Review: Sony PlayStation Vita

Sony aims for the fences in mobile gaming. (March 4th, 2012)

Many had written off Sony from the mobile gaming arena not long into the PSP's history: high prices and a lack of major games kept it on the sidelines as the Nintendo DS took over. Apple and Google have seemingly been poised to deliver a killing blow with much better general abilities and cheaper games. The PlayStation Vita, then, is a chance at redemption. We'll gauge in our PS Vita review whether it has accomplished that goal or at least made a valiant effort.

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Product Manufacturer: Sony

Price: $249 (Wi-Fi), $299 (3G)

The Good

  • Good design and build quality.
  • Beautiful OLED display.
  • Visually ahead of the curve versus phones and most tablets.
  • Solid launch title lineup; both casual and deep games.
  • Both immediate and future clever game controls.
  • 3G option with GPS.
  • Capable if unspectacular media playback.

The Bad

  • May not be easy to justify next to a smartphone.
  • Battery life is merely average.
  • Large for smaller hands and some pockets.
  • So-so cameras.
  • Browser has some bugs.

Many had written off Sony from the mobile gaming arena not long into the PSP's history: high prices and a lack of major games kept it on the sidelines as the Nintendo DS took over. Apple and Google have seemingly been poised to deliver a killing blow with much better general abilities and cheaper games. The PlayStation Vita, then, is a chance at redemption. We'll gauge in our PS Vita review whether it has accomplished that goal or at least made a valiant effort.

Ergonomics and design

When Sony released the original PSP (PSP-1000), it was at a time when the company was still sparing no cost in building the best products, using the best available materials. The PSP was no exception: it was extremely well-made and was cutting-edge, if a little on the heavy side. Subsequent iterations (PSP-2000, PSP-3000) varied in build quality as the company started to feel the pinch financially, and we feared somewhat for the capability of its next-generation console.

The PS Vita, thankfully, is an excellent piece of hardware. The build-quality, fit and finish is at least close to Apple's products, even if it uses predominantly plastic materials. The device feels good in the hand and is surprisingly light for its size. It's substantially larger than the original PSP, however, to accommodate the larger five-inch display (more on this later). Sony's recent products, such as the Tablet S and Xperia arc, may have retained Sony's flair for design but also conveyed a sense of being built to a price. In contrast, the PS Vita has managed to keep the presentation you would expect from a Sony gadget. However, it's possibly prone to easy scratching and nicks, and we suggest users seriously consider the purchase of some sort of case to protect the Vita when it's not in use.





The analog sticks (finally including a second pad), D-pad, and face buttons feel solid and convey good feel and feedback, while the general construction and materials used feel robust and look built to withstand the rigors of everyday use. You won't quite get the sheer precision of a much larger Dual Shock 3 analog stick, though. Some of the buttons have an Apple-like appearance including the volume controls, which are reminiscent of the iPhone 4 with their plus and minus symbols, as well as the look of the power button, which is like a miniature version of a MacBook Pro power button. While the device is definitely something of a fingerprint magnet, it's nothing that a soft cloth can't easily take care of when needed.

The PS Vita has covered every major angle (if not necessarily in new ways) when it comes to picking how you play. Along with the traditional controls, the console offers a capacitive touchscreen, six-axis motion control (incorporating a gyroscope and accelerometer), a touchpad on the rear. However, it also retains the traditional joystick, D-pad, two shoulder buttons and four face buttons of the original PSP design. We honestly found the second analog stick to be the most vital of these: having real run-and-gun control in a showcase game like Uncharted: Golden Abyss is worth more than motion or rear touch, which both tend to be more novelties.



There are several flaps that conceal several slots and ports. On the top are two flaps, one for PS Vita games and one for peripherals. On the left hand side of our 3G-enabled device is a SIM card slot, while underneath the device is a small slot for Sony's (unfortunately) proprietary memory card as well as proprietary port for power and data transfers over USB, as well as a small microphone. On the rear is the new touchpad, marked with PlayStation brand 'X' and 'O' symbols; while you have to be careful not to accidentally grab the pad, we didn't find it hard to stay clear of those, although there was a risk of hitting the power button at the top.





The memory card issue is Sony's real stumbling block. Not only do the cards cost more, owing ostensibly to security but likely also profit margins, but they're virtually necessary. While games can theoretically include space to save data, that isn't really true of the current crop of titles, and many titles consider the card an absolute requirement. It's a way of masking the real price of the system, and we'd wish that Sony would at least bundle a card as a matter of course.

