are meant to pull double duty as both a portable video game console and a traditional gaming console, so they connect to your TV with an HDMI cable. In these cases, you’ll either continue to use the console itself as a controller, or you’ll need a third-party controller. As you compare different gaming systems, keep an eye on which can utilize your TV as a screen.

  • If you’re buying a portable gaming device for a road trip, buy a car charger. Most portable gaming systems come with batteries big enough to support a few hours of play, but battery life will ultimately depend on what games you’re playing. Make sure you never run out of batteries at a critical moment if you’re a passenger on a road trip — get a car charger, and keep it connected while you play.

Other products we considered

If you’re a PC gamer, consider the NVIDIA Shield Portable, which supports game streaming, so you can play all of your favorite PC gaming titles (so long as you’re on the same network). Although it’s expensive, the Shield Portable also runs the Android operating system, so it can also play Android games. If you’re an avid Playstation 4 gamer, try out the PS Vita, which is great for streaming PS4 games. (Just be forewarned that the PS Vita doesn’t support Sony’s Playstation Vue streaming TV service.)

The counterfeit market for portable gaming systems is strong, so you’re likely to find at least a few that aren’t 100% legit as you shop. If you see something that’s too good to be true, like a system that can play 400 games or licensed characters with no licensing information, stay away.

FAQ

Q. What are the differences between mobile games for my smartphone and games I can play on a handheld video game console?

A. Mobile games for smartphones and tablets use a touch interface, so they’re designed for you to use the screen as a controller. Games for portable gaming systems are designed to be controlled with physical inputs like joysticks and buttons. The difference in their interfaces means that each platform is great for some types of gaming but not others. For example, smartphone games are typically casual and not always graphics-intensive. In contrast, games for handheld gaming consoles are more engaging and require more involvement. If you prefer virtual farming or the occasional Words with Friends match, stick to gaming on your smartphone. If you’re interested in playing games with better graphics, more complex controls, and storylines, get a handheld video game console.

Q. What is “game streaming”?

A. Some portable gaming systems support “game streaming,” which means you can use them to stream a video game from a compatible system on the same network. For example, handheld video game consoles from NVIDIA can stream games from a PC. Similarly, Sony’s most recent portable system can stream games if you have a PS4 on your network.

Q. Can I stream video from the internet on a handheld gaming console?

A. It depends on which one you buy, but in general, video streaming is a feature only found on a few models, and it tends to drive up pricing overall. If you’re interested in streaming movies and TVs on a mobile platform, consider using a smartphone or a tablet.

The team that worked on this review
  • Jaime
    Jaime
    Writer
  • Melinda
    Melinda
    Web Producer
  • Melissa
    Melissa
    Senior Editor
  • Rich
    Rich
    Writer

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