It's game on for the Sony PlayStation Vita. The first portable gaming system to offer dual analog sticks, the Vita also delivers a quad-core ARM processor, a stunning OLED capacitive touchscreen and breathtaking graphics. Starting at $249 for the Wi-Fi version and $299 for the 3G model, the Vita is far from cheap. But is this mobile console that much better than tablets and smartphones at gaming? Yes.
Sony has taken a bigger-is-better approach with the PlayStation Vita in order to accommodate a larger screen. Instead of the 6.7 ounce, 6.7 x 2.7 x 0.7-inch frame of the PlayStation Portable, the Vita has a 9.9-ounce, 7.2 x 3.3 x 0.7-inch chassis. The Vita features a large 5-inch glossy display that sits prominently in the center of the device. By comparison, the PlayStation Portable's display measures 4.3 inches.
Unlike the PSP, the Vita has two analog controllers on either side of the screen. Above the left controller is a traditional D-pad, and above the right are the standard PlayStation buttons (Triangle, Square, Cross and Circle). A 1.3- megapixel front camera is adjacent to the PlayStation buttons. A transparent PS button that functions as a home button sits on the bottom left side while a Select and Start button reside on the bottom right. Chrome Sony and PS Vita logos provide a subtle amount of flourish. A single speaker resides next to each controller.
At the top of the Vita, nestled between two clear plastic bumpers, are two slots. The left one houses the PS Vita card slot for inserting games, and the right one is an Accessories slot for future peripherals. Both are protected by covers that keep the top edge smooth.
Gray metallic buttons for volume and power are also on the top of the Vita. Along the bottom sits the power jack and a combination microphone and headphone jack.
The back of the Vita features a glossy 4.25 x 1.75-inch touchpad adorned with gray triangles, squares, crosses and circles. On either side are two matte black plastic grips for gamers to rest their fingers when not using the touchpad. A 1.3-MP rear-facing camera sits above the touchpad in the center.
On the right side are two more port covers, one concealing the SIM card, and the other protecting the PlayStation memory card slot. Yes, Sony has yet again introduced a proprietary memory card.
Although the Vita is noticeably heavier and larger than the PSP, it's still lightweight enough to be considered portable. However, because the dual analog sticks, we wouldn't recommend sticking the Vita into tighter pockets.
Playing games and watching video on the Vita's large 5-inch 960 x 544 capacitive touch-screen OLED display was a feast for the eyes. At 214 lux, this isn't the brightest display we've seen, but we were immediately taken with its bold, rich colors. As we watched the "Men in Black III" trailer, the graffiti alien's green skin popped against the dark background, as did the neuralizer's pale blue flash. However, we couldn't help but notice a slight pall throughout the backdrop due to the lack of brightness.
In addition, text on CNN.com's page was sharp, especially when we zoomed in. But it took between 1 and 2 seconds for the display to adjust for resizing, which meant we had to look at the unsightly checkerboard pattern as we waited.
The Vita's two front speakers delivered audio loud enough to fill a large room. It was easy to distinguish the snare drum from the brassy trumpets on Lupe Fiasco's "Kick.Push"; Lupe's distinctive voice took center stage with little to no distortion. The audio really shined when we played a game. When playing "Uncharted" we heard bullets whizzing by our ears as well as the rich fully orchestrated soundtrack.
Controllers and Touchpad
The PlayStation Vita is the first portable gaming system to offer dual analog controllers. Although a bit on the petite side, they felt comfortable under our thumbs and delivered tight, precise control on most of the games we tried, including "Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3" and "Uncharted." However, we noticed some instances of our vehicles drifting during "Wipeout 2048."
Veteran PSP users will notice that both the D-Pad and the PlayStation buttons are smaller on the Vita. Nevertheless, we didn't find ourselves mistakenly hitting the wrong button during gameplay. In fact, both sets of buttons provided firm, springy feedback, and held up against our frantic presses. The top bumpers also easily withstood our onslaught, springing back into position effortlessly.
In addition to the additional analog controller, Sony also included a large rear touchpad whose use is incorporated into some of the game titles for all manner of things, such as shimmying up and down ropes in "Uncharted: Golden Abyss." In the instances we were prompted to use the touchpad, we found it to be quick and responsive. There are two grips embedded in the panel to guard against accidentally triggering the touchpad.
Even with our our middle fingers nestled into the grips, holding the Vita became uncomfortable after a certain period of time. In a more natural finger placement, our index fingers would wrap around the top bumpers while the rest would wrap around the rear panel -- about an inch past the embedded grips.
