Handheld game or smartphone?

Handheld game systems are a better alternative than a smartphone or tablet computer for serious mobile gamers. However, the relatively low cost of most phone and tablet game apps and their greatly improved graphics and game play have led many experts to wonder if handheld video games make much sense anymore for more casual gamers. See this blog post for more discussion on the challenges that the PlayStation Vita and other handheld game systems face in competing against smartphone gaming.

Nintendo and Sony dominate the handheld game market, and systems from both companies have their pros and cons. Nintendo's 3DS and DSi systems are popular for their huge game library, although most titles are geared toward younger audiences. Sony's PSP-3000 has games that will appeal to serious gamers, but it doesn't have dual displays, 3D capabilities or a touch screen. The Sony PlayStation Vita does have a touch screen -- and a gorgeous OLED one at that (though still no 3D) -- and a myriad of other controls, but is pricy and uses required, expensive and often not-included proprietary memory.

Experts give these tips for shopping for a handheld game console:

  • Check the game library. Because not all games are available for all consoles, visit the manufacturer's website to see a list of available games.
  • Test the controller. Handheld consoles have a variety of controls, including touch screens, styli, thumb sticks and shoulder buttons. If you can, test the controllers in a store to see which one is most comfortable.
  • Look at extra features. Many handheld video game systems have extra features that may appeal to you. Cameras, Internet access, MP3 players and built-in Skype service are examples of features that you can get on certain handheld consoles. However, these devices typically won't compete with dedicated gadgets that do the same thing, and even phones offer better Internet surfing, according to many reviews.
  • Consider backward compatibility. You can't always play older games on new handheld video game systems. For example, the Nintendo 3DS and DSi handheld consoles can't play Game Boy Advance games.
  • Games cost extra. Handheld consoles are less expensive than their stationary counterparts, but you'll still need to pay extra for games. Most are priced at $30 to $40 each, and the cost can add up quickly. 
  • Consider value carefully. If you have a smartphone or tablet computer, the selection of available games is impressive and growing. Smartphone game apps are usually much less expensive than games for dedicated gaming systems -- often no more than a few dollars -- and many are free. While serious gamers will probably still prefer the immersive experience offered by dedicated handheld game systems, the value and playability of many smartphone game apps might make them a better choice for more casual players.

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