If you love handheld gaming, then there is no shortage of great handheld gaming devices in 2021. From mainline console manufacturers to Android and Windows/Linux device partners, you have quite a few options if you’re looking for a great handheld gaming experience.
In this article, we break down and evaluate all of the best options currently on the market and help you find the best handheld gaming devices for your needs.
We would be remiss to write an article like this without acknowledging Android in the portable gaming space. Beyond the obvious touch-powered Android experiences one would expect from phones and tablets, some Android devices (like the GPD XD Plus) come with a built-in controller for a more traditional gaming control scheme.
Even if you have a regular phone, you can get a traditional control scheme by either getting a controller to slot your phone into or taking your console controller and clipping your phone to the end of it!
The issue when evaluating Android as a platform in this context is that not every Android device is made equal. Some of the latest cutting-edge Android devices can run Dolphin (the GameCube/Wii emulator) to great success, but that obviously isn’t indicative of the performance everyone can expect.
Regardless, Android’s game library and support of emulators like Dolphin and RetroArch gives it an easy lead in portability and compatibility with a large number of games. No tech knowledge is required to unlock further secrets of the hardware, either – at least not for gaming purposes.
Remote play for stronger games through Xbox Cloud Gaming or Steam Remote Play further opens up the opportunities for Android users as well. While the hardware requirements for these use cases are low, a great Internet connection will be necessary for them, especially streaming from the Internet rather than, say, your own PC on your own network.
Nintendo Switch Family Tree
The Nintendo Switch is the best portable gaming console on the market. In addition to exclusives from Nintendo, the Switch benefits from a number of impressive ports of modern games. Besides a limited selection from a small library of NES/SNES Online, the Switch has poor backward compatibility, unless you have hacked yours.
With custom firmware, the Switch can be made to be backwards compatible with nearly every previous Nintendo game prior to Wii. RetroArch also provides adequate support of home consoles and handhelds up to the N64 and PS1.
PS Vita Family Tree
The Sony PS Vita is somewhere between the PS2 and PS3 in terms of raw power, and that’s crammed into a dual-analog portable in the Vita. The Vita by itself is backwards compatible with PSP and PS One games and has the somewhat niche Vita library. (RPG fans may like it, though!)
With hacking, however, the Vita becomes one of the best emulation machines with the ability to emulate the N64 and other retro consoles with ease. (Some in-development emulators for PS2, Dolphin, and Dreamcast are looking promising, too, but don’t expect those anytime soon!) Hacking even opens up the Vita for Steam Remote Play or other remote desktop functionality!
A few more powerful PS360 era games are available as native Vita ports as well, such as the Metal Gear Solid HD Collection and Borderlands 2.
PSP and PSP Go Family Tree
The PSP and PSP Go are compatible with PSP and PS1 games. Hacking and homebrew-wise, the SNES, Genesis, and all prior consoles should be easy to emulate. Progress is abound on N64 emulation, too, but the PSP is unlikely to ever be able to run Dolphin or PS2 games in any form, since it is straight-up weaker than that generation of consoles.
That being said, the PSP is still an incredibly solid portable gaming console. The main loss is the Vita’s library and larger screen, but after that, you still have one of the better D-Pads and portability yet seen in a handheld console. The PSP’s library is arguably stronger than the Vita’s, too, featuring mainline Metal Gear Solid and Kingdom Hearts titles that aren’t ports.
Nintendo 3DS Family Tree
The Nintendo 3DS boasts compatibility with its own games, DS games, and if you can afford it, New 3DS games that are slightly more impressive than regular 3DS games. In terms of backwards compatibility, you have a lot of retro consoles available through the eShop, and with hacking, you can open up functionality for N64 emulation, GBA emulation, and more. PlayStation gamers will be missing out on the Vita, PSP, and PS1 compatibility seen in the PSP/Vita line, though.
In terms of raw graphical power, the 3DS rests somewhere between the GameCube and the Wii, with the New 3DS further reaching toward the Wii. This means there are a number of Wii and GameCube ports to the 3DS, and many of them are on par, if not better, in visual quality. This platform also enjoyed a much larger library of original games when compared to its direct rival, the PS Vita.
The New Nintendo 3DS or 2DS will give you a few new games and greatly improve your performance in all other games, including emulated titles. One notable N3DS port is Xenoblade Chronicles, which brings a full-sized open-world Wii game into a 3D handheld.
Nintendo DS Family Tree
The Nintendo DS obviously loses 3DS compatibility, but in turn it gains compatibility with Game Boy Advance games. Combined, the original Nintendo DS and Game Boy Advance forms one of the largest libraries of portable video games. The DS may be extremely aged, but the power of its combined libraries cannot be underestimated.
Emulation-wise, unfortunately, you aren’t going to get much done with a Nintendo DS. Even the SNES is enough to bring the DS to its knees when it has to be emulated, though for retail games, the DS actually pushes out graphics better than the Nintendo 64.
If you can find a Nintendo DS significantly cheaper than a 2DS or 3DS, then it’s definitely still worth buying. Otherwise, the 3DS or PSP family, especially when hacked, do offer more expansive libraries with more modern games.
What if you took the concept of a Nintendo Switch and replaced the Switch with a powerful gaming PC?
It turns out many companies are jumping on that bandwagon. Razer’s Edge tablet was one of the first to create a handheld gaming device with Windows, and these days you have devices like the GPD Win 2 putting a Windows PC in your pocket. More recently, the GPD Win 3 is looking incredibly promising with GameCube emulation and can even push The Witcher 3 at 720p and 60 FPS.
If you’re dealing with a handheld Windows PC like the GPD Win series, AYA NEO, or another high-end portable, you can viably play AAA games at 720p (with or without resolution scaling). The PC’s library is hard to beat on its own, but you also have access to the very forefront of console emulation software. If you want an even greater edge on emulation, especially on AMD graphics, you can also go Linux.
What Are the Best Handheld Gaming Devices In 2021?
Honestly, it’s a tough call! If you aren’t already biased toward one pick or another listed above, here’s how we ranked our picks, based on both existing library and backwards compatibility:
- Nintendo Switch (hacked)
- Handheld Windows or Linux (emulation) PC
- Nintendo Switch
- Android Handheld
- Nintendo 3DS (Hacked)
- PS Vita (Hacked)
- Nintendo 3DS
- PS Vita
- Nintendo DS / PSP (Tie, Hacked Better For Both)
In general, a hacked/unlocked device is better for emulation than one that isn’t. Built-in backwards compatibility (like the DS for the 3DS or PSP for the PS Vita) also works better than backwards compatibility achieved through emulation. (GameCube/Wii games can be playable on Wii but are often very laggy with the community’s own efforts.)
Ranking solely by official library and support the present day, though, the winner of the best handheld gaming devices becomes clear: the Nintendo Switch. Hacked or unhacked, you’re going to be hard-pressed to beat this portable in a one-on-one, not to mention that you can run other apps on it, too. A sufficiently powerful handheld PC will compete, but certainly not for anywhere near the same price.
I’m a longtime gamer, computer nerd, and general tech enthusiast.
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