Handheld gaming systems are having a moment. While gaming on the go has been a thing since the Game Boy, the success of the Nintendo Switch and a string of ever-improving processors have brought an eruption of devices that let you play all sorts of games anywhere you want. Because new models seem to arrive every week, however, figuring out the best gaming handheld for you can be complicated. You already know that the Switch is great, but depending on what else you want to play, the right handheld could range from a $100 emulation machine to a $700 portable PC. To help you narrow things down, we’ve researched the best handheld gaming consoles, tested the major contenders and laid out a few top picks.
What to know about the gaming handheld market
You can break down the gaming handheld market 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 the Linux operating system, but most others use Windows. If you want to play modern, recently released PC 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. They’re typically the largest and most cumbersome devices to hold, however, 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 devices 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 you can still use them for mobile games and cloud streaming. While most are marketed toward those ends, many gamers 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, though, so for that a mobile handheld can be a more user- and wallet-friendly way to play the classics anywhere. The best mobile handhelds can generally emulate games into the sixth generation of consoles, though newer systems like the Nintendo 3DS and even the Switch are also playable to an extent.
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 devices that run heavily customized software and aim to provide a unique gaming 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
Thanks to a recent refresh, Valve’s Steam Deck continues to offer the best balance of price, performance and usability in the gaming handheld market. And the new Steam Deck OLED is a thorough upgrade over the original. Starting at $549 for 512GB of storage, this variant features a 7.4-inch OLED display that’s brighter, faster, slightly bigger and more vivid than the 7-inch IPS panel on the now entry-level model. The higher contrast and richer colors of an OLED screen makes every game look better by default, but this display also supports HDR, with significantly brighter highlights at its peak. The maximum refresh rate has jumped from 60Hz to 90Hz as well, which can help many games look smoother.
Due to the less power-hungry display, a more efficient AMD APU and a larger battery, the Steam Deck OLED also lasts longer than before. No handheld can play resource-intensive “AAA” games for too long, but Valve says the new model can run for three to 12 hours depending on the game, whereas the LCD model lasts between two and eight. A larger fan keeps things cooler and quieter, and the chassis feels lighter. Performance is roughly the same, though the OLED model’s increased memory bandwidth can help it gain a couple extra frames in certain games.
All that said, $549 is a big investment. The entry-level Steam Deck, which uses a more basic IPS LCD display but now comes with a 256GB SSD as standard, is still an unmatched value at $399. Newer AAA games are certainly pushing their limits, but both Decks can run tons of games that just aren’t possible on a Nintendo Switch, from Elden Ring to Final Fantasy VII Remake to the Resident Evil 4 remake. While official game support is limited to a subset of the Steam library, the list of officially verified and still-playable titles is massive, diverse and constantly growing. (There are workarounds to access other storefronts as well.)
A near-constant stream of updates has turned Valve’s SteamOS into a flexible yet user-friendly platform. You’ll still need to make tweaks every now and then to get a game to run optimally, but the process is usually straightforward. That power, combined with third-party tools like EmuDeck, makes the Deck superb for emulation as well. Some PS3 and original Xbox games can be tricky, but just about everything else works beautifully. You can also cloud stream Xbox games with a little setup.
The Steam Deck’s biggest issue is its size: At two inches thick and nearly a foot long, it stretches the definition of a “handheld” device, even if the OLED model is lighter by comparison. The LCD Deck can get warm and noisy fairly quickly, too, and the d-pad on each device is somewhat mushy. But the contoured grips on the back help offset the bulk, and both versions feel sturdy, with responsive face buttons and triggers, smooth joysticks and useful dual touchpads.
Best Windows alternative: ASUS ROG Ally
If you’re willing to spend extra for more power, you can skip the Steam Deck and buy a Windows-based handheld instead. The ASUS ROG Ally is the one that should work for most people, and it’s a decent alternative if you’re willing to trade ease of use for a higher performance ceiling. Think of it like a more portable gaming laptop.
Note that we’re specifically recommending the model with an AMD Ryzen Z1 Extreme APU, which costs $700. ASUS sells another version with a weaker Ryzen Z1 chip for $100 less, but the power drop-off there is too great. With the Z1 Extreme, the ROG Ally can play more demanding games at higher frame rates and resolutions than the Steam Deck. In our review, we saw fps gains of 15 to 25 percent in AAA fare like Cyberpunk 2077 and Shadow of the Tomb Raider. While the Steam Deck officially tops out at a TDP of 15W, the ROG Ally’s Turbo mode boosts its power draw to 25W (or 30W when plugged in), letting it eke out more frames. It’s not the absolute fastest handheld, and the Steam Deck can actually outperform it on occasion at the same TDP, resolution and graphics settings. But the ROG Ally has more overhead going forward, which is important if you mostly play graphically demanding games.
