Whether you’re looking for retro-gaming fun or action-packed adventures, these handheld consoles are perfect for playing on the go
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, along with our pick of the best handheld consoles out there right now.
READ NEXT: The best Nintendo 3DS games
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.
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 the Google Play store.
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.
READ NEXT: The best Nintendo Switch games
How we test the best handheld consoles
Handheld gaming consoles have come a long way since the Nintendo Game Boy and therefore require more testing than they used to. That said, much of our testing still involves playing a wide range of games on the consoles to see how well they handle the latest AAA titles. We’ll throw games from multiple genres at a console to see how well it fares in terms of controls and in-hand comfort while assessing build quality and ease of use. Sound quality is analysed across a wide range of games and we test whichever physical and wireless connectivity options are available, too.
Where possible, we’ll record display data measurements for performance metrics like peak brightness, colour gamut coverage, and colour accuracy using a combination of a colorimeter and DisplayCal software. For handheld consoles that allow it, we’ll also run various other tests, including our in-house media benchmark test, the Blackmagic Disk Space test for SSD read and write speeds, and graphical tests using third-party software including Geekbench and GFXBench. Our in-house battery rundown test lets us compare the stamina of consoles, but unfortunately, we’re not able to run this on every handheld so will assess battery life claims based simply on how long we’re able to play before the console gives us the ghost.
The best handheld consoles you can buy
1. Nintendo Switch OLED: The best-looking Switch
Price when reviewed: £310 | Check price at Amazon
The Nintendo Switch is the king of handheld gaming consoles and the OLED model is the best iteration yet. It doesn’t incorporate any new hardware but the screen is larger than that of the base model at 7in and the OLED panel allows it to hit higher peak brightness as well as deliver improved contrast. Games look more vibrant as a result and there’s improved detail in darker scenes.
Internal storage is 64GB – twice that of the base model Switch – while the fascia buttons and kickstand have been revamped. You’re now able to adjust the position of the kickstand more granularly and can rotate it up to around 145 degrees, while the power button, volume rocker, exhaust vent and Game Card slot have been tweaked slightly.
If you already own a Switch or Switch Lite, we’d recommend holding out on upgrading, but if you’re yet to join the Switch revolution, the OLED model is the place to start. It’s the most expensive of the trio and gaming performance remains unchanged, but the upgraded visuals are well worth the extra outlay.
Read our Nintendo Switch OLED review for more details
Key specs – Dimensions: 239 x 14 x 102mm; Weight: 422g; Display: 7in OLED 1,280 x 720p touchscreen (outputs to 1080p when docked); Storage: 64GB built-in, expandable via microSD; Connectivity: 802.11ac, Bluetooth, NFC, headphone jack, USB-C, Ethernet (on dock) USB 3 (on dock), USB 2 (on dock); Battery: 4,310mAh (~3.5 to 7 hours)
2. Asus ROG Ally: The most powerful handheld console
Price when reviewed: £699 | Check price at Currys
The Asus ROG Ally is a true handheld powerhouse packing an AMD Ryzen Z1 Extreme accelerated processing unit and a 7in 120Hz Full HD display. This combination allows it to play the latest AAA titles with minimal fuss, though you will likely have to make some graphical compromises to ensure smooth performance when enjoying demanding games.
Refresh rate, resolution and processing power aside, the Ally has another big advantage over the competition: Windows 11. It’s not the most intuitive handheld operating system but provides access to the widest range of gaming platforms of any handheld we’ve tested. You can download games from Steam, Xbox Game Pass, and the Epic Games Launcher and access them all through ROG’s Armoury Crate Special Edition portal, meaning you have a huge library at your fingertips.
Battery life limitations mean the Ally isn’t quite the portable mini PC some may have hoped for, but it gets closer to replicating PC gaming on the go than any other handheld console that’s come before it.
Read our Asus ROG Ally review for more details
Key specs – Dimensions: 239 x 14 x 102mm; Weight: 608g; Display: 7in 1,920 x 1,080p touchscreen; Storage: 512GB built-in, expandable via microSD; Connectivity: Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax), Bluetooth 5.2, headphone jack, USB-C 3.2, DisplayPort 1.4, ROG XG Mobile Interface; Battery: 40Wh (up to 6 hours)
3. Nintendo Switch: The ultimate handheld console
Price when reviewed: £280 | Check price at 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 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. Just don’t expect low prices: Switch games remain infamously expensive.
Read our Nintendo Switch review for more details
Key specs – Dimensions: 239 x 14 x 102mm; Weight: 398g; Display: 6.2in 1,280 x 720p touchscreen (outputs to 1080p when docked); Storage: 32GB built-in, expandable via microSD; Connectivity: 802.11ac, Bluetooth 4.1, NFC, headphone jack, USB-C, USB 3 (on dock), USB 2 (on dock); Battery: 4,310mAh (~3.5 to 7 hours)
4. Nintendo Switch Lite: The best compact handheld
Price when reviewed: £200 l Check price at Amazon
Alternatively, if you know you aren’t going to be hooking up your Switch to the TV at home and would rather buy something a bit more pocketable, the Switch Lite is perhaps your best bet. Smaller and lighter than the original, the Switch Lite also has an improved battery life and it costs less than the normal model too.
There are a few downsides, of course. The controllers on the side are fused to the screen (they aren’t detachable) and it doesn’t have a kickstand on the back, either – so that means no tabletop play. However, if you’re planning on being out and about more often than being sat at home, the new design is far better suited for on-the-go gaming sessions: it’s equally powerful and the slightly improved battery life on the original is also a massive plus.
Read our Nintendo Switch Lite review for more details
Key specs – Dimensions: 91 x 208 x 13.9mm; Weight: 275g; Display: 5.5in, 1,280 x 720p; Storage: 32GB built-in, expandable via microSD; Connectivity: 802.11ac, NFC, headphone jack, USB-C; Battery: 3,570mAh (~3.5 to 7 hours)
5. PlayStation Vita: The best handheld console for Japanese games
Price when reviewed: £180 | Check price at Amazon (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 PlayStation 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. Secondhand 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 Vita is still going strong.
For retro gaming fans, the Vita also plays a wealth of original PlayStation games and PlayStation Portable titles. You can even connect it to your PlayStation 4 (either over your home Wi-Fi or via the internet) and play the latest games remotely.
Read our PlayStation Vita Slim review for more details
Key specs – Dimensions: 183.6 x 15 x 85.1mm; Weight: 260g; Display: 5in 960 x 544p 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)