Sony has always done things differently, often blazing trails when competitors choose more well-traveled roads. Nowhere was this more apparent than with the original PlayStation Portable (PSP), possibly the most forward-thinking portable gaming device ever created. In the seven-plus years of its existence the PSP has endured in a market dominated by the DS and transformed by smartphones and mobile tablets, with the competition getting fiercer by the minute (so much for Moore’s Law). And while it didn’t become the ‘Walkman’ of its time, it managed to post respectable hardware sales and accomplished something no other challenger to Nintendo’s mobile hegemony had done before – it survived.
Now comes the PlayStation Vita, Sony’s literal ‘next-generation portable’ device, to continue the PSP’s mission and secure Sony an active role in the mobile arena. Sony’s assumed a more subversive role with the Vita by marrying the best elements of a traditional gaming console with the functionality of a smartphone/tablet. With powerful tech and more buttons than it knows what to do with, calling the Vita a Frankenstein wouldn’t be a stretch, as it’s certainly a beast.
It’s hard not to be impressed with the Vita at first sight: the design may not have strayed that far from the PSP, but the Vita is sleeker, curvaceous, with the usual smudge-attracting guise dipped in glossy piano black housing the familiar PlayStation layout. Except it’s better-spaced this time around, with smaller face buttons and a vastly improved D-pad that may be the best Sony’s ever engineered – it feels and ‘clicks’ remarkably well. Perhaps the most significant additions are the dual mini-analog sticks, each more than capable of helping us forget the PSP’s controller layout.
Metallic power on/off and volume up/down buttons share space with the game card slot and – for 3G Vita models a SIM card slot sits on top, with a 3.5mm audio jack, expandable memory, and multiuse port on the bottom, the last two of which are propriety. Stereo speakers on the left and right sides and two 0.3 megapixel digital cameras occupy both the front and back along with a microphone, all housed in a plastic body that’s comfortable to hold thanks to recessed rubberized grips on the rear.
The improvements are also apparent from the overall build quality and right down to the smallest details, effectively matching the weight of the original PSP model (9.8 oz) yet feels a lot more solid and somehow lighter in your hands – though still not compact enough to fit in most people’s pockets.
The insides are packing serious heat as a quad-core CPU ARM processor (Cortex-A9) and another quad-core GPU (PowerVR SGX543MP4+) come together with 512MB of memory and yet another 128MB of VRAM to help round out this highly tuned beast of hardware. Many readers probably won’t understand what these specs truly mean, but it translates down to one thing: fine-tuned power. If you expect to put it to good use than you should also expect the battery to take a hit as the Vita’s average battery life is about a mere 3-5 hours with a full recharge taking about 90 minutes, you can recharge directly through USB also but I wouldn’t recommend it if speed is a priority.
Obviously the one feat I can’t get over is the screen and how gorgeous it is. It may only be 5” large diagonally but the OLED screen is one of the finest displays I’ve ever laid my eyes upon, with brilliant colors and contrast and black levels that put many high-end boutique HDTVs in their place. The only real competition would be Apple’s Retina Display, which is slightly smaller in diameter but packs a higher resolution and a few more pixels (640×960/326ppi) compared the Vita (960×544 qHD/220ppi). But the Vita’s screen isn’t just for looks as it also hosts some of the smoothest and most responsive capacitive multitouch yet, as does a second rear panel (which is adorned with hundreds of mini-signature PlayStation button icons), providing a second layer of touch fun for the rest of your fingers.
The front screen is incredibly smooth and responsive, but the effectiveness and/or actual need of the feature on the rear pad is hampered by its cumbersome position (flanked by the grips), wide dimensions, and unconventional purpose. I won’t be surprised developers left it as a novelty.
The stereo speakers do a average job of showcasing just how great many of the Vita’s launch games sound, and range from incoherent to annoying loud – though most probably won’t mind the speakers anyway. If you are picky a decent pair of headphones will circumvent the problem almost entirely, so it’s not really that much of an issue.
What can’t be fixed though are the two 0.3mp cameras, which don’t take the best pictures, even by smartphone standards. This might have been forgivable if you were able to take photos while chatting over PSN but you can’t even do that, as you’re only able to send pictures that are already in your album. While it’s nice to have yet another digital camera option available, they seem to have been added more for the sake of having another checklist feature, rather than make them an integral part of the Vita experience.
The initial configuration process was more prone to failure than I would have liked with several attempts to link to my PSN account resulted in my being stuck in a continuous loop and having to reboot the system, but once that was sorted it was onto the “Welcome Park”, where you’re treated to a main menu and UI that guarantees those nifty touchscreen(s) won’t go to waste. Sony’s familiar XrossMediaBar (XMB) is replaced with the new LiveArea, a more inviting and bubbly appearance that’s completely touch-based. Here you can arrange available apps and games based on preference and/or usefulness and can be accessed at any time when pressing the illuminated physical PS ‘home’ button.
It’s easy to tell where the inspiration for the smooth UI came from (it’s essentially a hybrid of the Wii/DS, music included, with a bit of smartphone thrown in for luck). The implementation on the surface is clever as each application has its own LiveArea (submenu) that serves as a gateway for related features and/or additional content, and multiple opened LiveAreas can be accessed by swiping left or right, or turned off by simply ‘peeling’ it off the screen. It’s quirky and fun, and just as pleasant to look at as it is to use, and I really enjoyed navigating through the various menus.
