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Hardware Review Hub: Playstation Vita

Updated on January 5, 2013
Home screen showing downloaded games and system apps
Home screen showing downloaded games and system apps

The Playstation Vita is Sony's second generation of portable gaming system which launched earlier this year. Its predecessor, the PSP, was a commercial success in spite of the fact that it was consistently outsold by the Nintendo DS, its only real competition at the time. Now the Vita has a much more difficult life ahead of it because it will not only be competing with Nintendos current handheld, the 3DS, but also the new smartphone market. Platforms such as Android and iOS have become wildly successful and many people have wondered if expensive specialty items like portable game consoles can compete against multipurpose devices like an Iphone or an Android phone. On the other hand the Vita has a few advantages that no Iphone or even the 3DS will ever have.

Hardware

Let me start by saying that the hardware on the Vita is impressive. The unit itself is not much bigger than a PSP and is pretty light, but it still has a beautiful 5 inch screen and full game controls. The screen is an OLED and runs at 960 x 544. That means that it is very high resolution, though not the highest you can find on a comparably sized screen, and that it has great brightness and color saturation. The battery is not great; Sony says that it should provide about 3-5 hours of gameplay and that seems to be about right. I would have liked for it to last a bit longer on one charge, but its not terrible.

The controls consist of dual thumbsticks, a directional pad, L and R shoulder buttons, a start and select button, a PS button, and the standard playstation buttons, X, O, square and triangle. The thumbsticks sit a few millimeters above the surface of the console, and they actually tilt like regular gamepad thumbsticks, as opposed to the circle pad on the 3DS which slide. The thumbsticks do not stack up against thumbsticks on a dualshock controller or an xbox gamepad, but they still exceeded my expectations. The shoulder buttons also work very well. Allthough there is only one on each side, the buttons themselves are very responsive and are easy to pull in rapid succession.

The touch screen is possibly the most impressive part of the Vita. The front screen is capable of capacitive multitouch, unlike the DS touch screen which does not have multitouch. This is not uncommon because every smartphone and tablet on the market uses the same kind of screen. The reason that this screen is so remarkable is because it is increadibly responsive. I have never had the Vita lose track of my finger or receive my input incorrectly, which is more than I can say for any smartphone that I have used. In addition to that screen, the rear panel of the Vita is also touch sensitive and can be used as input in a game. I have yet to see any game take advantage of that feature in any smart ways, but I can imagine a few uses that might be pretty cool.

I would be remiss if I did not mention a few problems I have found with the Vita. First off, most people are going to need a memory card for their Vita, either for game saves, downloadable games, or multimedia. As is customary for Sony, you will not be able to use the standard SD or microSD cards which every other device on the market takes. There are special memory cards specific for the Vita, and they are expensive. Flash memory is super cheap nowadays and I want to take points away from Sony for overcharging us for our storage, but in a world where Apple charges an extra $100 for a 16gb bump in your Iphone, and none of the storage is removable, I think the Vita is far from the worst offender.

The only other minor complaint I will lodge against the Vita from a hardware standpoint has to do with the charger. The Vita comes with a power supply and a USB cable that plugs into it to take a charge. The problem is that the power supply uses a higher voltage than every other portable device I own. The result is that even thought I have a million USB power adapters for wall plugs and in the car, none of these work for my Vita. If the Vita's battery lasted a bit longer that wouldn't be much of an issue, but as it stands I have had a few instances of dead batteries and no charger in sight.

Overall, as far as hardware is concerned, I think that the Vita really delivers. It took me a little while to get used to holding it comfortably, but after a few minutes I was right at home. The Vita is the first portable console that I have ever played without feeling like I was making compromises, either because of limited controls or poor visuals. As we get further into the life of the Vita I think we will start to see more game which better take advantage of some of the unique interface options that the Vita has to offer.

Screenshot showing active game, which is paused allowing the user to perform other tasks and then pick up where they left off
Screenshot showing active game, which is paused allowing the user to perform other tasks and then pick up where they left off

Operating System

The PS Vita has a custom operating system that is heavily inspired by smartphone operating systems. On the main screen you will find different pages with lots of different icons, each of which represents a different application. You use the touch screen to navigate, much the same way as you would with a smartphone. When you have a game card in the system you will see an icon for that game, as well as any downloadable games which you have installed. You will also see icons for familiar playstation network apps like Trophies and PS store. There is also a settings app which lets you manage data and connections like bluetooth and Wifi.

