I've been thinking a lot lately about handhelds. They’re not as popular as they used to be, so it seems.1 I’ve been enjoying my time with my 3DS and Vita so much, I’ve been a bit obsessed with them, to be honest. Don’t get my wrong, I still love my PC, but I can’t help feel a bit sad for these devices. They’re no longer relevant.
So since I’ve been thinking about these devices for a while, I thought it might be nice to partake in a nice brainstorming session about this topic. The big question? What would be the ideal handheld?
It’s a difficult topic, and I’ll delve into some technical details as well. What would be good hardware that supports some of the technical requirements? But before I deal with those questions… What should you expect when I say handheld game console?
What’s A Handheld Game Console?
A handheld game console, as per my definition is a portable device, with a screen, physical buttons that act as input, and the device plays games. That’s the basic definition, there’s more! Preferably we’ll have a D-pad, sticks for movement and triggers like most controllers have. A handheld must fit nicely in the hands, and should be even nicer to hold than a phone. It needs to be grippy.
As per these limited requirements, a phone does not qualify. This is because there are no or not enough physical buttons on most phones. Maybe in a few years we’ll have a good enough “Taptic engine” that is very precise and simulates buttons without being buttons. But until we can simulate small button presses — like button presses — on a glass screen, a phone is out.2
So before then, what would be the perfect handheld? Clearly, these few requirements are already met by the two biggest handhelds at the moment, the 3DS and the PS Vita.
My List of Requirements
It’s true. The basic requirements are met by the 3DS and the Vita. A perfect device is probably something like a fusion of the two, with some extra changes. So, without further ado, let's take a look at my ideal list of requirements.
I’ll go into detail a bit further a bit below this list. But for now, let’s just go over the list. It is my belief that the most desirable requirements for a succesful handheld game device are as follows:
The device must have…
- … actual buttons and triggers
- … a touch-screen display (720p) of about 5 inches, no touchscreen on the back
- … a powerful processor that is capable of pushing more pixels than the Vita
- … fast built-in flash storage + a microSD card slot for additional storage
- … support for the latest WiFi standards and Bluetooth
- … stereo speakers, plus a 3.5mm audio jack
- … a USB-C port for data transfer, video-out and charging
- … hardware support for fast encryption and decryption
- … hardware support for H.264/H.265/HEVC video encoding
- … and finally, a built-in WebKit-based browser: this would allow basic webapp functionality like Discord; a device like this needs a browser3
We must avoid…
- … a proprietary storage solution, whether it’s a cartridge or a special memory card → the future is digital
- … high resolution displays that provide no visible benefit, this doesn’t need to be VR-ready → we want to push less pixels
- … target framerates that are lower than 60 fps → prefer smoothness over graphical fidelity
- … gimmicky features, or special integrations that don’t make sense → just keep it as a gaming device first
More on why I want these things, and why they make sense on this device, below.
Requirements, In Detail
Until we get decent haptic feedback working, real buttons are still the basic requirement for a decent portable console. Sure, you can’t “add a button” to a console you’ve already shipped, but most games use pretty familiar control schemes anyway. A controller or real buttons always trump a touchscreen. No contest.
A 720p Widescreen Display & More Energy-Efficient Internals
To be honest, I feel like the PS Vita already has a great screen for handheld gaming.4 The only thing I would do is bump up the resolution (slighly), which means an increase in pixel density, resulting in a crisper image.
I consider the bump to 720p to be of less importance. So if major battery savings are the result of putting in a 544p display like on the Vita, then so be it.5
As far as the processor goes, it should ship with support for on the fly encryption and video encoding/decoding. More on that later!
More important is perhaps increasing the RAM (to 4 GB) and putting in a more recent GPU. I think the primary focus here should be simple: we want slightly more powerful components that are much more energy efficient. (Not the other way around!)
Fast Internal Storage and SD Card Swap for Large Digital Libraries
Okay, so bear with me on this one. Why would you include both very fast, expensive internal storage, and include internal storage that is potentially so slow it can worsen the gaming experience6?
The secret here is simple: the SD card slot is for those who want their entire digital library on their device. The idea here is that you can pick 3 or 4 games (depending on the capacity on the main flash storage) to keep in the “fast storage” portion of the system, which is used for actually playing the games.7
Yes, this means that potentially, you’ll have to wait a bit to transfer games from slow to fast storage (perhaps this could happen on the fly). It’s also entirely optional. If you don’t have an SD card, fine. If you want to really dedicate your console to a digital library, grab a fast SD card and get your game on!8
Decent Wireless Chip and 5 Ghz WiFi Support
The current PS Vita seems to suffer from relatively slow transfer speeds, at least on my network. A better wireless chip, and support for 5 GHz networks would be nice. I think it’s the future. (Of course, it would be nice to be able to install games through a PC as well, using some kind of software that can transfer the data via USB-C.)
