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How handheld consoles have evolved over the last 20 years

The good, the bad and the absolutely massive
As anyone over the age of 18 will have noticed, you can buy some great 18-rated videos. More relevantly, you'll also have noticed that technology has come a long way in the last decade.

In fact, it sometimes seems like technological progress is tied to a large rocket, launching man toward a horribly inert future of doom and destruction. But hey, on the upside, it's also making our handheld games systems faster, smaller, more powerful and, well, just 'better'.

However, it has taken a while for gaming to crawl from the primordial 8-bit slime to today's shiny state of affairs. To illustrate just how much things have advanced over the last 20 years, we thought it'd be nice to pull together a few facts and figures in pretty chart form to both inform and entertain you with.

This infotainment extravaganza will compare several critical handhelds of today and yesteryear. We've used US dollars instead of Yen or Euros as, well, US nerds seem to have kept better records...

Atari Lynx
Released 1989, US launch price $189.99
The skateboard-sized Lynx was technologically way ahead of the Game Boy, but was also twice the price and needed six AA batteries for two-four hours play. D'oh!

Nintendo Game Boy
Released 1989, US launch price $89.99
Tiny, gloomy, four-shades-of-green screen. Same processor as the ZX Spectrum. Then Nintendo releases Tetris. Boom! Over 70 million units sold.

Sega Game Gear

Released 1990, US launch price $149.99
Despite selling nearly nine million units and having a colour screen, the Sega's Gear couldn't keep pace with Nintendo's Game Boy. Even Sonic couldn't save the day.

Sega Nomad
Released 1995, US launch price $180
Take one Sega Mega Drive. Put it in a 'portable' box the size of a house. Give it around two hours of battery life. Release it the same year as PlayStation. Watch it fail miserably.

Nintendo Game Boy Advance
Released 2001, US launch price $99.99
Another smart move from Nintendo. Tens of millions of Advances have been sold across original, SP and Micro versions – reportedly topping 125million in total. We think Pocket Gamer has at least 50 of them.

Nokia N-Gage
Released 2003, US launch price $299.99
Crippled by duff design and an early lack of games, the N-Gage was the dictionary definition of a missed opportunity. It wasn't terrible all told, and the follow up QD improved things, but it could have been so much better. Incidentally, Nokia shipped well over two million N-Gages. (See our N-Gage QD review, and dedicated N-Gage section).

Nintendo DS
Released 2004, US launch price $149.99
Born an ugly duckling but now a rather fetching 'Lite' swan, Nintendo's Dual Screen is current king of the castle. Sales are have just pushed past 40million units. (Read our DS Lite review).

Sony PlayStation Portable
Release 2005, US launch price $249.99
The 32-bit, 32MB, movie, music and game playing sometime home of homebrew needs little introduction – but maybe still a few more original games. 25 million of the blighters are out there, somewhere. (Read our original PSP review, and thoughts one year on).

Without further ado, let the comparisons begin!

Big, bad and ugly: Size matters

Small is, after all, beautiful.

Comparison of handheld sizes over the years

Oh Atari, Atari, Atari. What the hell were you THINKING?! Look at the size of the Lynx. You would want one to fall on you that's for sure. 273mm long! That's over 100mm longer than the PSP, and getting on for twice as thick.

Clock watching: Handheld power compared

Now let's compare good old-fashioned power...

Okay, so only Sony gets to use PSP's full 333Mhz processor speed, but even at 222Mhz it's streets ahead of the DS, and an astounding 60x faster than the Lynx. Even the GBA wasn't that fast in terms of raw cycles, although its ARM 7 chip was a tad more up-to-date than the rusty Z80 in the older consoles – and it actually had one of those too, so you could play Game Boy games. Clock speed certainly isn't everything (especially nowadays) but it's an age-old first-base indication of gaming grunt.

RAM raiding: How much main memory?

It's impressive how much memory you get for your money these days:

Again the PSP kind of skews this one a bit, blowing the tiny amounts of early handhelds off the scale. However, between Game Boy and DS, Nintendo was able to increase the amount of RAM in its handhelds by a factor of 500. (8KB. How the hell did anyone make games that ran in 8KB? Talk about dedication to your art.)

Pixel paranoia: Screen sizes

Let's look at screen real estate. We like this one. Dunno why. Remember this is a comparison of pixels not screen size – that's different. For instance, a Game Gear's screen was 3.2" across, similar to a DS's, but it had almost half the number of pixels.

Comparison of handheld screens over the years

It's quite interesting that screen technology improvements have focused on brightness and energy consumption rather than increased resolution. Yeah, a DS screen is 256 pixels wide where a Game Boy's was 160, but that's nothing compared to the improvements in clock speed and memory.

Heavy, dude: Handheld weights over time

Right, we'll be honest, we couldn't find the weights for the Nomad or Game Gear anywhere (send 'em over if you have one and we'll do you a quick update), and we had to beg a friend to weigh his Lynx on his kitchen scales (with six AA batteries on-board, we can well believe that 685g is pretty accurate).

Handheld weights through the ages


So things have come quite a long way since gaming first threw off the shackles of a mains lead and TV-out cable.

Sony being Sony, we're pretty sure that PSP2 will raise the technology bar even higher, whenever it shows up. And Nintendo being Nintendo, they'll probably follow the DS something at least as clever, cheap to make (and highly profitable) and sell another 30-50 million units. See you in 2027 for an update!

Reviewer photo
Caspar Field 26 April 2007
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