Categorizing your LiveArea bubbles will become second nature the more games you play, because oddly enough every PS Vita title has to be installed separately (yes, even game cards) and that eventually means a lot a bubbles to juggle on the main menu whether you’ve played those games recently or not. Strangely, it also doesn’t distinguish which game card is currently inserted, unlike the DS/3DS or PSP systems that utilizes a straightforward ‘game media’ space; we’ll never know why the Vita handles media in this manner but I deduce that inept forethought probably had something to do with it.
Before I really dive into any real gripes let’s get into the Vita most apparent strengths, which at this time is playing games that look, sound, and function almost exactly like full-sized PS3 games. Given the specs and abundance of controls this shouldn’t come as much of a surprise as the Vita is basically a home gaming console crammed into mid-sized portable. Games like Uncharted: Golden Abyss, Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3, and Dynasty Warriors Next are all great examples of this, some with competent online and cross-platform play with the PS3, no less, which in itself is worth admiring from a technical standpoint.
Backwards-compatibility with your existing PSP library is almost non-existent – obviously if you own a sizeable UMD library, with only a select number of titles from the past available as PSN downloads. A host of PS Minis and exclusive downloadable titles help round out the Vita’s current library for the ravenous gamer, but just don’t expect the cornucopia of causal titles and bite-sized variety that smartphone users enjoy. On paper it appears you’re getting the best of both worlds: blockbuster titles and attractively affordable mobile games, which could add up to a respectable library as more developers get onboard.
So what doesn’t the PS Vita do well? Apparently, like its predecessor it manages to provide an eclectic mix of astounding features that promise the world but only manage to do a passable job of standing out in an overpopulated multimedia market.
The PlayStation Store is pretty much as you’d expect, with the usual assortment of games to download, demos, and video titles to buy or rent. A new section would be Apps, which is curiously hidden deep within the Games section, and will presumably house all of the Vita’s future downloadable apps and services. At the time of this review only a handful were available, including all the ‘must-have’ ones as well as a few others. Sorry Sony, but extended warranties and protection plans are not ‘apps’.
Its sole movie streaming application, Netflix, ran without issue and looked great while doing so, while social apps like Twitter and Facebook will vary based on how often individual updates rollout. This isn’t the only chink in the Vita’s content-laden armor as its own web-browser is little more than a novelty at this point. Pages take eons to load and refresh and don’t expect to watch YouTube clips anytime soon as there’s no Flash support (and likely never will be), as well as no dedicated YouTube app, with only partial HTML5 support right now (not enough to watch streaming web-based videos though). Why Sony hasn’t adopted a more mobile-friendly browser option over their own is puzzling.
Our test unit came equipped with 3G/Wi-Fi and offers mobile broadband coverage and GPS through AT&T (with data limitations and monthly network fees), but the service is pretty limited. File sizes are limited to just 20MB and under, which means you won’t be downloading demos, videos, or doing any real-time multiplayer (asynchronous, or turn-based, is still available) gaming over 3G. We can’t figure out why anybody would willingly pay for this premium as basic – and mediocre – internet navigation and checking out your online trophies are the only real things that can be done on 3G.
Speaking of social interaction, chatting with friends over PSN is another issue we had. We discovered that while cross-platform instant messaging between a PlayStation 3 and a Vita is fairly simple, voice chat isn’t an option right now and perhaps never will be. We also took issue with how segmented the experience was when we did start a conversation with friends since you can either chat 1-on-1 in the ‘Friends’ LiveArea or through a group session via the ‘Party’ LiveArea, I wonder why these two similar apps are even apart to begin with.
Fortunately, the Vita is capable of cross-game voice chat where friends playing two different games can communicate with each other (where applicable), and the ‘Near’ app which locates fellow Vita users around you and finds out what they’ve been playing, which comes off as a more feature-rich, yet confusing, version of Nintendo’s similar StreetPass on the 3DS.
For such a powerful device the Vita doesn’t make the most agile device for heavy media playback, even though it’s more than capable of running a multitude of photo, music, and video formats since Sony is intent on enforcing their own approch. Rather than simply dragging and dropping your files between devices, the Vita requires installation and loading Sony’s propriety Content Manager Assistant to your PC before any type of transfer can happen. Couple this with a process that’s prone to failure, as well as having only one visible folder available for each media type, and a similarly restrictive protocol for the PS3 as well.
If you’re willing to put up with those hurdles then proprietary USB connections and memory cards are probably the least of your problems. Incredibly, these accessories come at a bizarre price since there’s no internal memory for storage whatsoever (a 4GB Vita memory card costs $24.99) and replace widely-accessible USB cables and equally near-proprietary Memory Sticks for no logical reason that I can comprehend.
The PlayStation Vita follows in the PSP’s footsteps by offering the most powerful and feature-packed handheld yet created, though one seemingly designed and built for hardcore gamer first and everyone else afterward, if at all. The screen is gorgeous, the controls responsive, and the new LiveArea touch interface is a interactive improvement over the XMB; you just won’t find this level of performance anywhere else. My only real complaints lay with the clunky implementation fundamentals are handled, mainly transfers between PC/PS3, as well as other quirks that seem imposed purposely by Sony. I like its niche appeal, but with its current firmware and relatively high price, it might be best to wait until the inevitable software patches and price-drops fix both of these issues. This is impressive hardware that’s destined for a long and healthy life, as long as Sony allows it.
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