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The best handheld gaming consoles in 2021

The best handheld gaming consoles
(Image credit: Future)

The best handheld gaming consoles can keep you entertained anywhere. While the best gaming PCs and consoles like the PS5 and Xbox Series X are excellent companions at home, they’re inconvenient to bring on a trip, and impossible to actually play while in transit. This is where handheld consoles come in: Moderately powerful, lightweight machines that are easy to stash in a backpack, or even a pocket.

While the best handheld gaming consoles in the past made you choose between limited specs (like a Nintendo Game Boy) and excessive power consumption (like a Sega Game Gear), modern handheld consoles don’t suffer from such restrictions. The gadgets on this list support deep games with gorgeous graphics. You can also play for hours at a time, thanks to strong battery lives.

Whether you need to pass the time on your commute or keep yourself occupied once you reach your destination, here are the best handheld gaming consoles you can buy.

What are the best handheld gaming consoles?

A few years ago, the handheld gaming market was split between Nintendo and Sony, as devices like the Nintendo 3DS and the Sony PlayStation Vita competed for supremacy. Now, Nintendo pretty much has the traditional handheld market cornered with the Switch.

There are two varieties of Switch available: the Nintendo Switch, and the Nintendo Switch Lite. The former is an inventive game console that you can connect to a TV or play as a handheld; the latter is handheld-only. The game selection on the two systems is identical, which is good news for fans of Nintendo franchises like The Legend of Zelda and Animal Crossing. Just be aware that transferring save data between the two systems is not nearly as seamless as it could be, so you’ll probably want to pick one and stick with it. There will also be a Switch OLED coming out within the next few months.

The Apple iPad Air has always been a pretty decent gaming device, in addition to a full-fledged tablet for multimedia and productivity purposes. A lot of good games are available à la carte in the Apple App Store. However, with the introduction of Apple Arcade last year, iOS devices have gained a selection of high-profile fare from both indie developers and major studios. If you haven’t tried Apple Arcade, some of the games are comparable in quality to what you’d find on a homebound console, and are well worth a look.

We also recommend the Google Pixel 4a, which has some pretty decent games available through the Google Play Store. However, it’s also a platform for Google Stadia games, which means you can play traditional big-budget titles on a tiny screen. Just be sure to bring a controller as well.

The best handheld gaming consoles you can buy today

The best handheld gaming consoles: Nintendo Switch

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

1. Nintendo Switch

Size: 9.4 x 4.0 x 0.6 inches
Weight: 14.1 ounces
Battery Life: 9 hours
Game Store: Nintendo eShop
Reasons to buy
+Hybrid design+Great game selection+Built-in multiplayer
Reasons to avoid
-Potentially short battery life-Tedious interface

The Nintendo Switch is easily the best Nintendo system in years, offering seamless gaming whether you’re at home or on the go. The hybrid console offers two ways to play. At home, you can plug the Switch into a dock, then play on your TV using a standard controller. When you have somewhere to go, simply unplug the Switch from its dock, attach the Joy-Con controllers to either side of the device, and bring it with you anywhere. The gaming experience is nearly identical either way; you don’t even have to stop your current play session.

The game library is chock full of fantastic Nintendo titles, such as The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Super Mario Odyssey, Splatoon 2 and Animal Crossing New Horizons. Just be aware that more demanding games will drain the battery faster, and that backing up your saves requires a paid subscription to the convoluted Nintendo Switch Online service.

Read our full Nintendo Switch Review.

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

2. Nintendo Switch Lite

Size: 8.2 x 3.6 x 0.6 inches
Weight: 9.8 ounces
Battery Life: 7 hours
Game Store: Nintendo eShop
Reasons to buy
+Gorgeous, lightweight design+Excellent game library+Easy to transport
Reasons to avoid
-No TV connectivity-Small battery

The Nintendo Switch Lite is about two-thirds the size of the regular Switch, and delivers two-thirds of what we love about the full-size model. Like its bigger cousin, the Switch Lite has access to Nintendo’s incredible library of first- and third-party games, as well as a comfortable control scheme and a big, colorful screen. Whether you want to play your fill of Zelda, Mario and Animal Crossing, or Doom, Bayonetta and Assassin’s Creed, the Switch Lite can deliver the same excellent games in a profile that’s easy to stash in a backpack or purse.

There are some drawbacks, though. Due to its smaller size, the Switch Lite has a smaller battery, meaning less playtime overall. The Switch Lite also doesn’t have detachable Joy-Cons, meaning that impromptu multiplayer sessions are much harder to facilitate. You also can’t transfer save data easily between a Switch Lite and a regular Switch, so consider carefully which one you want.

Read our full Nintendo Switch Lite review.

