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The best handheld gaming systems, according to experts

On top of their guidance on the best gaming systems, we asked experts about the games that make each of them shine.
To recommend the best handheld gaming systems, we spoke with gaming experts about the best devices available and the games that make them shine.
To recommend the best handheld gaming systems, we spoke with gaming experts about the best devices available and the games that make them shine.Vivian Le / NBC

If you are looking to game on the go, chances are you’re reaching for your smartphone. According to a 2022 report published by the Entertainment Software Association, 66% of Americans play video games at least once a week, with a majority choosing to game on their smartphone. This makes sense: almost everyone has a smartphone in their pocket, and there are tons of great, beginner-friendly games available on both iOS and Android.

LEARN MORE What is a handheld gaming system? | How to shop for a handheld gaming system

But if you want the best handheld gaming experience, you might want to look past what’s in your pocket. We spoke with gaming experts across the industry to better understand the best handheld gaming devices and the games that make them shine.

Best handheld gaming systems

All of the experts we spoke with said that the most important part of any gaming system is the games. The best systems, they said, are not necessarily those with the most cutting-edge technology but the ones with the best games. With this in mind, we included a wide variety of handheld gaming systems, all of which have great games across many genres.

Nintendo Switch

All of our experts pointed to the Nintendo Switch as the best handheld gaming console. The system can be played handheld or plugged into any TV or monitor with the included docking station. The controllers can also be split between two players, allowing for fun multiplayer gaming on-the-fly.

Originally launched in 2017, Garilipp still recommends the Switch “to basically anyone with a passing interest in games, as it’s great for more casual players as well as seasoned gamers.” All our experts pointed to the Nintendo Switch’s amazing library of games as its best selling point. “You have some wonderful first-party games on Switch like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Splatoon 3, and Animal Crossing: New Horizons,” said Justin Reeve, a news editor at TheGamer.

Specs: 6.2-inch LCD touchscreen; 32GB internal storage; supports external microSD cards; 4.5 to 9 hour battery life; USB-C rechargeable

Nintendo Switch OLED

The Nintendo Switch OLED is essentially an upgraded version of the original Switch, with a bigger, more vibrant screen, more internal storage and a few design tweaks. David Shimomura, editor-in-chief at Unwinnable, especially recommends this model, also noting the Switch’s “accessibility and [game] library,” as unbeatable.

Specs: 7-inch OLED touchscreen; 64GB internal storage; supports external microSD cards; 4.5 to 9 hour battery life; USB-C rechargeable

Valve Steam Deck

Garlipp also recommended Valve’s Steam Deck as a more powerful handheld gaming console. The Steam Deck is aimed towards veteran gamers who want to play their favorite PC games, minus lugging around an entire computer.

Visually, the Steam Deck is similar to the Nintendo Switch. But the Steam Deck can play thousands of new and classic PC games through Valve’s Steam platform.

The Steam Deck was released in 2022, and the brand is still ironing out some software issues. For games, we recommend sticking to titles listed on the brand’s official Steam Deck Verified page for the most polished experience.

Specs: 7-inch LCD touchscreen; 64-512GB internal storage; supports external microSD cards; 2 to 8 hour battery life; USB-C rechargeable

Analogue Pocket

The Analogue Pocket is a distinctly niche product: it plays cartridge games from retro handhelds like the Game Boy and Neo Geo. While rummaging through your closet and looking for old Game Boy games to plug in might sound odd, the Analogue Pocket is one of the only mainstream systems offering a second life for these old games.

“There are some compromises to the form factor but for people who hung onto a lot of older cartridges, it’s really great,” said Shimomura.

Shimomura pointed out that Nintendo recently added old Game Boy titles to its Nintendo Switch Online service, making the Switch another great option for retro enthusiasts.

Specs: 3.5-inch LCD screen; no internal storage; supports external microSD cards; 6 to 10 hours battery life; USB-C rechargeable

Backbone One

When it comes to gaming on your smartphone, our experts were torn. They all had great smartphone titles to recommend but said that a smartphone offers a worse gaming experience than gaming-specific handhelds like the Switch.

If you’d like to stick to gaming on your smartphone, though, you can make it more comfortable with an attachable controller like the Backbone One. It connects to the iPhone charging port and adds a traditional-feeling controller grip to both sides. Backbone list mobile games with controller support — see if your favorites are included.

Android users can enjoy a similar experience using the Razer Kishi V2, another top-rated smartphone gaming controller.

Specs: N/A, connects to your smartphone

What is a handheld gaming system?

A handheld gaming system is any device you can reasonably take with you on the go to play video games. Handheld gaming systems can fit easily into a bag or backpack, have hours of battery life, and do not require a constant internet connection or a TV screen. “Being able to pick up a handheld and bring it to a different part of your house or put it in a bag before heading out feels a lot more convenient and flexible than having to park yourself in one place and commit to ‘playing a game’,” said Trent Garlipp, an independent game developer and creator of A Walk With Yiayia.

How to shop for a handheld gaming system

Shopping for the right handheld gaming system is about understanding your own gaming habits. Take some time to reflect on the following before buying a new device.

What kinds of games do you, your friends, or your family play?

The most important thing to consider on any handheld are the games. If the system does not have games you typically play, it won’t be fun for you, no matter how nice the screen or buttons are.

“Look at the games first, and if they appeal to you, that’s the handheld you want,” said Garlipp. If you plan to play games with friends and family, ask what systems they are playing on, and try to match with them.

How much time do you usually spend gaming?

“A game designed to be portable is usually also a little more ‘chunkable’,” said Shimomura. That means that titles are designed to be played in small, bite-sized sessions: 15 minutes here, another 30 minutes there.

If this bite-sized approach is your preference, handhelds like the Nintendo Switch or your mobile device are a good match. If your gaming sessions are longer, the Valve Steam Deck has more sprawling titles like Elden Ring and No Man’s Sky available.

Meet our experts

At Select, we work with experts who have specialized knowledge and authority based on relevant training and/or experience. We also take steps to ensure that all expert advice and recommendations are made independently and with no undisclosed financial conflicts of interest.

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