What's the best portable gaming system?

Which portable gaming system provides the overall best value and experience? Let's take a look.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Yes, it's a loaded question, but a necessary one with the PlayStation Vita finally making its U.S. release. There's no denying that platforms like iOS and Android have changed the face of portable gaming forever, but do they provide the best experience?

Just like choosing which home console to buy , this is a decision that needs to be made on a personal level, depending on what exactly your budget and preferences are.

In my opinion, the best "gamer's" games are the ones experienced with actual tactile buttons. While touch gaming might be more accessible and ultimately more affordable, I do believe if you limit yourself to that specific medium, you're missing out on a lot that the world of portable gaming has to offer.

With that said, let's look at the current portable gaming landscape.

Touch-based gaming (iOS, Android, etc.)

Whether it's an Android device, iPhone, iPod Touch, or iPad, the options for gaming on-the-go are seemingly endless. Best of all, most of these devices satisfy the crucial "all-in-one" label that so many products seek to capture. It's tough to argue that anyone should carry around a separate gaming-focused device in addition to one of these.

However, I--and most core gamers--agree that the full potential of gaming cannot be unlocked by simple touch, swipe, and flicking gestures. Please don't read that as a jab at the insanely talented developers who pour their hearts and souls into these titles. The truth is these types of games are on a different level than standalone 3DS and Vita games. That level is one of a more casual experience.

ZeptoLab/Chillingo

It's tough to classify a game like Cut the Rope in the same category as something like Uncharted: Golden Abyss. Of course they are both games, but their practical usage in our daily lives differs completely. Cut the Rope is great for the 15 minutes waiting around for the train, while Uncharted demands the commitment of a cross-country flight. That's not to say one couldn't play Angry Birds for 6 hours straight (the horror!), but I think the instant-gratification model that makes games like these work so well is better suited for quick gaming sessions.

So what about the "core" games available on touch platforms? I've tried, with all my might, to get into a first-person-shooter on the iPad. It's painful. You'd think with touch controls that aiming would be a precise mechanism, but alas, it's clunky and unsatisfying. I've tried them all: Dead Space, Rage HD, Battlefield, Call of Duty Zombies; the list goes on. I hate fishing around the screen for the reload area and I can't stand moving my character with a virtual D-pad. There are some games in which touch controls work great, and there are others that just don't register.

While owning an iOS device gives you instant access to hundreds of thousands of apps and games, I've found that the vast majority of titles are just crummy. The whole mentality of "anyone can be a developer" is awesome, but it should come as no shock to find out that it has led to a surplus of games that are not worth your time and money.

Another big talking point is battery life on these devices. It's no secret, smartphones and tablets outlast consoles like the 3DS and Vita. If you're someone constantly on-the-go with no access to an outlet, your time with a 3DS or Vita will be very limited.

Perhaps the best thing touch gaming has going for it is the price. Games are cheap. I've bought dozens of 99-cent games that are garbage, and I don't care. They are practically disposable. Sure, a nasty habit like that can add up over time, but someone who just wants the instant gratification of guiding oil into an monster's mouth or putting out fires with their fingers can have that satisfaction whenever he or she wants. For some people that might be enough.

Touch gaming is best for: Casual gamers who are constantly traveling; those who can only play in short spurts; those looking for an all-in-one device and don't want to carry multiple products around; budget-conscious gamers; those who value battery life.

Touch gaming is not the best choice for: Core gamers; those who desire a big-budget level of production value and polish in their gaming; those who want to experience established franchises from their gaming past; those who consider buttons to be an integral gaming element.

The Nintendo 3DS

Sure, it stumbled right out of the gate, but Nintendo's portable 3D machine has found its legs and is actually off to a better start than the original DS--which is the best-selling handheld console of all time.

Aside from a glasses-less 3D display, not a whole lot has changed since the DS. The graphics are definitely better, but I've yet to see them make the same jump that other systems have been able to do. The 3DS still relies on a stylus, too, which has become somewhat of a relic in every other tech medium. It's certainly the best way to interact with the 3DS' resistive touch screen, but to some gamers it's a turnoff. In terms of graphics, the 3DS can't contend with the Vita or some high-end iOS games.