Stereo Speakers, Plus a 3.5mm Audio Jack
This is a pretty standard requirement. Don’t drop the audio jack9 on this device, and as per usual, a set of stereo speakers (in the mockup at the top) is pretty much the industry standard nowadays.
Security and Encryption Considerations
Note: These are very brief thoughts on the topic. I might expand this section later.
So, one of the more important matters here is encryption and DRM. Sure, it’s maybe not something customers need to think about, but DRM was one of the major reasons why the Vita had such absolute terrible memory cards. Your games should be attached to your account, and only your console should be able to play those games. If you use encryption well, it can be a great way to ensure piracy can be prevented, or at least delayed. (No system is impervious, as we recently finally learned that the Vita has been ‘opened’ up.)10
What should also be implemented is a feature akin to PS4’s “Primary PS4” setting which allows you to play games without being online (to be more precise, connected to some kind of a digital service like PlayStation Network). Only one device can be registered as the primary device for a single account, obviously.
H.264 Encoding Support for Streaming and Recording Video Streams
This handheld should be able to record and play video streams (e.g. for Remote Play). Of course, the issue with recording gameplay here might be the storage capacity. Perhaps the SD card can be used to store longer clips. Available recording length would depend on the amount of storage left on the internal flash storage (or, if the SD card is fast enough, the storage capacity of the SD card).
The dream handheld I’m envisioning is a nice piece of hardware that could potentially house your entire portable game library. It’s got physical buttons, a nice display but most of all, great battery life (perhaps at the cost of thin-ness). Share your favorite moments, or stream your other console’s gameplay to this device: all is possible.
To be honest: while this device does not exist, I do think that this particular vision of a handheld gaming device is something that can be realized, as long as people are willing to buy one — but will people realize this is better than their phone? Perhaps the people who buy gaming PCs and consoles might think so…
If there’s anything positive about this whole fictional idea, is that perhaps the devices we currently have just need one great iteration before we reach a point where handhelds can be freaking awesome.11
This in part thanks to the surge of smartphone sales. I’ve written about this before, so feel free to read my previous articles on handheld gaming and on the decline of handhelds. ↩
With recent developments like the iPhone 7, I do expect to see major progress in this field in the next 5 years. ↩
I’m not going to say more on this. This should be self-explanatory. A browser is such a core component of any device that is connected to the internet (perhaps only not on smartwatches) that shipping without one is madness. ↩
BTW, the PS Vita screen is a touchscreen. I would not change this. There’s always something you can do with a touchscreen! Now, just don’t make it into gimmicks… like putting one extra on the back of the device. Ugh. ↩
I want to add that if we’re adding a USB-C port at the bottom, you have the ability to do data transfers via that port, charge the device and use the port to display the device’s screen contents on another monitor (video-out). Could be very cool! If this is the case, perhaps the output resolution could increase as well?
(But then again, developers would have to make stuff with this in mind, so perhaps only upscaling is a better idea; or just make it so that the game can be rendered at different resolutions. This deserves some more thought on my part.) ↩
I’ve noticed this on my Android tablet. Initially, I had a fairly slow SD card and it was definity jarring when I wanted to launch a game like Hearthstone. ↩
This idea is very similar to Apple’s ‘Fusion Drive’, where they combine a high capacity hard drive and a small capacity SSD into a single “drive” that the operating system recognizes as a single volume. ↩
Maximum transfer speeds would eventually be limited by the device’s hardware, since SD cards seem to be getting faster and faster… ↩
Yes, we’re having a wireless revolution. I would definitely support audio over Bluetooth, but an audio jack should still be included. ↩
There’s so much more to say about this, I might do an additional blogpost about this aspect. Note: I am not a security expert, but I do know that encrypting games specifically for one device does seem to work for e.g. Nintendo’s eShop. I’m thinking along the following lines: the core game data is not encrypted, but the game’s license would only allow you to run it on that device. The license is saved in a secure and encrypted store that is only readable by that device. So jamming that SD card in another device won’t make the games work. If the encryption is strong enough, it should not be possible to bruteforce this. ↩
I think the only big problem that still remains are batteries, but that’s an issue for all electronics that use batteries. ↩