The ROG Ally’s 7-inch LCD display isn’t as bright or color-rich as the Steam Deck OLED, but it has a sharper 1080p resolution and a faster 120Hz refresh rate. Most importantly, it supports variable refresh rates (VRR), which helps keep the image smooth even as a game’s frame rate fluctuates. Despite having a similar-size screen, the ROG Ally is also shorter, lighter and thinner than the Steam Deck OLED. That said, it doesn’t come with a case. And though the hardware isn’t as much of a brick as the Steam Deck, Valve’s handheld has more pronounced grips around its back, which could still make it easier to hold for those with large hands.
The ROG Ally’s upgraded performance and sharper display come at the expense of battery life, however. That usually sits in the two- to four-hour range, but it can be even less with certain games and higher performance modes, somewhat defeating the point of a “portable” device.
Because it runs on Windows 11, the ROG Ally can play games from any gaming client, not just a selection of Steam games. If you’ve built up libraries on stores like Epic, GOG, Itch.io or the Xbox app, you can access them here as you would on any other Windows PC, no special workarounds required. For those who want to play Epic exclusives like Alan Wake 2 or Xbox Game Pass titles, this is a real advantage.
But the biggest issue with all Windows handhelds is the operating system itself. ASUS has made more strides than most by turning its Armoury Crate software into a centralized settings hub and game library, but it’s still slapping a bandage on an OS that simply isn’t designed for this device class.
Whether a game works smoothly right away can feel like a crapshoot on a Windows handheld. Sometimes the UI won’t scale properly, sometimes you’ll have to spend several minutes fiddling with graphics settings and key bindings, sometimes you’ll have to alternate between navigating the OS with buttons and with your fingers. I once had to hard-reset the ROG Ally after a driver issue kept the screen from turning on.
ASUS shows a helpful seven-minute tutorial on how to update and use the ROG Ally upon first launching Armoury Crate, but the fact that it needs a seven-minute intro video in the first place is telling. Nobody will confuse the Steam Deck with a Switch, but it’s much simpler to just pick up and use than any Windows alternative.
The ROG Ally has also had some troubles with quality control. Most notably, several users have reported problems with the device ejecting or outright killing their microSD cards, an issue ASUS has since confirmed. The device’s SSD is replaceable with a little legwork, however, so we recommend taking that route if you need more than 512GB of storage.
Best budget handheld gaming system (for now): Retroid Pocket 3+
The $149 Retroid Pocket 3+ is an Android device with far less power than the Steam Deck or ROG Ally, so it can only play modern games via cloud streaming. It also comes from a lesser-known Chinese company. But if you mainly want a handheld to emulate older games, this is a comfortable and reasonably affordable way to do so.
A word of warning, though: Retroid announced two successors to the Pocket 3+, the $149 Pocket 4 and $199 Pocket 4 Pro, right as we finished the latest update to this guide. Neither device should be a huge leap forward, but they’ll feature more powerful chipsets, analog triggers, Hall effect joysticks and more conveniently-placed menu buttons. The Pocket 4 Pro could be a particularly great value, as its MediaTek Dimensity 1100 chip and 8GB of RAM should let it emulate nearly all games from demanding machines like the PlayStation 2 and GameCube. The Pocket 4 and 4 Pro went up for pre-order this week and will begin shipping in mid- to late-January, so the vast majority of people should hold off on buying the Pocket 3+ now. We’ll update this guide once we test the new devices.
If you absolutely cannot wait, however, the Pocket 3+ is effectively the same as its predecessor (the Pocket 3, which we praised in late 2022) but adds a faster chip (the Unisoc T618) and more RAM (4GB). It’s built like a smaller Nintendo Switch Lite: mostly flat, but slim, light (235g) and not fatiguing to hold for long stretches. 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’s 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 a little beady, the start and select buttons are oddly placed on the left-hand side and the triggers aren’t pressure-sensitive. The joysticks are on the shallower side, too, but they’re smooth and accurate. Overall, though, the Pocket 3+ is easy to carry and built well for the money.
The Pocket 3+ can emulate consoles up to the Dreamcast and PSP range comfortably, and you’ll have few issues if you’re mainly looking to play older games from the SNES, PS1 and earlier. After firmware updates, the device’s performance has also improved to the point where some PS2 and GameCube games are at least playable. That’s impressive for the price point — but again, the Pocket 4 and especially 4 Pro should bring a noticeable upgrade. You can still play most native Android titles and stream games from a PC, Xbox or PS5, too. Battery life will depend on what you’re playing but typically lasts a decent five to seven hours.
