Sony PlayStation Vita Review

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Sony PlayStation Vita

“In terms of gaming, the Vita is a beast. Nothing handheld even comes close.”
  • Beautiful OLED display
  • Responsive touchscreen
  • Dual analog sticks
  • Powerful hardware means huge potential
  • Weak battery life
  • Browser lacks Flash or HTML5 support
  • Hidden costs boost the price

If there were really any question before this, let’s go ahead and settle it right now: The PlayStation Vita is a much better piece of hardware than the Nintendo 3DS. That doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll enjoy it more, but in terms of hardware specs, there is really no comparison.

The Vita is first and foremost a gaming system — and a good one at that — but also capable of a lot more. If you took the gaming capabilities away from the 3DS, it becomes almost useless. If you did the same for the Vita, you would be left with what amounts to a passable tablet, just without many apps.

Compared to some of the other portable devices on the market, the Vita isn’t quite on the level of the high-end tablets, but it can hold its own. When you add in the gaming — which, of course, is the focus of the Vita — the device shines.

Video overview

 

The look and design

There has actually been a fair amount of talk about the feel of the Vita. Some think that it feels a bit cheap and flimsy, while others look at it as streamlined. The truth is somewhere in the middle.

The case is primarily hard plastic, which is the reason for the dispute, but it is also the reason that the device is so lightweight: The 3G version weighs only 280g (9.84 ounces, while the Wi-Fi-only version is even less, at 260g.

Compared to previous PSP design, the Vita shows a marked improvement. The awkward angles have been removed and replaced with rounded corners that make far more sense than the uncomfortable ridges on the early PSPs.

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The gray protective bar surrounding the Vita may be where the contention over the “cheap” design comes from. It’s made of plastic, but from a distance it appears to be metallic. Making the plastic a darker color to match the body would have alleviated the confusion, but it would also make it look even more like the PSP. (The bar is probably there as much for aesthetic purposes as anything.) It’s a minor issue.

The Vita measures just 3.29 inches high, 7.2 inches wide, and 0.73 inches deep. It isn’t bulky, but it is slightly too big to fit in most normal pockets. It’s slim and lightweight enough to easily fit in cargo pants pockets, and won’t weigh you down if you put it in your backpack. Not that we would recommend it without some protection. Letting your Vita bounce around in a backpack could cause damage to it — at the very least scratching of the screen. A case or protective sleeve is a must. Protective casings to put Vitas in are going to be coming soon, and when they come out, they will be almost a necessity. In general the Vita doesn’t feel fragile, but dropping it will likely cause more than a few hearts to stop.

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If anything, Sony could have made the Vita a bit taller to make the grip feel a bit more comfortable. After a while, the shape might cause your hand to cramp up. This is more of a personal gripe, but probably not an uncommon one.

The Vita is the first handheld gaming system to feature dual analog sticks on the front. The standard four-button configuration on the right side of the device and the D-pad on the left are also both present, along with two trigger buttons adorning the top of the device. One unique feature of the Vita is the trackpad on the back, which is roughly the same size as the OLED screen on the front — a deliberate design for gameplay reasons. Using the touchpad works well, but its utility will come down to the software, and how developers use it. It’s almost impossible to not accidentally touch it while gripping the Vita, so hopefully developers will take that into account.

Sound and display

Whether you are playing games on it or watching video, the Vita is built around the display. The OLED screen measures 5 inches across diagonally, adopts a standard 16:9 ratio, and displays an impressive 960 x 544 pixels, with around 16 million colors. And did we mention it’s a touchscreen? This is arguably the best-looking handheld device display on the market.

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One downside is the reflective plastic of the screen, which makes watching video in sunlight — or really any bright direct light — difficult. The screen also seems to both attract dust and smudges. If you commonly use any touchscreens, you should be used to this.

The front stereo speakers are surprisingly loud — more so than some laptops — but not nearly enough to overcome the ambient sounds of most busy areas. Fortunately, the headphone output is loud enough that you can rely on a robust audio presentation in stereo.

Software

If you own a PlayStation 3, then you should feel right at home with the software—including the stream of updates you can expect. In fact, the first time you connect online you should expect an update, possibly two. Of course these updates are a good thing, especially when they eliminate glitches and security holes, but they can be a tad annoying.

The UI is simplified, and moderately intuitive. Each time you open a program then switch to another, the first program remains open in a window to the side, leaving them in a standby mode. You can easily hop back in with the swipe of a finger. You will need to exit out of active processes you have going (like playing games), but it’s a smooth interface, and feels similar to many of the top mobile interfaces on the market today.

