The choice between a handheld gaming PC and a budget gaming laptop depends on your preferences and priorities. If portability and convenience are your top concerns, a handheld gaming PC is the ideal option. However, if you seek superior performance, upgradability, and a larger screen, a budget gaming laptop could be a more fitting choice.
With the success of Steam Deck and handhelds from ASUS, GPD, and Aya on its heels, there’s a lot to like about portable PC gaming these days. However, the pricing of these handhelds puts them in competition with gaming laptops!
Handheld Gaming PCs: Portability Meets Performance
Handheld gaming PCs boast remarkable performance within a pocket-sized package. These gadgets feature powerful processors, dedicated graphics, and ample RAM to ensure your favorite games run smoothly at respectable frame rates. Although they may not deliver the same performance level as a fully-fledged gaming laptop, they offer a convenient way to game on the move.
The ASUS ROG Ally features a custom system-on-a-chip known as the Z1, which features a Zen 4 CPU and RDNA 3 GPU. It promises twice the performance of a Steam Deck, and the Steam Deck was already more or less a portable PS4 albeit running at a lower target resolution.
Considering the existence of next-generation consoles like the Xbox Series S, the horsepower of current and future handheld gaming PCs are nothing to be sniffed at!
AYANEO GEEK (AMD R7-6800U)
One of the most powerful handheld PCs money can buy, the Geek offers a great balance or price, features and performance for those who find the Steam Deck too low on horsepower and compatibility.
Budget Gaming Laptops: Affordable Powerhouses
Budget gaming laptops are gaining popularity as manufacturers discover ways to incorporate potent components into more reasonably-priced packages. While you may not get the most cutting-edge hardware, these laptops frequently balance performance and cost, letting you game without emptying your wallet.
The Steam Deck starts at around $500, the ROG Ally is (according to ASUS) a sub $1000 device, and some of the high-end handhelds from companies like GPD and Aya occupy the $1000 to $1500 range.
For that sort of money, you can get a gaming laptop that easily meets and exceed the performance levels of the PS5 or Xbox Series X. That’s not to mention that you get a complete portable computer in the bargain as well, that can do more than gaming on the go!
What to Consider When Choosing
As you can tell from what we’ve had to say so far, the big trade-off between a handheld PC and gaming laptop isn’t really price, but performance versus portability. A PS4-like (or better) two-pound handheld PC or a 4-pound next-gen console (or better) experience? Let’s dig into the deciding factors with more detail.
Generally, gaming laptops boast more powerful processors, dedicated graphics, and additional RAM, which may translate to superior gaming performance. However, handheld gaming PCs have made significant advancements recently and can hold their own in this area.
As we’ve said earlier, you’re getting something like a higher-FPS, lower-res PS4 with the Steam Deck, and with something like the ROG Ally, it’s more like a handheld Series S. So that means modern games running at fairly high settings with a target of between 720p to 1080p. Perfectly fine for a device with a small screen.
With a laptop you’ll get a much larger power budget, and components that can take advantage of high-resolution displays. Whether that’s your built-in laptop display or an external monitor or TV. You can expect to play modern titled with a mix of high to ultra settings depending on the specific resolution and GPU you have. There’s a massive gulf in performance between these two options for sure!
Portability and Convenience
If portability ranks high on your list of priorities, handheld gaming PCs hold a distinct advantage. These devices are considerably smaller and lighter than even the most compact gaming laptops, facilitating easy transportation and gaming on the go. Conversely, gaming laptops offer larger screens and more comfortable input options like full-sized keyboards and touchpads.
Honestly, it’s more accurate to say that a handheld gaming PC is mobile while a gaming laptop is portable. You can take both with you wherever you go, but you’re not going to be using your gaming laptop comfortably on a bus, of anywhere without a desk or table.
RELATED: Steam Deck vs. Switch: Comparing the Best Gaming Handhelds
Battery Life and Power Consumption
This one is actually pretty easy. With handhelds, you’re looking at about 2-3 hours of high-end (for the handheld) gaming on battery power, while with the laptop, well, it’s not really an option.
Because of limits on how large batteries are allowed to legally be, gaming laptops have to clock their CPUs and GPUs down severely to have a usable battery life. A typical gaming laptop will use between 100W to 200W running a complex game under load. Since the legal battery limit is 100Wh, you’d have a dead battery in 30 minutes to an hour. The performance cuts on battery power are really not something you’d want to play with, so gaming laptops are best used when plugged in. This is why we said they’re really portable gaming devices, rather than mobile gaming devices.
Even the most power-hungry handheld PC only consumes something like 30W, and most have a performance sweetspot at around 15W to 20W. So not only can they charge quickly, but they can have decent stamina. Even better, most power banks can easily provide that much power or more, so you can really get a whole day of use from your handheld if you also pack a big power bank.
Upgradability and Customization
Regarding upgradability and customization, gaming laptops tend to have the advantage. Many budget gaming laptops permit you to upgrade components like RAM and storage, while handheld gaming PCs usually feature soldered components that can’t be upgraded. This means a gaming laptop may offer more longevity since you can update parts over time to keep up with the latest games.
However, you’ll have to take this on a case-by-case basis. Some handheld PCs have a second SSD slot, or let you change out the existing drive. Laptops and handhelds with Thunderbolt 3 or 4 may support eGPUs, and the ROG Ally has a custom eGPU connection with significantly less bottlenecking.
Price and Value for Money
Since the overall price range is so similar here, what really matters is what style of gaming is more valuable to you. Do you like to play handheld and travel light or would you prefer the full next-gen experience on the go? If you need a computer for work or other non-gaming uses on the go, a laptop makes more sense. Conversely, if you only need a computer at home, nothing stops you from docking your handheld and using it as a regular PC.
Should You Buy a Handheld PC or Budget Laptop for Gaming?
In the end, the choice between a handheld gaming PC and a budget gaming laptop boils down to your personal preferences and priorities. If you value portability and convenience above everything else, a handheld gaming PC might be your ideal option. However, a budget gaming laptop could be a more fitting choice if you seek superior performance, upgradability, and a larger screen.
In either case, PC gaming is moving away from the desktop tower being the only way to play. More people in more contexts can now enjoy all the things that make PC gaming great, especially those things that aren’t related to mere outright performance.