If you're a "true" gamer who is always on the move, you may enjoy the games that are available on your smartphone or tablet but still long for something more -- better graphics, richer stories, tougher challenges, or your favorite characters and series from dedicated home consoles. The Nintendo 3DS ($170) and the Sony PlayStation Vita ($250 Wi-Fi or $299 Wi-Fi/3G) are dedicated portable gaming devices that have a great deal to offer, but there are several questions to consider when choosing the right one for your needs.
Build & Design
The two handheld consoles have completely different design philosophies; aside from the fact that they're both available in black, they couldn't be more different. The Nintendo 3DS is more kid-friendly (though certainly not childish) with a folding design, and it is very lightweight. It's small enough to fit in your back pocket, making it easy to carry around. Though I haven't been particularly abusive when it comes to any of the Nintendo handhelds over the years, I haven't treated them with kid gloves either; Nintendo has a reputation for making bulletproof hardware that lasts over the long haul.
By contrast, the PlayStation Vita is both heavier and more delicate. The front is dominated by the large 5-inch OLED display, and the back by the large rear touch panel, so you'll most likely want to keep it in a case while you're flitting about town. It won't comfortably fit in any pocket, so a gear bag or backpack is also required. Aside from minor portability issues, the Vita is well made and seems sturdy enough. I wouldn't necessarily hand it to a clumsy 8 year old, but if treated reasonably well, it should last long enough for you to want an upgrade to the next big thing.
Display and Keyboard
Do you think 3D is the coolest new display tech, or would you rather feast your eyes on a giant (relatively speaking) 5-inch OLED display? Both the 3DS and the PlayStation Vita have cutting-edge displays, but they can't be directly compared. They are just too different.
Until I tried the 3DS for myself, I had dismissed the 3D display as a mere gimmick, something that didn't add much to the Mobile Gaming experience and therefore wasn't worthy of my upgrade dollars. After I borrowed one from a friend for the purpose of this review, however, I was entirely hooked (and ended up buying one for myself). The display on the 3DS may be smaller than the Vita, but the 3D effects really do work very well without glasses, and they add an immersive quality to the gaming experience.
Having said that, the Vita is also a winner in this category, because the larger screen is simply gorgeous. It's bright, sharp, and capable of some truly jaw-dropping visuals. Sometimes bigger is really better, and I couldn't imagine playing Uncharted on a smaller screen.
Since both devices have Touchscreen keyboards where necessary, the Vita wins based solely on screen size and therefore ease-of-use. The letter keys are large enough that you can hit them easily with a finger. Even with a stylus, letters on the virtual keyboard of the 3DS are sometimes very, very difficult to hit accurately, which sometimes leads to a frustrating experience.
Other Buttons and Controls
The 3DS has a circle pad and d-pad on the left, and a set of X/Y/A/B buttons on the right, plus two small trigger buttons on either side of the display, along the spine. If you want a second circle pad (which allows left-handed controls for games like Kid Icarus, or a more console-like control scheme for games like Resident Evil) you'll need a $20 add-on: the Circle Pad Pro. It's a GameStop-exclusive accessory that snaps onto the bottom of the 3DS and adds a second Circle Pad on the right, plus larger shoulder buttons. It adds some bulk to the device, but is nicely designed. One other plus in the 3DS's favor: it also uses the same charger as the original DSi, and works well with third party chargers like Gomadic's Quad Charger with TipExchange.
Unfortunately the same isn't true of the PlayStation Vita, which is significantly longer than the 3DS due to its larger screen, and somewhat more delicate due to the rear touch panel. It also isn't very travel friendly, requiring a charging brick and two cables -- like the PSP Go before it, the Vita will not work with any third-party charger, even using the proprietary USB cable that comes with the device. It will charge only via the included charger or when attached to a computer, which is a major negative for gamers on the go.
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