Beyond that, the Sony software is typical Sony, meaning nothing is quite as easy as you might hope. Connecting the Vita to a PC to transfer content should be a simple matter of having the PC recognize the device and see the folders within. Instead, you need to download a content manager, install it, then use that to transfer content over to your Vita using the Vita’s video, music, or photo apps.

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This unnecessarily cumbersome process forces you to use Sony’s interface, which isn’t the smoothest to begin with. The music transfer is easy enough, and the Vita accepts MP3, MP4, AAC, and WAV files. But video files are especially problematic, because the Vita will only accept your MPEG-4 and H.264 files. If you have a lot of video already on your computer, this is a problem. The lack of .AVI compatibility is especially aggravating.

The Vita is all about melding with the PlayStation 3. That includes access to the PlayStation Store and all the content it offers — which is a lot. The PS Store UI remains true to itself, so browsing can be a chore. But once you find what you are looking for, downloading and playing the game or video is easy.

Preloaded on the Vita are a handful of Vita-specific programs, including the PS Store, Party (where you can join with friends online to chat and play games online), Near (which allows you to recognize nearby Vita users), a photo app (which allows video recording now), and Google Maps.

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Several high-profile programs are on the way as well. Netflix, Twitter, Skype, and Facebook will all be available on launch, presumably through a system update.

The overall Vita UI feels a bit awkward at times, but is generally solid and easy to use. The main OS allows a lot of customization, and things like changing the background to a specific color or a personal photo are a nice touch. The more you use the Vita though, especially with games, the tougher it becomes to navigate. Every time you load a new game on to the system, it creates an icon on the main page. You still need the physical game to actually play it, but the icon will remain. The icons can be deleted easily enough, but once you start playing multiple titles, they become an unnecessarily bulky addition to the main launch screen. Having the option of creating a separate folder with the game icons, or any unused software, would have been nice. Not a big deal, but weird.

The built-in Web browser currently features cookies, JavaScript, and displays full webpages rather than mobile, but despite early hints from Sony, it does not currently support Flash or HTML5. Both are an option in the future via firmware updates, but neither are accessible now — which is a shame — but par for the course with handheld devices.

Hardware

The Vita comes with a front- and a rear-facing camera, both of which feature lowly 0.3-megapixel (VGA) sensors.

The photo quality isn’t great, and most smartphones these days snap much better shots. The lack of a flash also means that the images taken are limited to well-lit areas. Video recordings are passable, but again, most smartphones do it better.

There are two main benefits to the cameras, even though they are weak: First, the cameras can be used with games. There are already a few instances where the Vita uses augmented reality, and you can expect more in the future. The second good argument for the cameras is the inclusion of Skype, which is due on launch.

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The Vita will launch with two models, a $250 Wi-Fi-only unit, and a $299 Wi-Fi/3G model that will use AT&T’s network (data plans may vary in cost, but should range between $15 and $30 per month). At the time of this review, the 3G SIM cards were not available for testing. We’ll update the review when they are and make any necessary changes.

Wi-Fi connectivity on the built-in 802.11b/g/n card was surprisingly solid, and I had very few issues with dropped signals. Gaming while using the Wi-Fi was also respectable, and while lag was an occasional issue, it was a minor one. The Vita also features Bluetooth support, which makes chatting through a headset while gaming simple.

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The Vita has an undisclosed amount of internal memory at its disposal, but it is relatively small and requires you to use proprietary Vita memory cards for any information that needs to be saved, which are sold separately. These seem to be standard microSD cards — with the exception of the price. Sony offers four sizes: 4GB for $24.99, 8GB card for $34.99, 16GB card for $59.99, and 32GB card for $99.99. To put that pricing in perspective, you can find standard 32GB microSD cards for as little as $30. The memory is overpriced, but at the moment there is no alternative, and you need the memory to really use your Vita properly.

Oddly, there is no video output either. This was likely a sacrifice to keep the Vita lightweight and avoid another bulky port.

Gaming

Putting aside the interface, the programs, and all the other bells and whistles the Vita offers, the device is made for handheld gaming first and foremost. In this, it succeeds.

Like with any new piece of gaming hardware, a launch is only as good as the games that go with it — a lesson Nintendo learned to its chagrin with the poor launch window of the 3DS. With over 25 games due out now and in the first few weeks of the Vita’s launch (many of them being franchise titles), the Vita should have more than enough to offer right out of the gate. And like any new gaming hardware launch, the early games only hint at the potential of the device. That potential is high.