The Trophies and PS store apps work very similarly to their PS3 counterparts. The trophies app displays a list of all of your earned and unearned trophies, organized by game. On the Vita however they are broken down into two tabs, one for your Vita titles and one for your PS3 titles. The store is basically a touch friendly version of the PSN store, but it only shows you titles compatible with the vita. More on what that consists of later.

One of my favorite things about the Vitas OS is how easy it makes multitasking. Inside any app you have the ability to press the home button, which shrinks the app down and displays a few options, such as the ability to check for updates or to continue using the app. Swiping from top right to bottom left closes the app, and swiping to the left brings you back to the main screen. You can then access other apps while the first app is on pause. Once you are in the second app, you can push the home button and go back to the main screen, or go back to the first app. It is remarkably easy to use and makes it very convienient to change settings on the fly, or check trophies while in a game. Anyone who has used an Xbox360 or PS3 and been forced to close a game because they wanted to adjust a setting will apprechiate this feature. Even Android, which touts is multitasking abilities over the Iphone, does not make it this easy.

The Vita also comes with several non gaming apps which may be useful to some people. By default it has a Netflix app, access to Sonys music service, a camera app and a web browser. To make a long story short, each of these things is capable, but none of them compare to the alternatives that most of us have. The Netflix app works well enough, but it does not allow you to browse titles using the touch screen, which is strange considering that it looks exactly like the Android Netflix app. The camera is low resolution and your Iphone will put it to shame. The web browser is actually pretty decent for a mobile browser, but Androids default browser is significantly faster and more versitile. I would only recommend using any of these things if you do not have the option of a better alternative.

Software

The most important thing to consider with any new console is the games. The Vita launched with about 25 games, from small tech demos like Little Deviants, to blockbuster games like Uncharted Golden Abyss. Since then there have been about 40 additional releases that also run the gambit of size and scope. The most important thing is not how many games are available, but how good those games are and if any of them appeal to you. I found the launch lineup to be pretty impressive compared to the launch of other consoles, and there have been quite a few games which I enjoyed since then, but there are a few more interesting things that you should know.

The first thing is that most Vita games will be available for download at release in the PS store, in addition to their boxed copies in stores. This is a huge step toward the all digital future we seem to be headed for. In addition, first party games are slightly cheaper as a digital download. These are both promising trends that will make it easier and more convienient to purchase games on the Vita. There will also be Playstation network games which are for download only and will not be sold in stores, similar to PSN titles on the PS3. Playstation minis, which are small independently developed game are also available for download.

There are also several other ways to get your gaming fix on a Vita. For anyone who did not have a PSP or anyone who missed some of the good games available on it, plenty of PSP games are also available to download on the PS Vita. The availability of PSP games depends on the publisher of the games, but there are currently hundreds of titles. Every game that I looked for was available, including Final Fantasy Tactics, Assassins creed: Bloodlines, and Killzone Liberation.

Recently Sony announced that they were going to bring Playstation one games to the Vita. Unfortunately for some reason only 9 were going to be made available in America. That did include a few heavyweights like Final Fantasy 7 and Arc the Lad, but it was still sad that more classic games were not going to be available. Luckily they have been quietly rolling out compatibility with more and more Psone games over the past few weeks, and by my last count there were 73 ready for download.

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The verdict

I have been very happy with my experience with the Vita so far. I think that the console itself is built very well and has a lot of potential as a platform for great games. The only concern that I might have when recommending this product is that there may not be many games that appeal to every gamer. While it had a good launch lineup, and I have played many good games on my Vita, I think that most people are waiting for that killer app that makes them go out and buy the console. Recently Sony rolled out Playstation plus on the Vita. If you are already a plus member, you instantly get access to some of the best titles available on the Vita for free. An excellent deal is I have ever seen one. In addition, some games that you buy for the PS3 come with a free Vita version. This "cross buy" system is a great step toward the dream of purchasing a license to play a game, and having access to it on any platform that you like. While that will probably never happen across hardware manufacturer lines, it is nice to be able to play Playstation All Stars on my PS3 or my Vita without having to spend $100.

5 stars for PlayStation Vita

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