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We review 5 of the biggest pieces of gaming tech on sale this Black Friday

From left to right, top to bottom: the Steam Deck OLED, ASUS Rog Ally, Atari 2600+, PlayStation Portal, and DualSense Edge Controller.
Keren Carrión
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NPR
From left to right, top to bottom: the Steam Deck OLED, ASUS Rog Ally, Atari 2600+, PlayStation Portal, and DualSense Edge Controller.

2023's has been a record year for video game releases and a tempestuous one for those who make them, with thousands laid off at major companies.

But it's also been an inflection point for gaming hardware. While Nintendo still hasn't announced the rumored sequel to their massively popular Switch console, numerous portable devices that resemble it have stormed the market. Meanwhile, Sony's gone deep on deluxe PS5 accessories — from a fancy controller to a VR headset to a streaming-only handheld. Meta came out with their own "mixed reality" headset, while a resuscitated Atari released a (slightly) modernized take on their groundbreaking 1977 home console, the Atari 2600.

NPR received review units for some of the biggest gaming gadgets out this year — here's what we thought of them:

Keren Carrión / NPR
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NPR

Atari 2600+

The revamped Atari 2600+ feels exactly like how I remember the original console — for better and for worse.

Originally released in 1977, the Atari 2600 set the standard for home consoles until the Nintendo Entertainment System came to dominate the market. As a child of the 80s, I grew up with both.

Unboxing the new 2600+ felt like uncovering a time machine. It comes with a joystick (note — second joystick sold separately!), an HDMI cable, and a USB power cord — but it doesn't include an adapter to plug it into an outlet, which forced me to spend 45 frustrating minutes rummaging through my house to find one.

With that added plus to its name, you'd expect quality of life improvements — and it's got a few (emphasis on "few"). It improved the overall visual experience, including a switch to display in black-and-white or color and another that enables a 16:9 aspect ratio to fill modern TVs. While it comes with a 10-in-1 cartridge with classic games like Adventure and Missile Command, it's also compatible with many old 2600 and 7800 cartridges. There are even all new games designed for it (also sold separately) — the highlight being the platformer Mr. Run and Jump.

Mr. Run and Jump, an all-new game designed for the Atari 2600, which comes in a modernized version for other consoles.
/ Atari
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Atari
Mr. Run and Jump, an all-new game designed for the Atari 2600, which comes in a modernized version for other consoles.

But while this faithful reproduction would make collectors swoon, it also retains the original's imprecise controls. The joystick feels incredibly stiff and the optional paddle controllers (you guessed it — sold separately!), need to "wind up" before they move — there's quite a bit of input lag. If anything, the experience serves best as a museum-piece: demonstrating to younger generations exactly how far video games have come.

I'm grateful the Atari 2600+ exists for hardware conservationists and nostalgic gamers. But $130 is steep for what you get — the console, one controller, and the 10-in-1 cartridge. Atari's other retro console, the VCS, which can play new and old games with modern controls, costs even more. Rival companies like Nintendo have produced throwback consoles both better and cheaper, like the SNES mini, which released at nearly half the price of the Atari 2600+. So while I look forward to showing it to my family over the holidays, it's really not worth it unless you've got cash to spare and a hankering to relive a bygone era, warts and all.

— Tre Watson, broadcast recording technician

/ Valve
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Valve

Steam Deck OLED

I've been hooked on the original Steam Deck since it came out last year, and the new OLED model has sunk its talons even deeper into me.

Here's the pitch: imagine the portability of the Nintendo Switch with the breadth and power of a PC. It's beefier, pricier and — crucially — can access the tens of thousands of games on the Steam store on-the-go (including recent titles that aren't playable on the Switch's aging hardware). While manufacturer Valve hasn't confirmed their exact sales numbers, they said the original model sold multiple millions of units since its 2022 release — making it a hit in the niche but growing world of handheld gaming computers.

So Valve's taking another cue from Nintendo: they're capitalizing on the success of one portable console by releasing another with a bigger and better screen. Their OLED model weighs less, addressing complaints that the original LCD version was too heavy to hold for long periods. It also boasts a longer-lasting battery, more storage and 6G internet capability (which has yet to be relevant on the networks I've used).