There has been a lot of talk over the nature of the Vita’s connection to the PS3. Some games will allow you to play on your PS3, then switch to your Vita. These games will need to specifically feature that ability. There are also some ports of existing PS3 games which are fairly faithfully transferred to the Vita. The games are not at the graphical or technical level of the PS3, but they’re impressively close. In fact, some of the graphics appear to be close to early PS3 titles.

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It will probably take about a year before we begin to see the true potential of the Vita’s hardware, as developers learn the new system and find ways to squeeze the most out of the device. We are more than five years into the life cycle of the PS3, and developers are still finding ways to improve the efficiency of their games, so the Vita will take a while to hit its stride. And what a stride it will be.

While the Vita isn’t quite at the PS3 level, it’s well past the PS2, and can handle more than you would expect from a slim, lightweight device. Everything else included in the Vita is merely an excuse to make it appeal to as wide an audience as possible. This is a gaming device made for hardcore gamers.

The games themselves come on “PlayStation Vita cards,” which are similar to flash memory cards, but unique to the Vita. You simply insert them in a slot at the top, located under a (annoyingly difficult to open) cover. The main reason for this move to physical media is to combat piracy. The UMDs of the PSP are long gone, but there will be backwards compatibility, and most PSP games can be downloaded to the Vita through the PS Store.

The games look crisp and clean. Ported games like Rayman Origins and Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 both look incredibly close to their console counterparts. The frame rate is good, and the CPU can handle a lot of action. The loading is still fairly long, since it is coming from flash memory, but that should improve.

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Some games take more advantage of things like the touchscreen and rear trackpad, while others are still trying to figure out what to make of it. That’s not a reflection of the hardware, though. Given time, developers will certainly think of clever ways to make the most of all the Vita has to offer.

Dual analog sticks were important additions that give the Vita a sizeable advantage over all other portable gaming devices. The range of motion and location of the sticks won’t give you quite as much flexibility as a standard controller, but they remain a huge plus. Despite my own occasional hand cramps, the device responds well and feels good.

The Vita also contains the same six-axis technology found in a DualShock controller, as well as a three-axis electronic compass.

In terms of gaming, the Vita is a beast. Nothing handheld even comes remotely close.

Check out our individual reviews of the vita launch title games, which will be posted separately.

Battery

When it comes to handheld devices, one of the biggest issues these days is without question the battery life. It has gotten to the point where a strong battery is a selling point on its own. The iPad’s reported 10-hour battery life is an advantage that Apple has leveraged extremely well, and that fact alone is enough for people to choose the Apple tablet over competitors. Battery life is a big deal, and the Vita’s battery life is an issue.

The standby mode keeps the battery respectably fresh, but playing a game with the Wi-Fi on will drain the battery dry in around four hours. Watching a movie will allow you to squeeze out a bit more life, but if you are running an app, the Vita will probably max out at around five hours. You can turn the brightness down, the volume low, the Wi-Fi off, and so on to keep things going a bit longer, but the battery is a downside.

Fortunately for Sony, a lot of high-tech hardware share the same issue. Consumers are used to a poor battery, which should give Sony a bit of a pass. It is still painfully short, though. The battery is also built into the Vita, meaning that users can’t remove it (another anti-piracy measure). The device charges quickly enough using a USB or AC adapter, but for long trips it will only get you a bit of the way.

Conclusion

If your primary reason for considering the PlayStation Vita is for games, you won’t be disappointed. All my main issues with the Vita were all unrelated to the gaming.

The Vita is the next big gaming device, but it is not the next big gadget for a few reasons. The price is already on the high side, but adding in the hidden costs of things like the proprietary memory cards makes the Vita tough to justify if you are on a strict budget. The weak cameras and lack of Flash or HTML5 also hold the device back, as do the limitations on the video files.

You need to consider all of these issues when looking at the Vita. It is like a tablet, but it is not one. It is similar to a smartphone, but in a different class. If, however, you are looking for a gaming system that towers over the rest, Sony’s PlayStation Vita is the device for you.

Highs:

  • Beautiful OLED display
  • Responsive touchscreen
  • Dual analog sticks
  • Powerful hardware means huge potential

Lows:

  • Weak battery life
  • Browser lacks Flash or HTML support
  • Hidden costs boost the price

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