The Sony PlayStation Vita is the spiritual successor to the PSP, which was launched almost seven years ago. But it's more than just a portable gaming machine, with two cameras, a web browser, Bluetooth, WiFi, and even optional 3G mobile data service from AT&T.
The Vita officially launched with a $250 WiFi-only model and a $300 3G/WiFi model. This review covers the First Edition bundle that released early with a 3G/WiFi Vita, a 4GB memory card, limited edition case, and a copy of Little Deviants.
While the Vita may be a handheld gaming console, it most definitely is not a pocketable one -- this device is very large. At 7 1/8-inches wide, 3 1/8 inches tall, and roughly 3/4 of an inch thick, it's slightly larger than the original PSP device, but not unbearably so. Surprisingly enough it doesn't feel all that big when you're actually using it, mainly because your eyes are so drawn to that gorgeous OLED screen that you're not thinking about anything else.
It's also surprisingly light; when I first tried a demo unit a couple of weeks ago, I was suspicious that it didn't have a full battery since it was designed to be tethered to an in-store display. When I received the retail device, however, I was pleased by just how light the Vita really is.
All of the edges are appropriately rounded, and it's comfortable to hold in your hands, even during longer gaming sessions. My fingers naturally find the grips on the back, and all of the controls are in reach. Though it is very large and you'll need a case or a gear bag to carry it around, I find the Vita to be elegantly designed and as sleek and slim as possible considering the large screen that dominates the front of the handheld.
The screen on the Vita is absolutely huge, and it's stunning. It's a 5-inch OLED touchscreen with a resolution of 960 x 544 that displays more than 16 million colors. While I was always pleased with the quality of the original PSP's display, the new Vita simply blows it away when it comes to clarity and brightness.
Text is extremely sharp and clear, colors are rich and saturated, and there's no pixelization to speak of. When you look extremely closely, you can see some slight jaggies around the edges of the icons on the home screen, but that's something you probably won't see unless you're looking for it specifically.
The touchscreen is quite accurate, and whether I was entering text on the virtual keyboard, scrolling up and down web pages, or playing a few rounds of Lumines or Touch My Katamari the touchscreen responded to my input exactly as expected.
The Vita has a virtual keyboard on its touchscreen display, and it works very well. The screen is large, so the buttons on the keyboard are big and there's enough space between the "keys" that I didn't have any problems with hitting the wrong ones.
The secondary keyboard with punctuation and numbers is accessible with a single tap, and I am really happy with its layout. The number keys are grouped together as on a numeric keypad or telephone, instead of being spread out across the entire top row of the keyboard. They're much faster and easier to use that way.
One very slight disappointment-there's no caps lock function, or else I haven't found it yet. I was hoping that a double tap on the shift key would turn on caps lock, but it doesn't, meaning that you have to hit the shift key every single time you want to capitalize a letter. That's something that could be easily fixed with a future firmware update, and I hope that they do.
Other Buttons & Controls
There's a lot to talk about here, because one of the things that sets the Vita apart is all of the buttons and controls that make gaming so much more precise than you can hope for in a touch-only interface.
Starting at the top of the device, you'll find the power button, the the slots for Vita game cards and memory cards, followed by the volume up and down buttons. The clear buttons on each side of the top are the left and right triggers, and they feel nice -- tight without being difficult to activate.
On the bottom of the Vita you'll see the charge/sync port (yes, it's proprietary), the headphone jack, and the SIM card slot (if you purchased the 3G model). All of the card slots, the SIM card slot here on the bottom and the game and memory card slots on the top, are covered by small doors that are permanently attached. They're slightly difficult to pry open with a fingernail, but then again the only card you'll likely be changing on a regular basis is the game card.
The front of the device is where all of the gaming action takes place, so there are lots of buttons and controls there. The D-pad is on the left with the traditional PlayStation buttons on the right, with the dual analog sticks on each side, just below the buttons. Like the shoulder triggers, the face buttons are tight and responsive, and "clicky" rather than mushy. They are very small, all things considered, but they work well and I haven't had any trouble with unintended consequences during gameplay.
The PlayStation button is one you'll be using a lot -- to switch between apps, to wake the device from sleep, and so on. Like the select and start buttons on the right hand side, it's flush-mounted with the front of the Vita itself. That low profile design is attractive, but can make finding those buttons in a hurry somewhat frustrating. That's especially true for the start button, which also doubles as the pause button as well.
The back of the Vita has grips on each side for your fingers, but most of the back is made up of the rear touchpad. It takes a little getting used to at first; the hard part is of course synchronizing your use of the rear touchpad with what's happening on the front of the screen. But once you get the hang of it you'll find that it has the potential to revolutionize portable gameplay. Some titles use the additional input only a little, as on the case of Escape Plan, where you sometimes need to poke your character into action, or in Lumines, where you can recharge a special power by drumming your fingers on the rear touch panel. Other games make more extensive use of it, such as in Little Deviants and ModNation Racers.
