IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

The best handheld gaming consoles, according to experts

We asked experts about their favorite handheld consoles and why they chose them.
The Nintendo Switch is the most recommended handheld gaming console by experts and Select staff.
The Nintendo Switch is the most recommended handheld gaming console by experts and Select staff.Nintendo

If you are looking to game on the go, chances are you’re reaching for your smartphone. According to a 2023 report published by the Entertainment Software Association, 65% of Americans play video games at least one hour a week, with the majority choosing to game on their smartphone. This makes sense: more people own a smartphone than a home gaming console or gaming laptop.

SKIP AHEAD Best handheld gaming consoles in 2023 | What is a handheld gaming system? | How to shop for a handheld gaming system

But if you want the best handheld gaming experience possible, you might want to look beyond what’s in your pocket. We spoke with experts across the games industry about the best handheld devices, to find the right one for you.

Our top picks

How we picked the best handheld gaming consoles

The experts we spoke to told us what to look for when shopping for a handheld gaming console. Combining their advice with decades of gaming experience from myself and other Select staffers, we chose handheld gaming consoles with the following criteria in mind:

  • Game library: The best handheld gaming consoles are not always the most powerful, but instead the ones with hundreds of great games to play, according to our experts. We included handhelds with large libraries of top-selling games.
  • Stable software: In my experience, clunky and confusing software can make even the most capable gaming machine a pain to use. We chose consoles that have stable software, relatively free of bugs and confusing menus, and with years of software updates completed.
  • Accessibility: Mobile gaming is extremely popular and accessible. We made a point to consider mobile gaming in our recommendations and recommend accessories that make that experience more comfortable.

The best handheld gaming consoles in 2023

Our staff and experts recommend consoles from Nintendo and Valve, as well as peripherals that make smartphone gaming more comfortable.

Best overall: Nintendo Switch

Our experts and Select staff point to the Nintendo Switch as the best handheld gaming console. “I recommend the Switch to basically anyone with a passing interest in games, as it’s great for casual players and seasoned gamers,” says Trent Garlipp, an independent game developer and creator of the game A Walk With Yiayia.

The Nintendo Switch’s amazing library of games is its greatest strength. “You have some wonderful Nintendo games on Switch like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Splatoon 3, and Animal Crossing: New Horizons,” says Justin Reeve, a news editor at TheGamer. 

The optional Nintendo Switch Online membership ($19.99 a year or $3.99 per month) lets you compete against others online in supported games like Splatoon 3. It also lets you download from Nintendo’s classic games library, which has hundreds of titles from older consoles like the Super Nintendo, Game Boy and Nintendo 64.

The system can be played handheld or plugged into a 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. I find the Switch’s small size and lightweight perfect for traveling or just playing while lying on the couch.

Screen: 6.2-inch LCD touchscreen | Battery life: 4.5 to 9 hours, USB-C rechargeable | Storage: 32GB internal, supports external microSD cards | Weight: 0.88 lbs | Size: 9.5 x 4 x 0.55 inches

An upgraded Switch: Nintendo Switch OLED

David Shimomura, editor-in-chief at Unwinnable, recommends this model for its improved specs over the original Switch. It has the same library of games, accessible design and portable form factor of the original Switch plus a much-improved design, including a bigger and more vibrant OLED screen, more internal storage, a wider kickstand and louder speakers. It is $50 more expensive than the original Switch, but I find the bigger OLED screen much more enjoyable to use and the plethora of smaller improvements well worth the extra cost.

Screen: 7-inch OLED touchscreen | Battery life: 4.5 to 9 hours, USB-C rechargeable | Storage: 64GB internal, supports external microSD cards | Weight: 0.93 lbs | Size: 9.5 x 4 x 0.55 inches

For PC games: Valve Steam Deck

If you are looking for a more powerful console with a bigger library of games, Garlipp recommends the Steam Deck. It is capable of playing hundreds of newer, graphically-intense games like Elden Ring and Street Fighter 6

In my experience, it is a good fit for people who already play lots of games on their gaming PC or laptop. That’s partly because, instead of buying physical game cartridges, you download games from Valve’s Steam storefront, one of the most popular places to buy, download and play PC games. Steam saves your games on the cloud, so you can easily switch between playing on your Steam Deck and playing on your gaming laptop or PC.

Visually, the Steam Deck is similar to the Nintendo Switch, albeit bigger and with more buttons. In addition to traditional thumbstick controls, it has two square trackpads on either side of the controller like that on a laptop. It also has two additional rear buttons on the back bumpers.