Retroid makes another handheld called the Pocket Flip that’s essentially the Pocket 3+ with a clamshell design. That one costs $10 more and uses sliders instead of joysticks. Retroid hasn’t announced a follow-up yet, so it’s still worth considering if you’ll stick to lighter emulation and want a form factor that’s closer to a Nintendo DS than a Switch Lite.
Best mobile gaming handheld: AYN Odin 2
If you have more cash to burn on an emulation-focused machine, the AYN Odin 2 is the absolute best retro gaming handheld you can buy right now. This Android device runs on a Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 chipset, the same processor you’d find in recent flagship Android phones. It starts at $300 for 8GB of RAM and 128GB of storage, which is expensive when the entry-level Steam Deck lets you play PC games for just $99 more.
Still, among more compact mobile handhelds, there’s really nothing else that can offer this much performance in this price range. The Odin 2 easily played all PS2 and GameCube games we tested at two to three times their native resolution, while other systems like the PS1, N64, 3DS and Dreamcast were typically playable at a 3-4x upscale. It’s smoother than most with the notoriously tricky Sega Saturn, and it can even play many Switch games (though Switch emulators on Android are still maturing).
It’s not just raw performance, though — the Odin 2 is also a refined piece of hardware. It’s not pocketable, but it’s much less chunky than a portable PC and the ergonomic grips on its back make it easy to hold. Its d-pad, face buttons, triggers and joysticks all feel great. Because the sticks use Hall effect sensors, they should avoid drifting issues over time. Other touches like a fingerprint scanner, a dedicated return button, a micro-HDMI out port and two customizable back buttons are nice perks, too.
The 6-inch, 1080p touchscreen is solid and well-sized (though it can stay a bit too bright in darker settings). Battery life is superb: We got more than eight hours of juice emulating systems like the PS2, but that jumped over 20 hours with lighter tasks. The device supports 65W fast charging as well. Cloud streaming and native Android games work just fine, and since the whole thing runs on a lightly modded version of Google’s OS, its stock interface should feel familiar to most.
The base Odin 2 has been in and out of stock, and we’ll keep an eye on how close the Retroid Pocket 4 Pro can get to it performance-wise for $100 less. But for playing the classics or streaming modern games without a hitch, the Odin 2 is tough to top right now.
A premium device for vintage portable games: Analogue Pocket
The Analogue Pocket is the ultimate Game Boy. Its vertical design is built like a modernized, premium version of Nintendo’s classic handheld, and it can even work with accessories like the Game Boy Camera. Compared to the original, though, the Pocket adds two extra face buttons, a pair of rear triggers, a microSD slot, a USB-C port and a rechargeable battery rated for six to 10 hours of playtime. Most significantly, it has a gorgeous 3.5-inch display that’s both backlit and incredibly sharp (615 ppi) but can be set to look like an old Game Boy panel with different filter modes. The device can also output to a TV with an optional dock.
Unlike the retro handhelds mentioned above, the Pocket is designed to play actual cartridges, not just ROM files. It works with Game Boy, Game Boy Color and Game Boy Advance games through its cartridge slot, while games from the Sega Game Gear are playable through an optional adapter. (Eventually, one day, adapters for other systems like the TurboGrafx-16 and Atari Lynx will arrive as well.)
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 in a Game Boy or GBA cartridge and you can essentially play it as intended. That said, thanks to a big post-launch update and an active user community, the Pocket can also run ROMs off a microSD card and thus play systems like the SNES and Sega Genesis.
The Pocket isn’t cheap at $220, and its shoulder buttons aren’t as crisp to press as the excellent d-pad or face buttons. Still, if you have a collection of Game Boy, Game Gear or GBA games, the Pocket is the most elegant way to play them, and it’s only become more versatile over time. Its biggest flaw is that it’s hard to buy — expect to wait a few months for new orders to ship.
Lenovo Legion Go
The Lenovo Legion Go is a capable alternative to the ASUS ROG Ally if you want a Windows handheld with a larger display. It also costs $700, runs on the same Ryzen Z1 Extreme chip and offers a similar set of performance modes, but it has a mondo-sized 8.8-inch panel with a sharper 2,560 x 1,600 resolution and a higher 144Hz refresh rate. It also borrows some ideas from the Switch, including detachable controllers and a built-in kickstand for playing games in a “tabletop” mode. Those controllers have touchpads to make navigating Windows a little easier, something the ROG Ally lacks. Battery life is a little better than ASUS’ machine as well.
