In-Car Gaming Has Never Been Easier

Tablets, portables, and Nintendo's Wii U and Switch

If you've ever kicked around the idea of adding a video game system to your car or just wanted to bring one along on a long road trip to keep the kids entertained, it's easier today than it ever has been before. In the past, you could either stick to portable handhelds, or go the route of wiring in an inverter, install some type of mobile video screen, and then be lugging along your bulky console.

Today the mobile and portable gaming options are more diverse than ever before, and it's even possible to bring along a full-fledged home console very painlessly in the form of a previous gen Wii U or current gen Nintendo Switch.

Mobile and Portable In-Car Gaming

The easiest way to play video games in a car has always been to bring along a handheld gaming system, and that's still a very viable option. The Nintendo 3DS and 3DSXL and the Sony Vita are all great portable gaming options that you can take with you on a long road trip. The biggest issue here is battery power, but that is easily solved with an appropriate inverter or some type of 12V adapter.

In addition to traditional portable gaming systems, gaming on smartphones and tablets on the road is growing increasingly popular each year. Although dedicated gamers may decry these platforms as not real gaming, the fact is that a decent tablet or phone can provide hours of entertainment on the road.

3 teens in backseat of car playing games.
Fuse / Getty

In-Car Gaming With Real Video Game Systems

In the past, the idea of gaming on the road with anything but a handheld was a pipe dream for most. Although it has always been possible to install a 12-volt television, or plug one into an inverter, and also plug a home console into an inverter, the whole idea wasn't ever very practical.

The combination of a home console and television took up a ton of space back when bulky CRT televisions were the order of the day, and that type of power consumption can't rely on a simple cigarette lighter inverter. The situation is different today, with the advent of low-profile LED screens, but you still need to consider the size, and power requirements, of most home video game consoles.

The best options today come in the form of Nintendo's previous gen Wii U system, and the Switch, which is also made by Nintendo.

While the Wii U console is significantly underpowered in comparison to the Xbox One and PS4, it has a couple of things going for it that make it almost perfect for an in-car gaming system. The Switch is significantly more powerful than the Wii U, and it also has a number of things going for it in terms of in-car gaming.

Gaming in Your Car With the Wii U

The first factor that helps the Wii U's case is the unique controller, which contains a touchscreen LCD. Some games use this second screen to display asynchronous information, but it can also be used for "off-screen play" in many cases. What that means, in basic terms, is that you can hook up your Wii U in your car and play quite a few games without ever worrying about a TV.

Aside from space and size constraints, the issue of power remains, and that's the other thing that the Wii U has going for it in this usage scenario. Since it doesn't use as much power as some other consoles, you can actually run it off a 12v accessory outlet or cigarette lighter jack.

That means you don't have to worry about how big of an inverter to buy, and you also don't have to go to the trouble of wiring one in. Peripheral manufacturers even make power supplies specifically designed for this purpose, with one port for a Wii U power cable and another one for a USB cable, which can be used to power a Wii U gamepad or any other USB device.

Gaming in Your Car With the Nintendo Switch

Using a Nintendo Switch in your car is even easier than using a Wii U because the Switch is actually designed as a hybrid home/portable gaming system. Where the Wii U has a gamepad with a built-in screen, the Switch actually contains all the guts of the game system in the handheld component.

The Switch comes with everything you need to use it in your car right out of the box since the system is designed for portable use. If you have a video monitor in your car, you can even connect your Switch to it via HDMI, and some games support a multiplayer mode with the joy-con controllers that the system comes with.

In order to make better use of a Switch in your car, you'll need an inverter to power a cradle for the system, or a 12-volt adapter accessory. You can also connect actual controllers to take advantage of multiplayer games that don't support joy-con multiplayer. It's important to keep the Switch clean so you have the best gaming experience.

Drawbacks of Using a Wii U or Nintendo Switch in Your Car

The main drawback of the Wii U or Switch as in-car gaming systems is that all you'll be able to do with them is play games. Unlike the Xbox One and PS4, the Wii U can't play DVDs or Blu-Rays, so you won't be able to watch movies on the road using the Wii U gamepad. The Switch suffers from the same drawback since it doesn't use optical media at all.

While you can add a mobile hotspot to watch Internet video services like Netflix and Hulu, disc-based media like DVD and Blu-Ray just isn't on the table for either the Wii U or Switch.

The other issue with using a Wii U for in-car gaming is that it's a strictly single-player experience. Unlike the Switch, the Wii U doesn't allow you to play multiplayer games without a television or monitor. The calculus changes if you already have a headrest or roof-mounted screen, but if that's the case, then you might consider wiring in an inverter and just using the home console system of your choice.

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