All PS Vita hardware purchases come with an AC adapter, power cord, and USB cable. Since the connector is proprietary, you will have to use the charger that comes with the device unless and until third-party developers start making compatible accessories. Depending on the bundle you purchase, you'll also receive a memory card (which is a necessity for game saves and media), a carrying case, a game, or a free month of 3G service from AT&T.
While the XrossMediaBar on the old PSP was revolutionary in its time, the Sony PlayStation Vita has an entirely redesigned user interface. The home screen shows all of the apps and games on your Vita, making it much faster to find what you're looking for. Rather than scrolling through long lists of items, you just touch an icon to start an app or a game.
That single touch launches the "Live Area" for each app, which can include links to a user manual if appropriate, as well as the latest news, player rankings, and leaderboards, as well as a direct link to any downloadable content available on the PlayStation Store.
Pressing the blue PlayStation button on the lower left corner of the Vita takes you back to the appropriate live area, and pressing it again brings up a screen that shows all of the running apps and games. A single touch on any of the six panels takes you to that particular app, and even if you have several apps or games running at once there isn't any discernible slowdown, thanks to the ARM Cortex-A9 quad-core processor that powers the Vita.
Be sure to check out Welcome Park, which is a comprehensive set of tutorials that introduce you to all of the features of the PS Vita, complete with several trophies that you can earn for completing minigames that relate to the touchscreen, motion control, camera, and microphone.
Special mention must also be made of the PlayStation Store, which has been reorganized and optimized for the Vita. The homescreen categories are quick and simple, whether you're looking for the latest Vita games, legacy PSP games, or PlayStation mini titles. All content is now grouped by game, so if you're looking for everything associated with a particular title you'll find trailers, gameplay videos, and downloadable content all in once place. That's a big improvement over the PlayStation Store layout on the PS3, and hopefully a hint at what the home console will get in the future.
WiFi works great, though the Vita is not compatible with networks that are secured with WPA Enterprise security -- bad news for all of you corporate types who might want to get in a little gaming on your lunch hour. WEP and WPA are fine, however.
The Vita does have Bluetooth support, although it works only with headphones and headsets, not with keyboards or mice.
When it comes to mobile data, you have your choice of several DataConnect plans from AT&T, s
tarting at $14.99 for 250 MB and going all the way up to $50 for 5 GB. These are no-contract plans good for one month each, automatically recurring or not depending on your preference.
The 3G process sign up process is needlessly frustrating, but thankfully that task only has to be performed once. One word of warning -- if you already have an AT&T DataConnect plan for another device (such as an iPad) be sure to use a different email address when you start the sign up process on the Vita. If you use the same address you won't know anything is wrong until the last step of the process (after filling in your address, credit card number, etc.), which will force you to start the entire process over again.
The social networking experience promises to be a good one, though the official Facebook and Twitter apps weren't yet available when this review was being written. While this may come as a shock, Facebook and Twitter aren't the only ways to be social in the virtual sense, and it's obvious that the good folks at Sony have given this aspect of the Vita a lot of thought.
Every Vita comes with near, the self-described "geosocial" app that lets you see what other folks around you are playing. You can make new PSN friends in real life and find cool new games. Even in this pre-launch period, with the only folks to have a Vita those willing to pay a premium price for the First Edition bundle, I still found 12 people within four miles of my office. You can set up to five private zones in the near app so that your PSN identity and recently played games don't show up in particular places such as your home or office.
Party is where you'll go for cross-game chat via voice or text. While the app works no matter what feature of the Vita you're presently using, it also helps to facilitate online play by connecting you with your PSN friends. There's also a Group Messaging app, and if you're looking for bragging rights, the Trophy app is where you'll go to compare trophies with your friends.
There's no dedicated email app, though the web browser is very nice and could serve as a potential substitute if you have web access to your email. It didn't work very well with Gmail, since it wouldn't scroll down to the bottom of my inbox or to the bottom of a message once it was opened, but it worked great with my corporate Exchange account. This is an area where the Vita could stand for some improvement.
Other than the Gmail-specific issue, scrolling through web pages is smooth and fast, and the widescreen display lends itself to easy reading of online news articles since you can get more than four words per line. Pinch to zoom also works well, so you can zoom in on portions of the screen when necessary.
There's no official word about Flash support, though I found it interesting that when I tried a couple of Flash sites I wasn't told to install Flash, as I would have expected, but that I needed to upgrade my Flash player -- it could be that the Vita does have some sort of Flash capability that isn't quite working yet, and may be added in a future firmware upgrade.
Let's be honest here -- you don't buy the Vita because you're looking for something to increase your professional productivity. Having said that, the Vita isn't completely unproductive; in addition to the rather capable web browser mentioned above, it also comes with a mapping application based on Google Maps. The 3G model includes GPS functionality and a digital compass, so it's easy to determine where you are and to search for local points of interest.