The Steam Deck can connect to a TV, headphones, controllers and other devices through the Steam Deck Docking Station (sold separately). For games, I recommend sticking to titles listed on the brand’s official Steam Deck Verified page for the most polished experience, free of crashes and lag.

Screen: 7-inch LCD touchscreen | Battery life: 2 to 8 hours, USB-C rechargeable | Storage: 64, 256, or 512GB internal storage; supports external microSD cards | Weight: 1.47 lbs | Size: 11.73 x 4.6 x 1.92 inches

For your smartphone: Backbone One

Gaming on your smartphone might not give you the best graphics or game library compared to an actual gaming console but it’s still the most affordable, according to our experts. If you want your smartphone gaming experience to be more comfortable, consider an attachable controller like the Backbone One. This model connects to the iPhone charging port and mounts to both sides of the iPhone, creating a traditional-feeling controller grip. The brand keeps a list of all the mobile games that are compatible with the Backbone One — see if your favorites are included.

The Backbone One is also available for Android devices.

Screen: N/A | Battery life: N/A | Storage: N/A | Weight: 0.3 lbs | Size: 6.94 (contracted) — 10.14 (expanded) x 3.7 x 1.28 inches

Most powerful: Asus Rog Ally

The Asus Rog Ally is the newest and most powerful device on this list. It is best suited to tech and gaming enthusiasts looking for maximum performance and customization. Unlike other handheld gaming consoles, the Rog Ally runs the Windows operating system, meaning it can natively browse the web, download software and handle tasks more common to laptops, not handhelds.

You can also download and play games on several storefronts like Steam, Epic Games and Xbox Game Pass with ease.

Its full HD 120Hz touchscreen is both faster and has a higher resolution than the Steam Deck and Switch. It also gets brighter, with a maximum brightness rating of 500 nits, according to the brand. The advanced CPU makes big games like Elden Ring run smoothly, in my experience. It has faster and more reliable Wi-Fi 6E and Bluetooth 5.2 connectivity, plus the power button is also a fingerprint reader that can unlock the device. Like other handhelds, the Ally can connect to a TV, controllers and other devices through the Rog Gaming Charger Dock (sold separately).

As is common with newer gaming consoles, the software of the Rog Ally is a little confusing and doesn’t have the best battery life in comparison to its competitors. My hope is that future software updates fix the small kinks I experienced.

There are two versions of the Asus Rog Ally: the entry-level Z1 and the more powerful Z1 Extreme. At the time of writing, only the Z1 Extreme has been released.

Screen: 7-inch LCD touchscreen | Battery life: Undisclosed (1.5 to 4 hours in our experience), USB-C rechargeable | Storage: 512GB internal storage; supports external microSD cards | Weight: 1.34 lbs | Size: 11.02 x 4.37 x 1.28 inches

What is a handheld gaming console?

A handheld gaming system is any device you can reasonably take with you on the go. 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 big TV screen to use, in my experience. 

One of the big appeals of a handheld gaming console over something like a Playstation or Xbox is flexibility, says Garlipp. “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’,” says Garlipp.

How to shop for a handheld gaming console

Our experts say that 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?

Games are the most important part of any gaming console. If the console you are considering does not have games you typically play, you probably won’t have fun, no matter how advanced the screen is or how portable the device is.

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

How much time do you spend gaming?

A game designed to be played on the go is usually built to be played in small, bite-sized sessions, says Shimomura. That means you will make progress even if you only play for 15 or 30 minutes at a time.

If you like this bite-sized approach, handhelds like the Nintendo Switch or your mobile device are a good match. If you enjoy hours-long gaming sessions, the Steam Deck has more sprawling titles that might be a better fit.

Will kids be using this console?

In my experience, the Nintendo Switch has the most accessible, easiest-to-understand design, making it the best fit for children. It also has many kid-friendly games that are rated E for everyone by the Entertainment Software Ratings Board like Super Mario 3D World + Bowser’s Fury and Yoshi’s Crafted World.

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 all expert advice and recommendations are made independently and without undisclosed financial conflicts of interest.

  • Trent Garlipp is an independent game developer and creator of A Walk With Yiayia.
  • Justin Reeve is a news editor at TheGamer, a gaming news and reviews site.
  • David Shimomura is the editor-in-chief at Unwinnable, a website and digital magazine focused on gaming and cultural criticism.

Why trust Select?

Harry Rabinowitz is a reporter at Select who has covered gaming and tech for years. For this piece, he leveraged his personal expertise and the experience of other Select staffers. He also spoke with industry experts and conducted thorough research on all the handheld gaming consoles currently available.

Catch up on Select’s in-depth coverage of personal finance, tech and tools, wellness and more, and follow us on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and TikTok to stay up to date.