Display

It's obvious that Sony has made a real effort to make the PS Vita absolutely cutting-edge. The use of a five-inch OLED display that uses a true RGB pixel layout (as opposed to "fuzzy" Pentile) at a resolution of 960x544 is perhaps the most obvious sign of the effort that Sony has taken with the PS Vita. Instead of cost-cutting, the company has gone all out, and users are much better off for it. The display is nothing short of spectacular, which it should be for a high-end handheld.

Whites look white and blacks are pure, making for excellent contrast. Although we're still of the view that an IPS (in-plane switching) LCD panel offers the best overall color reproduction, the vibrant PS Vita display is a knockout and especially well-suited to the elevated color levels of games. Its pixel density is also good, at 220 pixels per inch, and individual pixels are barely noticeable during general use, even if they're not as ultra-dense as on the iPhone 4S or Galaxy Nexus. Viewing angles are excellent, as you'd expect with OLED. The display also works very well both indoors and outdoors, where it's sufficiently bright enough to offset and display glare. We think users will find the display a real highlight, and it's a clear point of difference between an iPod touch or smartphone that might give you a reason to break out this second device.

Operating system, UI, and standard apps

Kaz Hirai, the incoming CEO of Sony, has said that software is a new focus area for the company; he wants a tight integration of hardware and software that, if we're honest, is not far removed from Apple's path. One of the biggest surprises is just how well that strategy comes into play here. The new PS Vita operating system works well. It's a relatively slick operating system that adds its own flavor to the touch-based UI paradigm and signals Sony's intent to get the software experience on its devices right.

We were using the launch edition firmware, 1.61. On a basic level, it was very snappy: there were no signs of lag when swiping between home screens or between apps, and we didn't encounter any of the OS freezes as had been reported by some Japanese early adopters with the original shipping version from December. One of the real highlights is the Vita's ability to juggle multiple apps, and it makes a huge difference to the usability of the device. Where the original PSP required a user to completely quit out of an application to toggle Wi-Fi or surf the web, the Vita OS will suspend the app, allowing a user to carry out any other functions and then resume the game from the same point. Killing an app is easy as well with by 'peeling' the app away if a user wants to quit out of it completely.



The home screen is dominated by the app icons, which are shaped like ovoid discs. They jiggle when swiping between home screens. Home screens are also user configurable and can support up to 10 apps per screen. As with iOS or Android, users can hold an app down to rearrange it on a home screen or drag it between home screens, which are accessed by swiping up and down between screens. Swiping between open apps happens by swiping across the screen and is reminiscent of the way Windows Phone allows users to swipe up and across between screens. Echoes of desktop Windows exist here as well: double-tapping the PS button gives an overview of recent and active apps with a trace of similarity to Flip 3D, although here much more optimized for touch.



Most of the apps are self-explanatory tools, such as media and messaging tools as well as the PS Store, Content Manager, and Remote Play. The browser, however, is worth a special mention. It's been built using Apple's open-sourced WebKit code and renders pages quickly and efficiently in most instances. We did notice issues on some pages, but for the most part pages rendered correctly. It also offers a tab function that happens to work similarly to the way they do in mobile Safari on iPhones and iPods.

As a whole, it's far more useable than the PSP or Nintendo 3DS browsers, and its soft keyboard, responsive touch, and smooth scrolling make browsing certainly more enjoyable than on some Android devices, particularly Android 2.3 or lower using the stock browser. However, it doesn't fully support HTML5 video at present, nor Flash, despite Sony suggesting that it's investigating support for the now defunct mobile browser plugin. Overall, it's a solid start, but not where users are going to be spending most of their time on the device; you'll still want a smartphone or iPod touch if you live on the web.





Media

Sony has offered users an application it calls Content Manager Assistant that's available for both Windows PCs and Macs. Compared to the ease with which iTunes or the Zune (soon Music) app works, it's not the most elegant solution to getting media content on and off a device, but it is functional. The desktop component scans a user's music, movies, and photos folders. When the PS Vita is connected over USB, it uses the Content Manager on the console itself to help get the transfer going.

The Music Player app supports a range of music formats including MP3, AAC, and WAV. Listening to music on the device compares well enough to listening to music on an iPod, standard MP3 player, or smartphone. Sony has opted to reserve its unique audio processing technologies for its Walkman range, but listening to music on the PS Vita with in-ear earphones is a more than acceptable experience and is good enough for listening to music on the go. The device also sports Bluetooth 2.1+EDR with A2DP/AVRCP support also giving users the option to use Bluetooth earphones with a remote. Having said this, we can't see music as more than an incidental feature; using the PSP was already slightly awkward socially, and the even larger Vita isn't really designed for the situations where you'd be listening to music.