The Vita features a large virtual keyboard with nice spacing and big, white keys. Although we were disappointed at the lack of haptic feedback, typing was quick and accurate. As we typed, the keyboard projected a large image of the keys so we never lost sight of what we pecked. We just wished there was a way to access punctuation marks and special characters besides switching to the alternative keyboard.
Software and Interface
Those familiar with a smartphone user interface will have no problems acclimating to the Vita. After turning on the device and wading through the opening jargon, a large digital clock appeared with the date on what appeared to be a peel-away panel with a hanging corner. Dragging the dog-earned corner down unlocks the device. We immediately noticed that navigating the Vita is a touch screen-only affair.
The Vita's homescreen features large circular icons with colorful eye-catching images and sharp text. There can be up to ten icons per page, which sway gently back and forth. Mini-notifications for signal strength, open programs and battery status sit above the display. Clicking on the small clear bubble in the top right corner listed the program statuses, including earned trophies.
Some of the preloaded programs include Welcome Park, Party, the PS Store, Near, Trophies and Browser. When we installed a new game or program, a new icon would be created. While we liked the icons, it would have been nice to be able to rearrange their order. Any new apps or software we added automatically landed at the bottom of the list, forcing us to scroll down.
Tapping an app opens a new page called the LiveArea screen to the right of the homescreen. You can open a maximum of six LiveArea screens in addition to the homescreen, and scroll through them horizontally. Pressing the PS button displays the screens in a cascading tile view. Holding down the PS button for 2 seconds launches a Settings screen where you can adjust brightness, volume and play music.
A small panel sits in the center of each LiveArea screen, prompting you to Start a newly opened program or Continue to resume your activity. A small life preserver icon at the top of every LiveArea screen is there ready to launch the online PS Vita manual. We really liked using the LiveArea screens; each sported its own unique look, and pulling down on the screen and peeling it away to close it was one of our favorite features.
Overall, we found the Vita interface to be fast and intuitive. It's bright and colorful, and we loved the responsiveness of the touch screen.
Game Selection and Quality
At launch, the Vita will debut with 25 available titles, which includes a number of games from well-known franchises. Examples include "Uncharted: Golden Abyss," "Dynasty Warriors Next," "Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3" and "FIFA Soccer."
PS Vita game cards will range between $29.99 and $49.99. Some downloadable content can be found online starting at $9.99.
While we were suitably impressed with the graphics, the gameplay was equally enjoyable.
Our playthough of "Uncharted: Golden Abyss" was a great example of the potential future of gaming. The game incorporated all of the key components of the hardware (touchscreen, rear touchpad, motion controls and traditional controls) to create a seamless gaming experience that didn't come off as gimmicky. We had a ball using the rear touchpad to climb ropes, and we used the touchscreen to wield machetes and navigate difficult passages. We even liked using the tilt controls (the Vita has an accelerometer) to regain our balance on shaky logs.
Some games such as "Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3" stick to the basics, combining beautiful visuals with effortless controls. The game played as well as its console brethren, allowing us to deftly slip into the shoes of X-23 and start slicing, dicing and dealing out vicious combos. Other games such as "Little Deviants" used the rear-facing camera to turn our office into a game. We had a lot of fun shooting aliens floating around our desk and throughout the office in an attempt to protect our cute little deviant critters.
While you'll be doing most of your gaming via the small Vita cards, gamers looking to go totally digital can turn to the PS Store. There you'll find a large number of PS Vita-exclusive titles along with titles from the PSP.
Remote Play, which allows the Vita to connect to a PlayStation 3 over a home network, is also available. After a 5-minute set-up process utilizing the Settings menus of both systems, we were able to play PS3 games such as "Wipeout HD" on our Vita anywhere in the house. Gamers can also tap into Vita Cross Play, which allows Vita and PS3 owners to play against each other online. When we attempted to play more demanding games such as "Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots" and "Batman: Arkham City" we received the following message: "This content cannot be used during remote play."
The Vita also comes with a pack of augmented reality cards that can be used with a bundle of free Vita games available for download in the PS Store. However, the suite of games was not available at the time of this review.
In addition to gaming, the PlayStation Vita comes with a number of preinstalled apps and programs. We liked the Welcome Park app, which is a tutorial disguised as a game. Through a series of quick mini games, we learned the ins and outs of navigating the Vita, including using the touch screen, camera, motion sensors and the microphone.
The amount of social apps preloaded on the Vita goes to show how much gaming has become a social activity. We used the Friends app to see if any of our PlayStation 3 friends were online. The app can also be used to send friend requests or block people. The Group Messaging app was one of our favorites; it let us send texts and photos to up to three of our PS Network friends.
