It’s a confusing time in the world of mobile and portable gaming. Consumers seem to be moving away from the idea that they need an entirely separate device to play games on the go, settling for cheap, generally simple touchscreen games on their cell phones and tablets. Nintendo, following up the insanely successful DS system that rested on a seemingly gimmicky double screen design, added a newer glasses-free 3D gimmick to its Nintendo 3DS—only to see extremely slow sales force it into a premature price drop. Sony’s PlayStation Portable, meanwhile, has carved out a niche for itself as a serious gamer’s system, especially in Japan, but is beginning to show its age as a system designed in the pre-smartphone era.
For the new PlayStation Vita, Sony responded to this confusion by throwing everything and the kitchen sink into the system. For hardcore gamers, there are two analog sticks—a first for a portable system—and a gigantic screen loaded with pixels. For casual players, there’s the now-ubiquitous touchscreen as well as a unique rear touch panel to enable new tactile, touchy-feely gameplay. The Vita has two cameras, a GPS receiver, and a 3G data option. There’s music and video players, a Web browser, Google Maps, and even a proximity-based social network. Oh, and it also plays games, I guess (more on those in a separate post).
PlayStation Vita (hardware)
Available: Feb. 22 (Feb. 15 for pre-orders)
$250 (Wi-Fi only) | $300 (Wi-Fi/3G)
It’s as if Sony just decided to include everything it’s seen work on other mobile devices and then some, hoping that absolutely everyone would find something to like. The risk in this strategy is that the final unit could end up being a bloated, ill-designed, feature-creepy mess that doesn’t do anything well and isn’t particularly fun to use. Fortunately, Sony has avoided this fate. The Vita is a beautiful, well-thought-out piece of technology that, despite some quibbles, is probably the best-designed piece of gaming-focused portable hardware I’ve ever seen.
Before we get going, a note on timing: while reviews for the Vita started hitting the Internet earlier this week, we decided to take an extra day or two to really evaluate all of the unit’s core features and make our review as comprehensive as possible. Also, a note on connectivity: while the unit we reviewed was 3G-capable, Sony has yet to provide the SIM card needed to test 3G data functionality, so everything in this review is based solely on WiFi usage. Let’s dive in.
The hardwareSize comparison. From left to right: Vita, PSP-3000, DSi XL, 3DS, iPod TouchKyle Orland
The most striking thing about the Vita is its sheer size: 3.3 inches all and a whopping 7.2 inches wide at its most distant points. It’s as if Sony took the footprint of the PSP and decided to add about ten percent to both the width and the height. Side by side, the Vita doesn’t just dwarf Nintendo’s DS line, it also comes in a good inch or so wider than even the expanded DSi XL. While heavily rounded edges mitigate the effect of this bulk somewhat, the Vita’s sheer size makes it a tough fit in an average pants pocket, especially if you’re squeezing it in with keys or a phone.Thickness comparison. From left to right: iPod Touch, PSP-3000, 3DS, VitaKyle Orland
Despite the massive lateral size, the Vita is not incredibly thick. Even with the two analog sticks jutting out from the surface a tad (more on them below), the Vita’s depth is comparable to both the Nintendo 3DS (when closed) and the reduced-size PSP-3000.
The 3G Vita weighs about 10 ounces, which is a couple more than the 3DS, but remains generally imperceptible. In fact, holding the Vita for extended periods is probably a little easier, since there’s no fold-out top screen to alter the weight distribution.Corner erognomics comparison. Clockwise from bottom left: Vita, 3DS, PSP-3000Kyle Orland
The real story of the Vita’s form factor isn’t in the numbers, though, but in the gentle curves that make it a perfect, comfortable fit even in large hands. The rounded metal edges conform perfectly to the curve of your index fingers as you grip the sides, while a rounded plastic bevel on the backside makes sure there are no sharp corners to press into your skin. you’ll definitely notice the difference if and when you go back to grabbing a DS or even a PSP.
ScreenAn entire iPod Touch can’t quite cover the viewable screen area on the PlayStation VitaKyle Orland
The Vita’s massive physical size provides space for a luxurious 5″ OLED touchscreen that is a joy to behold. To appreciate the sheer size of this screen, picture an iPhone 4. The screen on the Vita is roughly as big as the entire device—edge, bezel and all—give or take an eighth of an inch on either side.
While the screen’s 960×544 pixel resolution doesn’t quite measure up to something like the iPhone’s retina display, games and apps still looks incredibly sharp. The difference is most striking when you put the system next to a 3DS or even a PSP, both of which look downright pixelated when compared directly with the Vita.
High screen brightness prevents glare or reflections from posing significant problems unless there’s a light shining directly on the screen. It’s also easy to lower the screen brightness to increase the battery life or avoid bothering others in a dark room.
The Vita screen is also a touchscreen, and a highly responsive one at that. There’s no need for a stylus here, since the extra screen size prevents the “fat fingers” problem some complain about with smaller touchscreens. The oily residue left by your fingers is likely to cause an occasional “rainbow effect” on portions of the screen, but that can easily be wiped away with a finger or a cloth.
Unless you plan on being tethered to a wall outlet, a portable game system is only as good as its battery life. Despite the large, bright screen, I was easily able to get through four hours or more of serious Vita gameplay on a single charge, with the precise number varying a bit depending on WiFi usage and loading. That’s not a whole lot for portable game systems historically, but it seems downright luxurious compared to the UMD-spinning PSP or the battery hogging 3DS.
The system takes about one-and-a-half hours to charge completely when plugged into the included wall charger, or you can charge it through any standard USB power source using the included cable. Oddly enough, though, the included power converter doesn’t allow you to plug in other, non-Vita USB cables, meaning it can’t be used to charge other devices. It’s a small, baffling nod to exclusivity in a feature that could easily have embraced open standards.
Tapping the power button immediately puts the Vita into standby mode, shutting off the screen and inputs without fully shutting down any currently running apps or games. The system can last a couple of days in this mode when fully charged, but those who want to keep their juice longer should hold down the button and turn the system off completely (though you’ll have to suffer through a 20-30 second startup sequence when you flip it back on). When in standby, tapping the power button or the PS button brings the system back to life almost instantaneously.
Analog sticksThe Vita’s analog sticks do stick out, but not significantly more than the directional pad.Kyle Orland
The PSP’s much-maligned single analog nub has been replaced on the Vita with two legitimate analog sticks, jutting up about five millimeters from the surface on each side of the screen. You’d think these would ruin the form factor of the otherwise flat system face, but it’s not a practical problem with the Vita. Rather than feeling pointy, the nubs easily gel with the system’s overall design, and don’t poke out noticeably when slid into in a pocket.
The sticks themselves have a large rubbery grip in the center that feels clean against the thumb. The hard plastic edges on top of each stick are a little less comfortable, but those who prefer to push the analog stick from the side won’t find this too uncomfortable. Both sticks features a very light spring action, and it doesn’t take much physical tilt to reach the edge of the moveable area. On the plus side, this means you have to apply only the slightest bit of pressure to get the analog stick to react. On the minus side, this means it takes a very delicate touch to register anything less than a full push in any direction.