The 10 Best Handheld Gaming Systems

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This wiki has been updated 29 times since it was first published in February of 2017. Video games allow you to explore new worlds from the comfort of your own home and handheld consoles allow you to put those worlds in your pocket and take them anywhere. These portable devices have become incredibly advanced, offering engaging gameplay and crisp graphics but are being updated so rapidly that it's hard to keep up with the latest models. This list is here to help. When users buy our independently chosen editorial recommendations, we may earn commissions to help fund the Wiki.

1. Nintendo Switch

This item has been flagged for editorial review and is not available.

2. Nintendo Switch Lite

3. GamepadDigital XD Plus

Editor's Notes

November 12, 2020:

In updating this list, we wanted to make sure that we continued to honor handheld consoles that still remain the best available in this rapidly evolving market while highlighting more recent options. Although the Nintendo Switch is still the best of the best, we do recognize that it is rather large and bulky while also being quite expensive. The Nintendo Switch Lite is a great solution to the original Switch's exclusionary cost and size and was therefore given the second spot.

In addition to the Android devices listed, we wanted to make sure to emphasize the fact that Apple has made great strides when it comes to gaming capabilities as the latest iPads are large, yet light, and feature crisp, clear screens that make them ideal for portable gaming.

We'd also be remiss if we didn't mention the fact that Sony's handheld options have all been discontinued and are now relatively hard to find and difficult to purchase games for and, as a result, have been removed from this list.

If you're looking for more gaming suggestions, be sure to check out our list of the 10 Best Retro Gaming Consoles.

April 27, 2019:

We're not going to waste any time in mentioning that the Switch, though a bit large and pricey, is hands-down the best portable console on the market right now. Nintendo also has two other relatively modern devices out, the New 2DS XL and New 3DS XL. They're not terribly different, as they play the same games; one has a 2D display and the other has a 3D display. We'll let you guess which is which. But the 2DS is about half the price of the Switch, while the 3DS costs almost as much as the Switch, so if you're going for a budget-friendly portable option, we'd recommend the 2DS.

They're not the only brand, though. Android is a more robust gaming platform than ever, and we've highlighted two of the best ways to prove that. The GPD XD Plus is a handy little machine with somewhat of a cult following, and it's an excellent alternative to smartphone play. If you're OK with the idea of a smartphone built mainly for gaming, though, check out the Razer. It's one of the highest-performing phones on the market; in fact, it's among the extremely rare models with a 120-hertz screen. Nvidia's Shield Portable also uses Android, and if you can find one at a good price, it's a worthy contender, though its operating system is pretty dated.

Then, there are some good options that are little more than Raspberry Pis with a bunch of ROMs pre-loaded on their memory or on an SD card. While that might sound a little dismissive, these options are perfectly viable; some of the games may not be exactly as you remember, but they'll be close, and these types of devices are extremely cheap and usually have a surprising amount of included content. All in all, it's never been a better time for gaming on the go.

4. Razer Phone 2

5. Nintendo New 2DS XL

6. Apple iPad Air

7. Nintendo New 3DS XL

8. Nvidia Shield

9. Jamsway Handheld Game Console

10. Retro Mini GBA

Why A Handheld System Over The Phone?

According to several surveys, anywhere from 50 to 80 percent of high-school-aged children report having been bullied online at some point in their lives.

A few years ago I was standing in line at the post office (not something I would recommend doing without a good book on hand), and I caught myself observing the behavior of a child in front of me. The kid couldn’t have been more than two years old, and his mother held him in her arms. In his hands he held her phone, and at a certain point he turned it toward her and said, “Password. Password.” He wasn’t trying to get into the phone, he was trying to buy an app, and he needed his mother’s password to complete the purchase. He had navigated from the home screen all the way through to the point of sale on his own. I’m still not sure my father — an engineer by trade — could do the same.

As technology grows, it also uses the most basic pattern recognition infrastructure of the human brain to inspire its design, pushing to be as easy-to-use as possible, particularly for children. And getting sucked into that world from a young age can pose a number of dangers, especially as services like Facebook (and WeChat in China) seek to fulfill all of our needs — from social interaction to gaming — on a single platform.

