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Handheld Gaming in 2023

December 24, 2023
Table of Contents

I last wrote about handheld gaming in 2016 right before the Nintendo Switch was announced. It was an interesting time for handhelds: the 3DS was on its way out and the PlayStation Vita was also waning in popularity. We’re almost 8 years later and the situation has changed.

There are many handhelds out today, of many different varieties. The good ol’ Nintendo Switch is probably the most prevalent one, but it is not the only available option if you’re looking to game on the go.

Portable PCs are on the rise as well, with the coming of the Steam Deck and its competitors like the ROG Ally. There’s also various other retro handhelds that are becoming more popular, with various options at various price points.

The new Steam Deck OLED is certainly a contender for best handheld console of 2023. It sports a beautiful OLED screen at a high refresh rate, and supports HDR. With the hardware sporting a x86 processor and integrated GPU running at a maximum of 15W, this gives you the best possible performance with great battery life in this category.
The new Steam Deck OLED is certainly a contender for best handheld console of 2023. It sports a beautiful OLED screen at a high refresh rate, and supports HDR. With the hardware sporting a x86 processor and integrated GPU running at a maximum of 15W, this gives you the best possible performance with great battery life in this category.

There are many ways to get into gaming in 2023, and prices aren’t like in 2016. In this post, I’d like to re-examine the current state of handheld gaming. I’ve been wanting to write another post like this, and here we are.

Before I discuss some of the more modern PC handheld options, I want to take a brief look at some of the classic handhelds that I mentioned in previous posts, like the PlayStation Vita and the Nintendo 3DS.

Retro handhelds

Aged hardware

At this point the Nintendo 3DS, Sony PSP and PS Vita definitely qualify as retro handhelds.

Their screens are comparatively tiny and the stores on the original hardware have since closed, so it’s not like you can purchase digital games any longer. If you want to get new games without purchasing physical game copies, you have to resort to piracy to do so, which is unfortunate.

Getting the original hardware today is expensive and probably quite silly: you can easily pick up a more modern device that will handily emulate the entire game library for all of these handhelds.

That being said, emulation efforts for the PS Vita and 3DS are not as mature as you might think. I think the best place to play those games is still on the original platforms.

Backwards-compatible

That being said, I still think there’s quite some value to owning both a 3DS and PS Vita, especially given that are backwards compatible and you can also run the entire DS and PSP catalog on those. Modern emulators often have issues with shader caching which results in a less-than-ideal gameplay experience.

If you do have the original hardware, it is now very easy to hack your device, dump your legally purchased games, and tinker around with some homebrew software that will let you get more out of your console.

I’ve personally homebrewed my 3DS, PSP and Wii U. My favorite advantage that this provides is the ability to copy your save files to a separate storage device, which I often to do create backups of my save data (for various reasons).

Also, if you want to get more games digitally, with a hacked device you have new options to acquire games via other channels and play them that way. I don’t want to encourage piracy, but from a game preservation point of view this is certainly interesting.

When you dump your games, you can also install them offline. This is very beneficial for some of these older platforms. For example, when I was playing Xenoblade Chronicles X, a digital copy actually loaded faster. Since optical media eventually degrades, so if you archive your copy carefully, your backup will likely outlive the console.

I have legally dumped copies of my own physical and digital game purchases, for example. For (obvious) legal reasons I cannot share these dumps, but its certainly nice to have a back-up of my Fire Emblem Fates: Special Edition cart.

Budget retro handhelds

That being said, when emulating some older systems like the GameBoy Advance or the SNES, you might just be fine with a cheap portable handheld.

There are many great options available, but if you’re unsure what to get, I recommend checking out the Retro Game Corps YouTube channel, which showcases various retro handhelds.

Modern handhelds

Right now there’s some sort of handheld renaissance going on, it feels like. Not only has the Switch done really well over the last few years, but when the Steam Deck was announced in 2021, a whole segment of PC gamers also became handheld gamers.

After witnessing the success of the Deck, various other companies like ASUS and Lenovo have built their own devices, which are also quite interesting.

So, in this section I’d like to take a look at what I consider to be the three primary options: the Nintendo Switch, the Steam Deck and the ROG Ally. All of them are the best in their own category.

Nintendo Switch OLED

Released in 2021. Available for €364.

Promotional image showcasing the Switch OLED. © Nintendo
Promotional image showcasing the Switch OLED. © Nintendo

The Switch OLED is an iterative update to the 2017 console. It already received numerous internal upgrades (including a more efficient processor codenamed Mariko) that improved how long you could use the console, but in 2021 the console received a big upgrade with a reworked chassis and brand new OLED screen.

In retrospect, after having owned the OLED model for some time now, I can say that this was a big deal. Sure, the processor inside isn’t any faster (unfortunately) and the internals are certainly quite old at this point, but for various types of games this doesn’t matter.