Party takes chat one step further, allowing users to voice chat with a maximum of eight people, even if they're playing different games. When we struck up a chat with three of our friends, audio on our end was a little choppy at maxiumum volume, but we were easily able to follow the conversation. The cool Instant Game Access feature in Party allows gamers to instantly purchase a game from the PS Store if a friend is playing it.
Near is hands-down one of the more interesting apps. Combining geo-location, social networking and gaming, Near allows gamers to check into locations and check out what other PS Vita gamers are playing at the moment. The Friends feature taps into the Friends app, while the Out & About feature allowed us to find gamers in the area, connecting with those who have similar tastes in gaming.
The Trophies app quickly compiled all of our trophies earned from Vita and PS3 games in an easy-to-read list. Clicking on a specific game title revealed a list of trophies we had yet to earn along with the requirements to meet our goal.
The Sony branded Music and Video player let us play multimedia content downloaded onto our memory card. There's also the Content Manager that made transferring files between the Vita and our PC relatively easy.
Google Maps makes an appearance on the Vita, delivering Map and Satellite views along with Directions. When searching for directions, we liked the large flags used to point out starting and ending points. When we switched from the map to text directions, we appreciated the clean black page, which made the sharp white text easier to read.
AT&T also included the Network Operator, which helps users sign up for an AT&T data plan.
Other apps include PS Store, Photos, Remote Play, Settings and Browser.
There are currently only four apps in the PS Store for Vita. Unfortuntaly, they're all variations of the PlayStation Protection Plan warranty. However, apps for Facebook, Netflix and Twitter are scheduled to debut in the PS Store at launch.
Powered by a quad-core ARM Cortex-A9 MP Core processor with 512MB of RAM, the PlayStation Vita has quite a bit of speed. Navigating between screens and apps was nearly seamless. There was only a hint of a pause when opening and closing apps, but the Vita froze several times while switching between LiveArea screens, which forced us to do a hard reset.
Don't expect to do a ton of multitasking on the Vita. Although we were able to play audio from the music player while using other apps such as Near and Google Maps, the music paused when we cued up a game. Gamers can get around this by pressing the Playstation button while in the game itself; your music will replace the background track.
The SGX543MP4+ GPU made playing "Uncharted: Golden Abyss" a visual treat. The sun setting on a fully rendered Amazon jungle from a mountain vista was breathtaking, as were the large orange-red explosions against a lush green jungle backdrop. Upon closer inspection, we noticed that some of the textures weren't as smooth as they would be on a home console, but overall we were more than pleased with the results.
While there is no onboard memory, the PlayStation Vita's storage can be expanded to 32GB via a PlayStation Memory Card.
Web Browsing and 3G
Browsing the Web over AT&T's 3G network delivered decent speeds. The desktop versions of CNN.com, NYTimes.com and Laptopmag.com loaded in 8.8, 10 and 31 seconds respectively.
Camera and Camcorder
The Vita has two 1.3-MP cameras that capture stills and videos in 640 x 480. The stills had a fair amount of sharpness, and the color was deep and rich. Our test shot of flowers yielded robust red tulips without taking away from the pale yellow and pinks of the other flowers. It took about a second to fire another shot.
We saw the same rich color when we shot our test video of New York City traffic. There were vibrant yellows as the taxis whizzed by along with gleaming blacks and reds from other cars. We noticed that the rear-facing camera had problems adjusting when we panned up to the sky and back down to street level, temporarily washing out.
AT&T currently offers two data plans for the Vita. There's a $14.99 monthly 250MB plan and a $30 3GB plan.
During our time with the Vita, we were able to get a little over 3 hours playing "Uncharted" at maximum brightness. Fortunately, the device has a seriously fast charge time. After approximately two hours, the Vita was fully charged.
The $299 PlayStation Vita features 3G and Wi-Fi capability. The $249 version has identical specs, but is Wi-Fi only. There's also a first edition $349 bundle, which includes a 3G/Wi-Fi Vita with a limited edition case, a copy of "Little Deviants" and an AT&T DataConnect Season Pass.
The PlayStation Vita is not only a strong sequel to the PlayStation Portable, it's the best gaming handheld money can buy. This device features eye-popping graphics on a stellar screen, a strong starting lineup of games and excellent controls. Sony has also done a nice job of integrating the touch screen and touchpad into the gameplay, allowing players to tailor their own style of play. There's also a number of compelling social networking apps that complement the gaming experience. We're just hoping that the Remote Play feature will gain the ability to play all of our PS3 titles on our Vita. While it costs nearly as much as a PS3, the Vita represents the pinnacle of portable gaming.