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According to a 2021 report by the Entertainment Software Association, gaming is not just for kids. The report shows that 67 percent of American adults (18 and older) play video games, rivaling the 76 percent of kids (under 18) who also game on a regular basis. The report also shows that more and more people are playing games on a variety of different devices. While expensive gaming systems like the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X steal headlines with stunning graphics, 57 percent of U.S. gamers use their smartphone to play video games, ESA’s report found.
According to gaming experts we spoke with, this all makes a lot of sense. Game systems and games themselves are more accessible than ever. Many game systems have separated themselves from the TV entirely, serving as handheld devices you can take with you anywhere you go. To recommend the best handheld gaming systems, we spoke with gaming experts about the best devices available, and the games that make them shine.
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 usually have hours of battery life, do not require a constant internet connection and can fit easily into a bag or backpack.
“Handheld gaming is great when you’re traveling and plan on having some downtime, even if there is a TV where you’re going,” said video game journalist Melissa King. “Even when you don’t need to go anywhere, handheld [systems] give you flexibility on where you want to play.”
Because handheld gaming systems aren’t physically connected to a TV or screen, you can use them anywhere, just like you would a smartphone. And because they aren’t connected to a TV, families don’t have to worry about video games getting in the way of movie night or the big sports game.
Best handheld gaming systems in 2022
All of the experts we spoke with said that the most important part of any gaming system is its games. The best systems, they said, are not necessarily those with the most cutting-edge technology or the longest battery life, but the ones with the best games. With this in mind, we included a wide variety of handheld gaming systems, all of which are compatible with tons of great games across many different genres.
The Nintendo Switch is unique among handheld gaming systems because it can also be plugged into a TV or computer monitor. The Switch includes a docking station that connects to a TV, allowing for docked, big-screen fun or undocked, handheld gaming on the go, with up to nine hours of battery life, according to the brand
“For me, [the Switch] is the perfect machine all-around,” said Michael Perez, a game designer at Iron Galaxy Studios. “I can play on the big screen and just as easily kick back in bed … without missing a beat.”
All of the experts we spoke with lauded the Nintendo Switch for its great selection of games. Critically acclaimed bestsellers Super Mario Odyssey and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild are only playable on the Switch. Our experts also said they love the Switch’s wide offering of indie titles, including Hades and Stardew Valley.
There is a reason playing games on smartphones and tablets is so popular: Many people already own one such device and do not want to spend money on a dedicated gaming system. Luckily, there are a ton of great games available on these mobile devices through a wide variety of app stores.
With Apple devices in particular, the 2021 iPad Mini is a top recommended device for tablet gaming. A standout feature for the iPad Mini — and Apple devices in general — is Apple Arcade, an Apple subscription service that gives you access to over 200 hand-selected, quality mobile games. Unlike many free games on the app store, these Apple Arcade games do not feature ads or in-game purchases and instead focus on fun action and gripping stories.
Compared to the regular iPad, I’ve found that the Mini’s more ergonomic size gives it better hand-feel, easier touch controls and a lighter weight. Despite its small size, the iPad Mini still offers great battery life, with up to 10 hours of screen time, according to the brand.
Valve Steam Deck (preorder)
For anyone who’s interested in the massive library of games available on PC but doesn’t want to lug around an entire computer, consider the Steam Deck. The newest handheld gaming system around, the Steam Deck is very similar to the Nintendo Switch in terms of design and form-factor, but it can play thousands of new and classic PC games via the Steam platform. After downloading titles from Steam’s online store, you can enjoy short and long gaming sessions — according to Valve, the Steam Deck has up to eight hours of battery life.
“The value I see in something like the Steam Deck is access to PC gaming with the ‘stability’ of a [traditional] console,” said Perez. “That’s at least what I want it to be.” Perez, and many other gaming critics, are thrilled about the Steam Deck’s potential, though they’re worried about the many software errors and issues the new system needs to iron out. Once those early version errors are sorted, though, the Steam Deck should be a great handheld device for anyone wanting a powerful, robust gaming system.
The Analogue Pocket is a distinctly niche product: it plays old cartridge Game Boy games. While rummaging through your closet looking for old Game Boy games in 2022 may sound odd, the Analogue Pocket is one of the only mainstream systems offering a second life for these old games.
“There are some fantastic [old] games that are becoming more and more difficult to access as time goes by,” Perez said. “Something like the Analogue Pocket is a great solution.” As such, this squarely retro system is excellent for anyone with a dusty collection of Game Boy, Game Boy Color or Game Boy Advance cartridges. It has a crystal clear screen and up to ten hours of battery life, according to the brand, making it the best way to play these old games if you have an old cartridge collection lying around.
“I think these handhelds serve a niche market, and that’s definitely not a bad thing,” King noted. “If you’re the intended audience for these [types of] handhelds, it looks like you’ll have a great time.”
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 your new gaming device.
What kinds of games do you, your friends, or your family play?
The most important thing to consider when shopping for any handheld gaming system is which games it can play. If the system does not support the games you typically play, it won’t be fun for you, no matter how nice the screen or buttons are.
Beyond that, our experts noted you should pay attention to the social aspect of gaming, too. “For someone looking into buying a handheld gaming system, I'd suggest they see what their friends, family and even acquaintances are playing, and on which platforms,” said Perez. “Even with single-player games, my friend group loves being able to play the same game and share our experiences.”
How much time do you usually spend gaming?
“The games you'll find on mobile app stores and on platforms like the Switch and Steam Deck often ask for different time commitments,” said King. “Of course, those time commitments vary between the games themselves.”
More often than not, games on mobile app stores are designed to be played in small, bite-sized sessions: 15 minutes here, another 30 minutes there. Games on more traditional platforms like the Nintendo Switch are sprawling by comparison, offering dozens of hours of narrative, action and content.
How long will you be playing for?
Like with your smartphone, battery life is a crucial part of any handheld gaming system. Therefore, it’s important to think about how many hours of gaming you want at your fingertips without needing a charger.
“If you need something to play on long road trips or airplane rides, for example, you should compare your platform's expected battery life to your typical trip length,” King said.