Those enhancements don't come cheap (it starts at $550, while the Switch OLED hovers above $300), but it's a welcome upgrade to the earlier edition. I rely on the Steam Deck to plow through my backlog in planes, trains and automobiles — the new version's vivid pixels stay visible in direct sunlight, a frequent issue I had when playing titles with inky shadows or low contrast colors. And while the screen's less than half an inch wider, I swear it's helped me squint less at tiny text.

Now, if you have an old Steam Deck, should you spring for a new one? Unless you plan to travel with it as much as I do, probably not. But if you're a curious and cash-rich PC gamer that hasn't yet picked one up, you may as well jump in with the OLED. While it struggles to run the most graphically intensive games (it's also awkward for those designed for keyboard and mouse), it'll revolutionize how and where you play, I promise.

Keren Carrión / NPR
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NPR

Asus ROG Ally

If you do want to play the newest games on higher graphical settings, alternatives to the Steam Deck abound. The ASUS ROG Ally, released earlier this year, offers more power for a comparable cost, and unlike the Deck's custom Linux OS, the Ally runs Windows right out of the box.

That's a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, you can play games through other PC services, like Xbox Game Pass or the Epic Store. On the other hand, the clunky Windows interface can make it take minutes rather than seconds to actually boot up a game — and you're more likely to hit glitches once you do.

I also found it less ergonomic — the right joystick is too low for my thumb. Its built-in system overlay isn't as seamless or consistent as the Deck's (though I'll grant that it's an improvement on the OneXPlayer 1S, an older portable PC that I paid over a thousand dollars for). It even runs hotter and louder than the Deck, and its battery drains within a few hours if you're playing all-but the least demanding games.

Over time, my allegiance with the upstart machine lapsed. I'd only recommend it to PC enthusiasts who prioritize flexibility over convenience. But I'm glad the Steam Deck's facing proper competitors — maybe the next effort from ASUS will outclass it.

Keren Carrión / NPR
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NPR

PlayStation Portal

It might appear that Sony's going portable with the PlayStation Portal — it's basically a tablet sandwiched between two halves of a DualSense controller. But while it looks the part, it's hardly designed for mobility, and can only play games if you (1) have a PS5 and (2) have decent internet.

Intended for use within your home network, the Portal can wake up your PS5 and stream games from it at the press of a button. It's reasonably smooth on the 5G internet I tested it on — though it has stuttered at inopportune moments, like a tough Remnant 2 boss fight! If you anticipate such hiccups, you're better off sticking to leisurely games that don't require twitch reflexes. Annoyingly, it also doesn't work with PS Plus Premium's Cloud Streaming (though Sony's indicated it might in the future).

So is the Portal worth its $200 price tag when it's merely a way to play PS5 games without a TV? Only if you really, really need your PlayStation fix when you're lying in bed or (gasp!) on the toilet. While the "Remote Play" it relies on isn't new, I'll grant that it's nice to have dedicated, streamlined hardware for it. But make no mistake — it's an absolutely inessential luxury for what's already an expensive console.

Keren Carrión / NPR
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NPR

DualSense Edge Controller

Ironically, I'd use the Portal more if I wasn't already spoiled by another PlayStation product that also costs $200: the DualSense Edge Controller. That's admittedly an outrageous price, but I'm a sucker for the newfangled back buttons it provides and that the Portal lacks. That obsession led me to buy not one but two Xbox Elite Controllers, and even had me puzzle through a third-party kit to install flimsy paddles to a standard PS5 controller.

Here me out — pressing buttons you can't see behind the controller may sound absurd, but I don't think I could have beaten Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice or Elden Ring without them (I should also note that the Steam Deck and ASUS ROG Ally also feature them). They let you keep thumbs on both joysticks as you move, swerve the camera and dodge — all at the same time. Once you get used to it, you'll rarely need to interrupt the action to press face buttons at all, shaving crucial microseconds off of your reaction time.

You get more from the Edge than just my beloved back buttons — it also comes with customizable paddles, joysticks and a sturdy travel case. But out of all the gizmos on this list, you've scrolled down to the most indulgent. Still, you might consider it as a lovely gift for the PS5 maniac in your life.

— James Mastromarino, NPR Gaming lead and Here & Now producer

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

James Perkins Mastromarino
James Perkins Mastromarino is Here & Now's Washington, D.C.-based producer. He works with NPR's newsroom on a daily whirlwind of topics that range from Congress to TV dramas to outer space. Mastromarino also edits NPR's Join the Game and reports on gaming for daily shows like All Things Considered and Morning Edition.