The Video Player app can also handle video formats including H.264, MPEG-4. As with unprotected music files, the PS Vita will have no problems playing unprotected video files transferred from user's PCs or Macs. Viewing videos on the PS Vita display is a definite joy given the OLED's colors and black levels. If users don't already have five-inch class devices for watching videos, they might easily find themselves reaching for the PS Vita more often than not.

Cameras

The Vita incorporates two cameras, one front facing just adjacent to the right hand controls, and one rear facing, jutting out slightly from the center rear. Neither is especially high resolution, with both capable of capturing images at VGA (640x480) sizes. While they won't be used for full-on photography; they're not meant to be. Both are there for Skype video chatting as well as shooting casual photos and video. However, the rear really shines for use in augmented reality games, which is really its primary reason for being included. Quality was strictly adequate, although the low resolution hurts it relative to other mobile devices.



Games and performance

Sony was aware enough of the smartphone threat that it has decided to get out in front of the market for performance. It's powered by an ARM-based Cortex-A9 quad-core processor; apart from carrying 512MB of RAM instead of 1GB, it's very close to NVIDIA's fast Tegra 3 chip. The Vita may be faster in graphics, though; the CPU is paired with a PowerVR SGX543MP4+ quad-core video chip that has 128MB of dedicated memory of its own and, if the iPad 2 is an indicator, could be much faster. All of that adds up to some serious gaming power that will drive the platform forward for the next several years. As previously touched on, the premiere launch title is Uncharted: Golden Abyss which comes on one of the new solid state PS Vita 'Vita cards.' It really is an incredible showcase for the power of the platform and taps in to all of the various control schemes and control paradigms the PS Vita offers. Users can opt to use the traditional hardware controls for the most part, or use the optional touchscreen and rear touchpad controls as well.



The implementation of the controls in Uncharted: Golden Abyss is imaginative and incredibly fun, as is the way the gyroscope has been utilized. For example, crossing a log will require users to 'balance' Nate by using the gyroscope to tilt the device left or right. The rear touchpad is used to 'climb' up and down ropes, or to zoom the in-game camera. The touchscreen can be used to touch and pick up objects as well as help Nate climb up and across ledges. When shooting someone with a sniper rifle, the user is offered a view through the scope and can move the PS Vita physically to gain a bead on a target as though it were a real gun. There are a range of other launch titles that use various aspects of the PS Vita's capabilities, but Uncharted also exploits the graphics capabilities of the PS Vita as well. Some scenes in the game are genuinely attractive, even if you're used to PS3-level video, and it's only the necessary lower-resolution textures that give it away.

There is the concern of gimmickry here: much like how many early PS3 games used the motion controls out of Sony's urging, we don't know if many of these extras will be used for long. A game like Uncharted potentially becomes too easy: climbing ledges is much faster than it is on the PS3, where you have to jump from point to point with button presses and an attention to direction.

More conventional games benefit as well. Wipeout 2048 both has the level of visual detail befitting the sci-fi racer but plays genuinely well given the twitch responses needed to stay out in front. Difficulty is somewhat more forgiving than it is in the PS3's Wipeout HD, but it feels more like a gameplay choice than an attempt to coddle mobile gamers. ModNation Racers was solid, too. Combined, they're good signs for the future Vita game library.

If you've previously owned a PSP and purchased downloaded games from the PlayStation Store, most of these will also be available in the cloud and ready to download to your console. We had Motorstorm: Arctic Edge on hand, which is one of the better-looking titles on the PSP. Unfortunately, even though Sony offers some enhancements for original PSP titles to improve their appearance on the PS Vita, the extra resolution of the PS Vita display doesn't translate to improved PSP visuals. They are just as playable, but don't translate as well as was hoped. Support for the PS Vita's dual analog sticks is, however, an added bonus.



PS Minis are further options, and certainly help to bring casual gaming to the platform as well. Original titles, as well as iOS and Android ports such as Fieldrunners and NOVA, are available for download for less than $10. They're good fixes and arguably important for those commutes when it's impractical to play for three hours. This is not to mention the augmented reality capabilities of the PS Vita: if you've seen how well augmented reality games look on the Nintendo 3DS, PS Vita augmented reality titles have to be seen to be believed simply for the sheer detail, even though they're not in 3D. Reality Fighters looks and plays incredibly well and is great fun to boot. If starting the combat on a kitchen table, for example, a player can knock a competitor off the table mid-battle and continue the fight on the floor.