Results are quick and accurate. You can also get walking or driving directions, but not for public transit. You can also set your own flags if you like, and optionally get traffic information where it is available, though that will tend to burn through your monthly data allotment more quickly.
The gaming experience is simply excellent, which is nothing less than you would expect from a device that carries the PlayStation name. The large, brilliant screen, touch capabilities, dual analog sticks, buttons, shoulder triggers, and rear touchpad all come together with great developers to create immersive gameplay possibilities, whether you prefer the action of Drake's Fortune, the musical puzzles of Lumines, stylish racing of Wipeout, or platforming fun with Rayman.
There are already quite a few Vita games available, with more coming in the near future. In addition to Vita games, the device is also capable of playing legacy PSP games and will (in the future) work with PlayStation One classic titles. Please note however that PSP games must be downloaded from the PSN store; that's great if you previously bought them as digital downloads, but those who purchased physical copies on UMD disks are out of luck unless they want to purchase the digital version.
The music and video players are relatively bare bones in comparison to the Vita's gaming functionality, which should come as no surprise. They're capable, but they don't compare to all the bells and whistles that you'd expect to see on an iPod, for example. The music player supports MP3, AAC, and WAVE files, while the video player supports MP4, AAC, and H.264. You can sort by artist or album in the music player, or choose your most recently played or your most recently added songs. There's an equalizer too, which provides heavy, pop, jazz, and unique options.
The speakers were slightly disappointing, with insufficient volume at low or medium settings, and some distortion at the highest sound setting. Obviously the experience with headphones is far, far better, though there's another option. If you get the optional cradle it includes a line out feature, and if you connect your desktop speakers to the Vita you'll find that it's capable of room-filling sound that is more than enough to power your next gathering of fr
The photo and video apps are similarly generic, each with one extra feature. You can play a slideshow of images if you like, and in the video player you can search for particular scenes with intervals of 30 seconds or 1, 2, or 5 minutes.iends.
The Vita is equipped with dual cameras, but don't get your hopes up too high--they're included mainly to support augmented reality gaming, not your shutterbug habit. You'll find that photos taken with the Vita can help you capture a moment you might otherwise have missed, but it takes quite a while to save each photo to the memory card. And since they are of relatively low quality, you'd likely be better off reaching for your cellphone instead -- assuming that it has a decent camera.
The rear camera is capable of taking video, and while you won't be making any Oscar-worthy movies with it, the quality is a bit better than for still photos (reminiscent of the iPod Touch) and the frame rate is smooth.
You'll need to install the free Content Manager Assistant software on your Mac or PC in order to transfer photos and music between the Vita and your computer. It works well enough, and does make things easier, though you'll have to specify a single directory for each type of content, including backups of game saves. I'm not sure if it's a piracy-prevention measure or just Sony's idea of simplifying data transfer, but those used to the ability to plug & play and then explore the PSP's full directory structure might be in for a surprise.
The rated battery life for the Vita seems very short -- just three to five hours of gaming, five hours of video, and nine hours of music. In real life however, it performs much better than that. I was able to play Lumines for almost seven hours (not all in one sitting!) before I got a low battery warning, and was able to play for another hour after that warning before I finally had to plug in the Vita to recharge. Of course it helps that I turn off what I'm not using, like Bluetooth and 3G data, but I always leave WiFi on for PSN trophy synchronization, friend requests, and the like.
If you're planning to take the Vita on an international flight you will likely need a backup battery of some kind, but for daily use out and about the battery should be up to the task, just be sure to plug it in overnight so it will be ready to go for the next day.
Of course the real question here is whether you should buy the Sony PlayStation Vita, and the answer is "it depends." If you're already a Sony fanboy (or girl!) who idolizes Kevin Butler, you've likely been drooling over the Vita for several months now and may even have already picked up the First Edition bundle.
If, however, you don't consider yourself a real gamer, and are happy enough with a couple of rounds of Sudoku or Tiny Tower on your iPhone each day, the Vita may not be right for you. It's a true beast in all of the best senses of the word -- great hardware, spectacular screen, and an impressive library of games already available at launch, but it also comes with a relatively high price tag for a dedicated gaming device with a few non-gaming features.
In other words, the Sony PS Vita is the true gamer's handheld. It's for people who want deep, rich gameplay challenges and PSN exclusive games without compromising on graphics or controls. If you loved the PSP back in the day and you're ready to step up to something new, try the Vita.
You can save a few bucks by getting the WiFi-only model, but to get the full experience go ahead and get the 3G model so that you can take advantage of anytime, anywhere multi-player gaming along with the near app and GPS capabilities.
Whether you're an RPG fan, an adventure gamer, a die hard racer, or even a fan of quirky Japanese games like Touch My Katamari, the Vita has something for every gamer and is well worth the investment.