In other words, when you hand your child your phone for them to use as a plaything, even if you expect them to confine their activities to the games and shows you have stored on it, they’re liable to be exposed to several aspects of the web, including social media.

In this day and age, the social media landscape is particularly toxic for children and teens, as cyber bullying and trolling allow for unparalleled and anonymous cruelty to rain down at a moments notice on the most innocent of youths. According to several surveys, anywhere from 50 to 80 percent of high-school-aged children report having been bullied online at some point in their lives. Considering the fact that bullying victims are often recalcitrant about their experiences, this number may be even higher.

If you want to provide your children with a fun and engaging way to stay entertained while they join you out in the world, there are few better things you can get them than a handheld gaming system. These devices allow children to enjoy any number of classic or modern games in an environment that’s insulated from the internet. Some devices do connect to internet marketplaces and other online exchanges, but these are almost always divorced from the social media landscape.

How To Choose The Best System For Your Child

Handheld gaming systems come in a lot of different styles. It can be difficult for parents who aren’t avid gamers to identify which are the ones their children would like the most. There’s no shame in that; you’re a little too busy providing your kids a home and a life to sink 120 hours into the latest immersive RPG.

Some systems are better known for producing more violent games than others.

The easiest way that you can make sure you get your child the right handheld system is to survey the landscape. There’s a good chance that your kid already has some kind of gaming system in the home, if not several. Make note of the brand name of whichever one they use most. If there’s a handheld gaming system by the same brand, then that’s likely your best bet. Your child will already be familiar with the brand’s menu systems, and some games might even work on both platforms, allowing your kids to take their household fun with them on the road.

Another important part of the survey is to see what their friends are playing. If you’re friends with the parents of your kids’ friends, you can enlist them for more information. If your kid’s best friend has a particular system and loves it, then your child likely wants the same system for themselves. The bonus in this case is that once they both have the same system, they can share and trade games, saving both sets of parents money on expensive title purchases.

One last thing to consider is the age of your child. Some systems are better known for producing more violent games than others. If you want to protect you children from that kind of exposure, you should opt for a game system targeted at a younger set. Nintendo is a great example of a brand that keeps it games — even the ones that contain mild violence — friendly for all ages without seeming lame to more mature players.

Ways To Maximize The Fun

Once you’ve decided on a handheld game system for your child, you’re going to want to make sure they have every advantage possible to enjoy it. The most important thing anyone needs to enjoy a gaming system of any kind is a suite of games. As we mentioned above, the children of other parents can be your friends here. Ask them what their kids have been playing if they own a handheld device. You can also look through the library of your kids’ console games and cross-reference it with the handheld games available. Often, the makers of popular titles will also create handheld offshoots of the same content, which children who love the original are sure to enjoy.

As we mentioned above, the children of other parents can be your friends here.

If the device didn’t come with a wrist strap, but one may be attached, definitely buy one. Either way, encourage your kids to use one, as it will prevent significant amounts of damage if — and when — they lose their grip on the system.

One last thing you should definitely look into purchasing is a high-quality pair of headphones. A lot of these games make a terrible racket, and when the action gets exciting the last thing your kid wants to hear is you asking them to turn the volume down. Instead, investing in a pair of isolating — or even noise-cancelling — headphones can take their experience to the next level. A lot of gaming headsets create a virtual surround sound environment, as well, which will completely immerse your child in the world of the game.

Christopher Thomas
Last updated by Christopher Thomas

Building PCs, remodeling, and cooking since he was young, quasi-renowned trumpeter Christopher Thomas traveled the USA performing at and organizing shows from an early age. His work experiences led him to open a catering company, eventually becoming a sous chef in several fine LA restaurants. He enjoys all sorts of barely necessary gadgets, specialty computing, cutting-edge video games, and modern social policy. He has given talks on debunking pseudoscience, the Dunning-Kruger effect, culinary technique, and traveling. After two decades of product and market research, Chris has a keen sense of what people want to know and how to explain it clearly. He delights in parsing complex subjects for anyone who will listen -- because teaching is the best way to ensure that you understand things yourself.

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