Whichever way you look at it, the PS Vita at least offers a smorgasbord of gaming options. That, in a sense, is the real advantage of the system. If you're a multi-disciplinary gamer, you can keep it light on short trips but still go deep without having to change platforms. Its future is promising, to boot, with 25 mostly solid launch titles and a promising roadmap in at least the short term.



Connectivity and social apps

The PS Vita comes in two models, a Wi-Fi-only model as well as a 3G version. If you pay the extra $50 for the 3G model, you will also score assisted GPS that works well with the built-in maps app, for the Near social app, and for positioning in both games and photography. Beyond that, there is support for 802.11n Wi-Fi; 3G support isn't extremely brisk, but at 14.4Mbps HSPA, it's more than enough for games. There are some limitations over 3G, however; there's currently no voice chat, remote play, some forms of online multiplayer, or game downloads over a certain size. Even Netflix won't run on 3G in the US, so it's no substitute for a smartphone if you're used to having always-on access to most apps.

Out of the box, the centerpiece for using that Internet access is Near, a way to help locate and compete with other gamers. It's not a local equivalent to Xbox Live, but it will let you see both who's playing nearby as well as track what they're playing and what they think. It would be appreciated if it could be used for real matchmaking, but it's a good way to encourage meeting these people in person, not just onlnie.

Party may be more relevant in day-to-day use. In some ways, it's much like party chat in Xbox Live: as many as eight people can either type or speak to each other. Like Microsoft's system, the beauty is that it's cross-system, so you don't have to play the same game. We didn't have much opportunity to try it given the newness of the platform, but there's a definite freedom to keeping up with friends wherever you happen to be playing.

Battery life

While Apple is sometimes prepared to compromise weight for battery life (think iPad), Sony has opted for a middle ground here, offering a device that offers between four to five hours of non-stop gaming, or video watching provided Wi-Fi and 3G connections are turned off. That mostly proved true for us: it was enough for intensive evenings, or two to three days of shorter stints. To us, it was appreciated just to get decent runtime from a system that's still quite light. While some people might find that sort of battery life hard to swallow, particularly as the battery is built-in, it is still decent performance and stacks up well against the 3DS and most smartphones. For most people, it will comfortably cover them on a train or bus commute to and from the office before a recharge is required. If you did a lot of gaming on your smartphone before considering a Vita, it might be useful simply as a sidearm to extend battery life; you can turn to the Vita for the extended gaming sessions and stick to an Android or iPhone for socializing.



Wrapping up

When you're dealing with a device that's a pure luxury, there's core questions to ask: can you justify the money? Is it genuinely better than the alternatives? Do you expect to use it for awhile? Despite the seeming odds against it, our answer to all three questions is yes. If you are looking for the ultimate handheld gaming console, there's little doubt that the PS Vita is it. The combination of physical and touch controls gives it an distinct edge over touch-only devices if you're looking for a wide variety of gaming. If it had been a tablet or smartphone, it would easily cost double its entry price given its hardware performance relative to the size. Although it costs the same $249 minimum that the 3DS did on launch, it offers much more gaming flexibility and usability than its Nintendo rival, although that device is not without its charms.

If we were forced to choose between a PS Vita and Nintendo 3DS ,we would plump for the PS Vita every time. Sony has worked hard to bring more affordable games to the platform in the form of Minis -- still in more plentiful supply than on Nintendo's store -- while full price games are reasonable given the console levels of depth and complexity. The need to pay for PS Vita memory cards is annoying, especially when Sony could have opted to use a standard format like microSD. Still, it does mandate a fuller experience than on the 3DS by disconnecting game data from individual game copies and letting you jump directly into media playback if you're willing to spring for a large enough card.

There is nothing about the Vita that really disappoints in and off itself, decent but underwhelming battery life notwithstanding. There is no doubt that Sony has delivered a winner on a technical level. At a time when Sony has lost some of its shine, the PS Vita is the kind of product that could help reshape perceptions about the company.

Our one reservation is simply the question of necessity for some players. The simple reality is that it's a $249 or $299 device that you'd have to carry in addition to your phone, and possibly another device like an MP3 player or a tablet. For some, the extra cost or just the physical bulk of a second device won't be worth the tradeoff, no matter how good the Vita is on its own. With that in mind, Sony has at least delivered a sincerely good proposition for the idea, and that's noteworthy.

by Sanjiv Sathiah


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