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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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.