But it’s still a Windows handheld, and Lenovo’s software tweaks aren’t as mature (yet) as what ASUS has done with Armoury Crate, so the UX often feels half-baked. The jumbo design is bulkier and a half-pound heavier than the ROG Ally, so some will find it too fatiguing to hold. Its fans are louder, too, and the display lacks VRR. Still, it’s not a bad choice if you’re dead-set on Windows.
Miyoo Mini Plus
The Miyoo Mini Plus is much more affordable than the Retroid Pocket 3+ and comes with 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 $60 to $80 range, its battery lasts as long as it needs to and it can emulate consoles up to the original PlayStation without much issue. It runs Linux, so it’s extensively customizable, though it can require a bit of tinkering to get it working optimally. Since it’s from a smaller Chinese firm and isn’t available at major retailers, however, it can be difficult to actually buy.
The Playdate, from app developer and Untitled Goose Game publisher Panic, is 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. We called it a “cross between a Game Boy and a business card” in our review, and it is indeed incredibly small at roughly three inches tall and 0.18 pounds. It has a dedicated game library that largely consists of oddball indies, most of which focus on one or two core ideas instead of trying to stuff in as many mechanics as possible. A couple dozen of those games are bundled with the device, while others are available via a built-in store or sideloading from shops like Itch.io. It’s generally well-built, and its battery life is decent at six to eight hours per charge.
At $200, it’s hard to call the Playdate a great value when it’s only designed to play a selection of niche games. Its display isn’t backlit, either. But in a sea of devices that try to be everything for everyone, the Playdate is admirably focused and low-key. If you’re into smaller-scale fare and have some money to play with, it’ll be a fun toy. It may take a few weeks to ship, though.
The Anbernic RG405M is a good Android handheld if you like the idea of the Retroid Pocket 3+ but want something more compact. This device runs on the same chipset but 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, though it can feel crunched with newer systems and cloud streaming. It’s more expensive than the Pocket 3+ and upcoming Pocket 4, however, with prices starting around $160.
We’ll also note the Retroid Pocket 2S, another 4:3 handheld that starts at $99. It’s a nice compromise if you’re on a tighter budget, but that lower cost brings a smaller 3.5-inch display, a slightly slower chip and less premium build quality than the RG405M.
Other notable gaming handhelds we tested
The Ayaneo Kun is the most decadent Windows handheld we’ve tested. With a sharp 8.4-inch display, a powerful Ryzen 7 7840U chip, up to 64GB of RAM, up to 4TB of storage, a huge 75Wh battery and a whopping 54W max TDP, it’s both a gaming beast and a feasible replacement for a desktop PC. But it starts at $1,000, with a top-end config priced at an eye-watering $1,700. It’s also huge, and it suffers from the usual Windows-related issues. It’s a super device if money is truly no object, one without much genuine competition, but it’s more handheld than most need.
The Ayaneo 2S is another high-power Windows handheld with a sharper display, larger battery and more configuration options than the ROG Ally. It uses the same chip as the Kun as well. But it’s limited to a 60Hz refresh rate and costs a few hundred dollars more.
The Anbernic RG35XX Plus is another wallet-friendly vertical handheld worth keeping an eye on. For about the same price as the Miyoo Mini Plus, it offers a faster chipset, more RAM and a bigger battery alongside a similarly impressive design. It could easily supplant Miyoo’s handheld in the future, but it’s new, so it doesn’t have the same helpful firmware customizations right now, and its stock OS is pretty rough. Also, while its stronger processor is nice, its small screen and lack of analog sticks means you won’t want to emulate much beyond the PS1 anyway.
The Logitech G Cloud would be a great Android pick if it cost about $150 less. Its 7-inch 1080p display is bright, vibrant and more pleasing to look at than the panels on the Retroid Pocket 3+ or AYN Odin 2, its battery lasts a good 10 to 12 hours per charge and its design is comfy to hold for hours at a time. Alas, the G Cloud sells for $300, which is just too much when the Odin 2 offers far more power for the same price.
The PlayStation Portal is a baffling device that can only stream games from a PlayStation 5. It lacks built-in apps, so emulation isn’t possible, and it can’t tap into the cloud streaming service available with a PlayStation Plus Premium subscription. Because it’s entirely dependent on the quality of your home Wi-Fi, we can’t guarantee how well it’ll actually perform for you. It doesn’t work with Bluetooth earbuds, either. Its 8-inch display is fine and the DualSense-style controls are great, so Sony diehards who want a second screen for local PS5 streaming may see the appeal. But there’s nothing here that you can’t do with a smartphone and a mobile game controller, so most people are better off saving their $200.
This article originally appeared on Engadget at https://www.engadget.com/best-handheld-gaming-system-140018863.html?src=rss