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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.