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Touch games can't compete with the bevy of control options packed into the 3DS. Long story short, games play better on the 3DS and Vita. The 3DS has all of the buttons we've seen on the original DS, but the 3DS introduces a left circle thumb pad.

The 3DS is the only portable gaming unit that supports 3D, but it doesn't come without its fair share of issues. The 3D effect is easily broken with minor viewing angle adjustments, and it's almost impossible to maintain with games that require some sort of motion control. Also, Nintendo advises that only gamers 7 and older should use the mode. These problems aside, the 3D effect can be turned off at any time. This will also help with battery life, which is surprisingly low for a Nintendo handheld.

The 3DS' launch lineup also left room for improvement. Almost an entire year since its debut, only a handful of titles have fallen into the must-own category, with only a few standout franchises scheduled for a 2012 release. I'm sure there will be a number of surprises down the line, but it's tough to justify a purchase solely based on speculation.

Owning a 3DS has become a cheaper affair, though, with the unit getting a massive 32 percent price cut last year. Now available for $170, the 3DS costs the least up front of all the portable options.

Super Mario 3D Land Nintendo

3DS games tend to skew toward a younger demographic, with mostly all first-party titles designed for players of all ages. Resident Evil Revelations is the first M-rated 3DS game, and I think it's a great start to what's hopefully a long list of titles aimed at an older audience. For the Nintendo faithful, there are plenty of downloadable titles from the company's vault as well as independent selections in the 3DS eShop. Netflix is already available on the platform, too.

Games for the system range in price from around $20 to $40 and download-only titles from around $5 to $10.

The 3DS is best for: Gamers who want a 3D experience above everything else; the Nintendo franchise faithful; younger gamers; fans of the original DS who want the best of both worlds (it's backward-compatible).

The 3DS is not good for: Gamers looking for the top-of-the-line graphics; those turned off by stylus control; those susceptible to motion sickness via 3D; those looking for games aimed at older audiences.

The Sony PlayStation Vita

February 2012 marks the release of the Sony PlayStation Vita, the company's follow-up to the PSP. It boasts a huge 5-inch OLED touch screen and rear touch panel, two analog thumb sticks, and an impressive list of launch titles .

Priced at $250 for the entry-level Wi-Fi only system, the Vita also comes with a hidden cost. Players must purchase a Vita Memory Card for access to most of the games and applications available for the system. While I really wish this was included in the box from the start, Sony has packed the card in a limited run of First Edition Bundles and the initial run of 3G units .

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Games for the Vita are the most expensive among any portable gaming option. Standalone titles range in price from $30 to $50 (though most are priced at $40), and download-only titles go from about $10 to $15. All first-party Vita games and most third-party titles can also be downloaded from the PlayStation Store--sometimes at a discount.

Proprietary media rules the Vita , including the games and aforementioned memory cards. Sony is implementing some strict guidelines for the new system because of the widespread piracy that plagued the PSP. Simple tasks like transferring movies or photos is cumbersome, but suffice to say, it works.

Twenty-five titles make up the Vita's launch list. There are plenty of quality entries in this collection, in which every type of gamer is sure to find something. The Vita is the most capable portable system in terms of graphics--nothing really comes close. The Vita has the best-looking games and the horsepower to be called the closest thing to an actual home console in your pocket. Battery life isn't anything to write home about, but I was really impressed with its standby time during my testing.

The Vita's operating system is one of its most surprising features, as it's ultraresponsive and logically laid out. It's as smooth as iOS and feels like a cross between Android and WebOS. The rear touch panel has had some interesting initial implementations, and I'm curious to see where developers will take the technology moving forward.

Uncharted: Golden Abyss Sony Bend/SCEA

A few social apps will hit the Vita on day one along with a Netflix program. Sony has promised more support from a number of third parties, so it remains to be seen whether the system will deliver on that front like the PlayStation 3 has.

The Vita is best for: Gamers who want the latest and greatest portable games; value graphics the most; want a combination of touch and button control; are intrigued by rear touch control; want the closest thing to a home console experience.

The Vita is not good for: Gamers on a budget; those who want a universal all-in-one device.

 

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