You won’t be disappointed with the native apps lineup: “Welcome Park” may be the smartest introduction to a mobile system ever, five touch-based mini-games so compulsive I spent my first evening with the unit battling to unlock every bronze, silver and gold trophy. Speaking of, Sony’s included both trophies as well as cross-game text messaging here, a coup for gamers accustomed to game achievements and meta-communication options when playing on a console. Other features include photo, music and video organizers, a web browser (though alas, without Flash or HTML5 support), a “remote play” option that lets you tackle PS3 games on your Vita using screen-sharing technology, a version of Google Maps and “Near,” a GPS app that optionally broadcasts what you’re doing to nearby Vita owners, in turn letting you know what they’re up to. The only thing the Vita’s missing at launch: social networking apps like Facebook, Twitter and Skype, all of which Sony promises are coming (along with Flickr and Foursquare) as free downloads “in early 2012.”
Canvassing the remaining bits and bobs, the system’s front and rear facing VGA (640 x 480) 1.3-megapixel cameras are clearly low-end, but they’re mostly for gameplay or throwaway snaps — the Vita’s not intended for serious photo or videophiles. The stereo speakers sound decent enough for a handheld, with predictable bass and volume limitations — you’ll definitely want headphones if playing somewhere noisy. And the power cable terminates in a USB plug that either connects to the included AC adapter, your computer, or your PlayStation 3 (the latter two allow you to backup or restore the Vita’s volatile data).
Battery life, while a trifle disappointing, is easily within Sony’s projected range of “3 to 5 hours” for gaming (the most processor-intensive activity). I was able to play Uncharted: Golden Abyss for about three-and-a-half hours before the display cut out (fortunately, it only took a little over an hour to fully recharge). The good news: The Vita easily beats Nintendo’s power-hungry 3DS here, but the bad is that it falls far short of the on-average nine hours PSP owners are accustomed to. Plan to play plugged-in as often as not.
The complaints you’re most likely to hear about the Vita will be: It’s expensive, and the standalone memory cards are ridiculously expensive. The Vita costs $249.99 in its standard Wi-Fi configuration — $299.99 if you really want 3G data service, but since you can’t play most games over a 3G connection and have to pay AT&T a monthly fee to use it ($15 for 250MB, $30 for 3GB), I can’t recommend it. But the $249.99 Vita actually seems like a terrific deal given what it offers. The seven-year-old PSP costs $129.99 today, sure, while Nintendo 3DS, which launched in March 2010 for $249.99, now goes for $169.99, but the Vita’s actually far closer, hardware-wise, to a device like Apple’s iPhone 4S — a smartphone that retails, unsubsidized, for between $650 and $850. You’ve heard the adage “you get what you pay for,” and in the Vita’s case, it’s true.
Sony’s memory card prices are tougher to justify. The Vita has no built-in storage, so the cards are all but required. But $20 for 4GB? $60 for 16GB? $100 for 32GB? Most 4GB memory cards go for less than $5, and you can find 32GB cards for just over $30. Sony’s unfortunately borrowed a page from Microsoft’s Xbox 360 here, making storage proprietary, then charging exorbitant prices. Sure, $20 isn’t much, but neither is 4GB, which you’ll quickly fill if you plan to download full PSP or Vita games direct from the PlayStation Store (the PS Store version of Uncharted: Golden Abyss alone uses a whopping 3.2GB). Thus while I can’t countenance the system price complaint, it’s clear Sony needs to either reduce its memory card prices or open the format to third-party manufacturers.
Why buy a Vita in what’s quickly become a smartphone/tablet world? Because you want to play serious, console-style games (with console-style controls) on the go. That’s the Vita’s exclusive promise at launch, anyway — a souped-up, dedicated games handheld that’s as comfortable letting you tap out rhythm-cued dance moves in something like Michael Jackson: The Experience as it is handing you a weapon, requiring you operate it with ballistic sophistication, then chucking you at the bad guys in the inevitable BioShocks, Battlefields and Call of Duties to come.