Because the Switch OLED runs on an ARM-based platform, it is quite efficient, and as such it boasts the longest battery life out of all of the handhelds in this section.

I have a massive back catalog of games for the Switch, and the OLED screen has certainly made the console feel more modern. Sure, its internals may be quite old at this point, but I’m hopeful that the Switch successor is backwards compatible. If it is, I will upgrade immediately.

Compared to the other options available, and with the rumors of a Switch 2 I would probably not buy this console today, however. But I do love my Nintendo Switch, and have for as long as it has existed. Nintendo did well with this one.

Alternatives: Want a Switch but think that this one is too expensive? The regular Nintendo Switch or Switch Lite is available for a more affordable price, but I wouldn’t recommend either over the OLED model. If you need a Switch for a young child, a Switch Lite is a good option.

Steam Deck OLED

Released in 2023. Available for €569.

Promotional image showcasing the Steam Deck. © Valve
Promotional image showcasing the Steam Deck. © Valve

Yes, I bought the new Steam Deck OLED. After watching hours of content on YouTube of folks who were given early access for review purposes, I decided that this iterative update to the Deck was large enough to warrant the purchase.

I’ve written about my love for the Steam Deck before, but with the new software (and hardware) updates, the best handheld has just gotten a lot better, too. Also, with tools like Decky Loader you can add extra features to your handheld in ways that other console manufacturers will never let you.

Not only has performance in various games gotten better with various updates, but the ability to tweak performance with a certain degree of granularity offers you fantastic battery life, too.

You have to be willing to play with the settings a bit, though. Out of the box, a default 60 FPS cap (90 FPS on the OLED) will prevent excessive performance drain. Even on PC it’s a good idea to cap your framerate to your monitor’s refresh rate, to avoid rendering hundreds or thousands of frames.

Since the Steam Deck is a PC, it is possible to play games like Elden Ring and Cyberpunk on the go, which would never have been possible on the weaker hardware that can be found in something like the Switch or cheap Android handheld.

The fact that your Steam library does carry over is the major benefit of the Steam Deck (or ROG Ally, for that matter). No need to purchase ports of games you loved just to be able to play them on the go.

I feel as though the Steam Deck is the perfect device for playing retro games, or playing indie games that don’t require a beefy computer. With a beautiful HDR-capable display, it is perfect for games that can actually run up to 90 FPS without much tinkering.

The Deck is also amazing for emulation. There are initiatives such as Emudeck which even integrates your emulated games into the main Steam UI. That is very cool, and there’s an incredible amount of games you can play for hours on end this way; especially because emulation doesn’t require a lot of power.

Alternatives: The base model Steam Deck lacks the OLED panel, but is a little bit lighter on your wallet. If you don’t care and want to save a bit of money, the base model may be good enough.

ASUS ROG Ally

Released in 2023. Available for €699.

Promotional image showcasing the ROG Ally. © ASUS
Promotional image showcasing the ROG Ally. © ASUS

The key benefit that Valve gains from rolling its own operating system instead of Windows, is certainly a disadvantage when it comes to software compatibility.

The ROG Ally sports a clear 1080p screen with variable refresh rate up to 120 Hz. Sure, it doesn’t pop as much as an OLED panel does, but VRR is arguably more important, and the clarity of the screen is also a big benefit.

That being said, you won’t be running the latest triple A games on this at a native resolution. A recent software update brought support for 900p to the handheld, and together with AMD’s upscaling technology this actually looks about as good as 1080p, while offering far greater performance at that decreased resolution.

This is, to me, the sweet spot of resolution for the ROG Ally. At 15W (the performance preset) it is quieter than the Steam Deck while able to play certain games the Deck won’t, at higher resolutions.

That’s why I keep it around, for games that are more graphically intensive or require a higher resolution, or don’t run correctly on Valve’s Proton compatibility layer. Compatibility has certainly improved over the last year, but certain games like Destiny 2 are simply not supported and will outright not work due to anti-cheat measures.

Here’s an example from the last month: I’ve played a ton of Dragon Age Inquisition on the Ally. That game has issues with controller support on Linux, and as such it only plays correctly on Windows, which is unfortunate.

Dragon Age is also one of those games with very small text. Since the game was made nearly a decade ago, it does not have UI text scaling. At a resolution of 900p, a massive increase in text clarity can be witnessed.

Also, when there are any framedrops, VRR takes care of the screen tearing that would otherwise be present. (I wish that the OLED revision of the Deck had gotten VRR. That would’ve been amazing, but alas!)

Alternatives: The Lenovo Legion Go is an alternative to the Ally that also sports a Z1 Extreme chip, but is a bit bigger. Sadly, the Legion Go lacks VRR. These handhelds are certainly more expensive than the other options, it should be noted.

Tagged as: Games Hardware