The PlayStation Vita is Sony’s biggest gamble yet — a pricey, piano-black, hockey-rink-shaped gaming handheld tricked out with dual joysticks, motion and touch controls and a gorgeous widescreen aimed unapologetically at serious gamers. It’s Sony’s defiant stand against the rising tide of all-in-one smartphones and tablets — the company’s bet that dedicated gaming devices with the DNA of set-top consoles like the Xbox 360 and Sony’s own PlayStation 3 can coexist alongside Apple’s iPhone and iPad or Google’s assortment of Android phones and tablets.
Much of its allure thus lies in its souped-up hardware: Where Nintendo’s 3DS and most phones lock your eyes to middling 3.5- or 4-inch LCD displays, the Vita offers a capacious 5-inch touchscreen with cutting-edge OLED (organic light-emitting diode) visuals. That screen outputs visuals produced by powerful quad-core processors that can supply games with dazzling PlayStation 3-like graphics. And instead of inviting your fingers to crowd the view as they do when manipulating clumsy, 2D controls on smartphone flat-screens, the Vita offers two raised thumb-sticks for an authentic console-style experience — they’ll let you play triple-A launch titles like Uncharted: Golden Abyss (an adventure/shooter) or Wipeout 2048 (a futuristic anti-grav racer) with the sort of control finesse a touchscreen can’t deliver.
Pick up the Vita and you’re greeted by a “crystal black” oval face framed in metallic silver, the controls — a robust d-pad, small but stable twin joysticks and four face buttons — resting comfortably beneath your thumbs on either side. It looks a lot like the PlayStation Portable, in other words, though about half an inch wider and taller, and a tenth of an inch thicker. You’ll probably be surprised by how light it feels, weighing just 260 grams, a little more than an 8 oz. bottle of water and on par with the original PSP.
The handheld’s most striking feature out of the box is the 5-inch touchscreen, which runs at 960 x 544 pixels and can display up to 16.7 million colors, furnishing the Vita with the prettiest visuals on the block. Colors snap during videos or gameplay without a trace of ghosting, and even the smallest letters in menus or game tutorials are crisp and easily legible from several feet away, whether you’re looking at the screen head-on or tilted sideways 45-degrees. Fire up a game like Uncharted: Golden Abyss and it’s like playing Uncharted on the PS3, every tropical palm frond, torchlit temple and sun-kissed mountain vista rendered exquisitely.
You won’t find “stereoscopic 3D” in the Vita’s dossier, but you probably won’t miss it, either. Instead, Sony’s “shake up” angle involves a touchpad on the Vita’s underside, where you’d normally place your fingertips. This allows you to tap or slide your fingers in concert with the front touchscreen (a pair of framing “grips” help your fingers feel where the touchpad begins and ends). During activities that require simple tapping to trigger actions like “fire a weapon,” it’s intuitive and flawless, though in others where you have to slide your fingertips on the touchpad to rotate objects, it can be disorienting, like trying to use a touchpad on a laptop’s underside. Most of the launch games either use it conservatively or offer button alternatives, so it doesn’t feel like a standout feature at this point. I’d give it some time before developers release an “oh that’s what it’s for” app.
For navigation, Sony’s actually devised a more intuitive way to move between open applications than either Google’s Android or Apple’s iOS. Like those two, apps are situated on screens you swipe to switch between (here, up or down). Launch an app, and it lives in what Sony calls a “LiveArea” that you can leave or return to by simply swiping left or right, which is Sony’s way of folding in the PS3’s Emmy-winning crossbar (x and y) approach. This allows you to suspend a game while checking in on friends, flipping through photos or browsing Sony’s PlayStation Store, and closing an app’s as simple as peeling it back with your finger, like tearing a page off a sticky notepad.
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