Apple iPad Air 2019

(Image credit: Future)

3. Apple iPad Air

Size: 9.8 x 6.8 x 0.2 inches
Weight: 16.0 ounces
Battery Life: 10 hours
Game Store: Apple App Store
Reasons to buy
+Apple Arcade is a great value+Also a good tablet overall+Good battery life
Reasons to avoid
-Extremely expensive-Requires careful transportation

The Apple iPad Air is one of the best tablets on the market, so it stands to reason that it’s also one of the best handheld gaming consoles. The Apple App Store has some of the best smartphone games on the market, and it usually gets the best titles months before Android does. In addition to perennial favorites like Fortnite, Hearthstone and Minecraft, you can also play indie darlings like Monument Valley, Florence and Threes.

What really sets the iPad apart from Android tablets, though, is Apple Arcade. This subscription service gives you access to more than 100 games for $5 per month. Some of the games are exclusive to the Apple Arcade service; others, you can get on a Switch or PC, but not an Android device. Sayonara Wild Hearts was an early contender for the best Apple Arcade game, but What the Golf, Dear Reader and Lifelike are also ingenious experiences that you generally won’t find elsewhere.

Read our full Apple iPad Air review.

Best handheld consoles: Asus ROG Phone 5

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

4. Asus ROG Phone 5

Size: 6.1 x 2.7 x 0.4 inches
Weight: 8.39 ounces
Battery Life: 12 hours
Game Store: Google Play Store, Google Stadia
Reasons to buy
+Superb performance+Beautiful AMOLED display with 144Hz refresh rate
Reasons to avoid
-Disappointing night mode-Bulky and heavy

The best handheld gaming console is arguably the one you already have on you, and that's why it's worth considering a dedicated gaming phone, like the Asus ROG Phone 5. This excellent (albeit very large) smartphone is powerful enough to run any game on Android, which means you can enjoy both casual handheld titles as well as longer sit-down-and-play experiences. (For the latter, it helps to have a controller.) Whether your tastes skew more toward Crossy Road or Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, the Asus ROG Phone 5 has what you want to play.

Don't forget that Android smartphones now have access to a variety of cloud gaming services, from Google Stadia, to Nvidia GeForce Now, to Xbox Cloud Gaming. With the ROG Phone 5's large screen and fast refresh rate, you can play many of your favorite console and PC games from anywhere in your home — or anywhere with a strong enough Wi-Fi connection.

Read our full Asus ROG Phone 5 review.

new nintendo 2ds xl

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5. New Nintendo 2DS XL

Size: 6.3 x 3.4 x 0.9 inches
Weight: 9.2 ounces
Battery Life: 7 hours
Game Store: Nintendo eShop
Reasons to buy
+Excellent game library+Sturdy clamshell design+Second screen is useful
Reasons to avoid
-Hard to find-No new games

The New Nintendo 2DS XL is a fantastic system, with two large, colorful screens, a design that makes the system easy to stash in a bag or pocket, and a huge library of wonderful games. The Legend of Zelda, Mario and Animal Crossing got some of their very best portable installments on the 2DS family of systems. The console is well-stocked third-party tiles, too, featuring favorites from Square Enix, Atlus and Capcom.

If we’re being honest, the 2DS XL may not be around for much longer. Nintendo seems to have put all its eggs in the Switch basket, and the 2DS XL has become harder to find as a result. There are no new games coming out for it, and it's been officially discontinued. But that’s all the more reason to pick one up now, if you haven’t already.

Read our full New Nintendo 2DS XL review.

How to choose the best handheld gaming console for you

The best handheld gaming console for your needs depends on where you want to use it. If you need something that you can stash in your pocket and play absolutely anywhere, the Pixel 4a is the smallest, most versatile device on the list. If you want to split your game time equally between home and traveling, the Nintendo Switch is probably the best option, since you can hook it up to a TV.

Price is also a consideration. The iPad Air and Pixel 4a are much more expensive than the dedicated gaming handhelds on this list, but they’re also more versatile devices. It’s probably not a great idea to buy them exclusively for gaming, but if you happen to already own one, you may want to see what kind of games you can get before you complement it with a dedicated Nintendo device. Likewise, the Switch Lite is cheaper than the full-fledged Switch, but it also has fewer features.

How we test handheld gaming consoles

Since the best handheld gaming consoles comprise both dedicated gaming hardware and versatile mobile devices, we don’t have a standardized procedure to test them. Instead, we draw from our experiences with these devices after we give them full reviews. A Nintendo Switch and an Apple iPad Air, for example, fill very different roles in the tech world, so devising apples-to-apples tests for them is nearly impossible.

Instead, we evaluate each system’s game library, as well as how well it plays games relative to its hardware. A Pixel 4a is a much more powerful device than a 2DS XL, but the 2DS XL can play much deeper, more involved games, thanks to its innovative second screen and dedicated controls.

To earn a spot on this list, a system simply has to play excellent games, and be small enough to transport easily. For anything beyond that, we rely on our qualitative judgment.

Marshall Honorof

Marshall Honorof is a senior editor for Tom's Guide, overseeing the site's coverage of gaming hardware and software. He comes from a science writing background, having studied paleomammalogy, biological anthropology, and the history of science and technology. After hours, you can find him practicing taekwondo or doing deep dives on classic sci-fi.