E3 2011: Sony PlayStation Vita Hands On

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Sony went into E3 with an NGP, but came out with a PlayStation Vita when it officially named the second-generation PSP. Judging from the crowd gathered around Sony’s booth and long lines of eager attendees waiting for hands-on time with the Vita, it might just be the next must-have handheld gaming console.

I was one of the many braving the lines, and after four hours of waiting, I was able to demo the Vita and its unique control schemes.

Sony on Script
PS VitaUnfortunately, Sony reps were on a strict script and not able to comment on the 3G AT&T connectivity announced at Sony’s press conference (the AT&T announcement garnered audible groans from attendees). In fact, they wouldn’t even let me take pictures of the device. But the Vita’s many and varied control schemes were on full and proud display, and they borrow elements from concept smartphones I’ve seen in the past.

The most striking is a large rear touchpad that I last saw on the Synpatics Fuse concept device at CES 2010. For the demo, I used the rear touchpad to guide a ball around obstacles by “pushing up” the ground under it. The touch-to-screen-action ratio seemed one-to-one in the demo, and proved effective. I was able to comfortably navigate across the screen with my right index finger while maintaining my grip on the Vita. I don’t think the rear touchpad will ever take the place of the touchscreen (you still have to see what you are tapping, after all), but it makes for an interesting control alternative.

Great Hardware
What will really set the PlayStation Vita apart is the hardware. The five-inch display looked amazing, especially in showing off Uncharted, which Sony seems to be angling as the must-have launch title. Sony previously revealed the resolution as 960 x 544, which is high, but not exceptionally so (the five-inch Dell Streak has a 800 x 480 resolution). Still, the colors looked great and the textures impressed for a handheld.

The main display touch sensitivity was hit and miss. Most taps in registered, but I had to double tap a few times, and swipes presented issues. I’m sure I wasn’t playing with the final hardware, though, and I’m confident Sony is still at work on the capacitive touch display before launch. Also, Sony reps wouldn’t comment on the number of touchpoints the Vita registers, but I did use at least two while playing Little Big Planet.

PS VitaThe Vita is large too, with plenty of real estate surrounding the display. Don’t expect to slip it in your pocket unless you are wearing cargos. In contrast to the size, it’s light, and feels very much like a plastic handheld. The buttons also seemed a little loose, especially the shoulder bumpers  Again, though, I probably wasn’t handling a final build, not to mention the fact that I demoed the Vita on day three of the show, well after the unit had been handled by countless show attendees.

Sony showed off the PS Vita’s rear-camera augmented reality capabilities through a hunting and shooting game. This also impressed. I’m a sucker for augmented reality and it seems Sony is keen on exploiting it and all the Vita?s features, or at least in demoing their potential.

Finally, the Vita will be relatively inexpensive. The Wi-Fi unit will cost $250, while the 3G Vita will cost $300 when both launch in time for the holiday season.

Even though Sony did not demo the social media or location-based elements mentioned at the PlayStation Vita unveiling, it looks like the Vita will be a winner. It doesn’t sport any bizarre or novel elements (that’s Nintendo’s game), but it’s a combination of great hardware and cool features wrapped up in an attractive price point.



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