In times past, if you wanted a portable game machine, you just bought the latest incarnation of the Game Boy. The environment has gotten more complex lately, even if Nintendo is still the clear leader.
Best Overall Portable Gaming Platform: Nintendo Switch
The Big N has held a deathgrip (sorry) on the portable gaming market for decades, and its latest entry is something of a killing blow to its only true competition, Sony. This is a bit of a cheat, since the Switch is both Nintendo’s successor to its Wii U home gaming platform and a powerful upgrade to the 3DS series. But even given the high starting price for a portable system, the Switch has so much going for it that it’s impossible to recommend anything else above it in terms of sheer quality and versatility.
In addition to Nintendo’s ever-strong lineup of first party games, the Switch has full-power ports of console games like DOOM, Fortnite, and Rocket League. Plus, indie developers are flocking to its more curated online store for portable versions of games that previously appeared on Steam, Xbox Live, and PlayStation Network.
All that’s on top of the Switch’s big standout feature, its seamless transition from a portable system to a home console via its included dock and break-away Joy-Con controllers. Nintendo’s insistence on the Switch as a portable socialization machine seems a bit gimmicky at best, but there’s no denying the appeal in grabbing your tablet-sized gaming system from your TV and throwing it in your bag without missing a beat. Between this and support from both Nintendo itself and third party developers and publishers, the Switch won’t be dethroned as the king of portable gaming anytime soon.
Best Budget Portable Gaming Platform: NEW Nintendo 2DS XL
The Switch gets the headlines, but there’s plenty of life left in Nintendo’s 3DS hardware, especially if you’re buying for kids or you don’t want to spend a lot of dough. The lineup of 3DS machines is a bit confusing if you haven’t looked at it in a while, so here’s a quick breakdown:
- NEW Nintendo 3DS XL: An updated version of the original 3DS hardware, with a stereoscopic 3D top screen. It includes a bit of extra power and more buttons for more advanced games. Plays all 3DS games and all older DS games. $200 retail price.
- NEW Nintendo 2DS XL: Identical to the NEW 3DS XL, minus the 3D screen feature. Plays all 3DS games, though a very small amount may have problems with game mechanics that use the 3D feature, and all older DS games. $150 retail price, often found a bit lower.
- Nintendo 2DS: A super-budget option without 3D support, extra buttons, or a hinged design. Plays most 3DS games (a few need the support of the extra buttons and faster hardware in the NEW 3DS/2DS XL) and all DS games. $80 retail price, with New Super Mario Bros. 2 or Mario Kart 7 included.
With a variety of hardware options, literally thousands of 3DS and DS games to choose from, and full integration with an online storefront for new and classic games, the 3DS family is hard to beat if you want a variety of portable gaming choices on the cheap. I’d recommend the NEW 2DS XL: it’s an appreciable upgrade over the unibody 2DS with more game options, but there’s very little extra value in the 3D screen on the NEW 3DS XL hardware. You can find especially good deals if you go for used hardware and games—Nintendo’s kid-proof hardware and cartridges make them reliable secondhand pickups, and millions of units sold means there’s a constant supply of systems and games at game stores and pawn shops.
Best Gaming Smartphone: Any iPhone
I’m a die-hard Android fanboy, but if I’m being honest, the iPhone is a better gaming platform. Despite gaming-specific models from Razer and ASUS, Google’s Play Store still gets treated like a second-class citizen by mobile game developers, with high-profile games often debuting exclusively on the App Store (and sometimes never leaving it).
Between Apple’s undeniably appealing hardware designs and its clear advantage in attracting and keeping game developers, the iPhone is the clear pick if you want a portable gaming machine that’s also your primary smartphone. For the best performance, you’ll want to get the latest model you can afford—that’s probably the iPhone 8 or 8 Plus, for the extra screen real estate, at the moment. The more expensive, stylish iPhone X looks great, but doesn’t offer any specific advantages for gamers. That said, an older or secondhand model like and iPhone 6 or 6s will have access to almost all of the same games on the App Store, and most of them aren’t so hardware-intensive that you’ll feel the need for the latest and greatest phone.
If you insist on Android, you’ll still have access to more mobile games than you can possibly play, but you’ll be missing out on a few notable titles every once in a while. Fortnite is a good example: the portable version of this popular shooter debuted on iOS back in April, but there’s still no official release date for the upcoming Android version. For Android gamers, you’ll want the fastest processor and the most RAM you can get: any recent Galaxy or Pixel model will do nicely.