We play games all the time on the go now. On our phones, on our tablets. I bet you've played a game in the last few hours. Why then would you need a dedicated gaming handheld?
Back in 2005, when Sony made its first gaming handheld, the PSP (PlayStation Portable), there weren't any gaming-friendly smartphones. No iPhone. No video iPod, even. The PSP was a unique and futuristic toy.
The current Vita Slim is the second, slimmed-down tweak to the PlayStation Vita that came out in early 2012. It's a completely different game console than the old PSP, but to outsiders, it looks awfully similar. And the compelling reasons to buy a gaming handheld, as mentioned above, have changed: there are tons of cheap phones and tablets that run impressive games on iOS and Android. And you can do other things with those phones and tablets, too.
But consider the PlayStation Vita a refined, dedicated device, with better games and better controls to play those games, and maybe you'll understand what makes the Vita compelling. Sony's PlayStation Vita, as of summer 2014, is a really good way to play handheld games. Better than you realize. It's gotten better than what it was back when it debuted in 2012. And the extra hardware refinements, a price drop, and an underrated and large game library make the Vita a lot of fun. And if you like indie games, or own a PlayStation 4, it just might be worth the $200 investment.
What you get in the box
The new Vita Slim, or PlayStation Vita PCH-2000, limited-edition bundle that launched this spring includes an 8GB Vita memory card and a downloadable voucher for Borderlands 2, along with extra DLC (downloadable content) packs. Sony's proprietary Vita memory cards are expensive, and annoying; that 8GB card actually costs $20 normally, making it a useful pack-in. But, the Borderlands 2 game has two flaws: it takes up over 5GB of storage space, threatening to fill the included memory card, and it's not a really great game on the Vita. Frankly, there are better games to get.
You'll also, probably, want a larger memory card, especially if you're taking advantage of free game downloads when subscribing to PS Plus. Alas, a 16GB card costs almost $40. A 32GB card, $80. The Nintendo 3DS uses low-cost standard SD cards. If you're thinking Sony is cashing in on these memory cards rather than going with cheaper, standardized microSD cards, you're probably right; there just isn't really another explanation.
The Vita also works with physical game mini-cartridges, which can be bought in stores. Some people prefer a hard copy, and at least you won't have to worry about running out of storage.
Design: Same as ever, but thinner
The new Vita Slim, for those keeping close tabs, is indeed slimmer than the previous Vita. But either one feels good to hold. The controls are nearly identical to those on the original Vita: dual analog sticks, a D-pad, four familiar PlayStation buttons, and two top shoulder buttons. But it's different from a regular PlayStation controller, which has extra trigger buttons and rumble. And it definitely feels different: smaller, and not as ideal for some console-style shooters. The rear touch pad, an oddity unique to the Vita, is smaller on the newer version. The new Vita feels wide and flat and a bit more phonelike, almost like a 5-inch Android phone with video game button controls added on the sides.
Most people won't notice the size difference, but if you put an original Vita side by side with a Slim, you will notice the screen difference; the previous vivid OLED display has been replaced by an IPS LCD. The LCD is still really good, but the colors aren't as rich and don't "pop" as much as the original Vita. PlayStation hardware fanatics are bound to debate the differences for years to come, much like variations in the PlayStation 3 hardware.
I still prefer the new slim Vita because of two big advantages: slightly boosted battery life, and Micro-USB charging. Both make this version last longer on trips and charge more easily than ever; you can say so long to bringing your bulky PlayStation Vita charger with you, and just carry standard Micro-USB cables and a battery pack.
Games: A mix of familiar classics and enticing indies
The Vita's had a strange journey: originally, it started as a way of playing console-quality PlayStation games on the go. Games like Uncharted and Gravity Rush show off the system's power, but Sony just hasn't made all that many killer exclusive games that'll convince you to get a Vita. Unlike Nintendo, which has packed its 3DS handheld with quality versions of nearly all its major franchise games (Mario, Zelda, Star Fox, and so on), The Vita's big console-type standouts are fewer. It does have LittleBigPlanet, Killzone and Uncharted, and a recent rerelease of the two PS2 God of War games, plus last holiday's excellent Tearaway, but the upcoming release schedule doesn't show a lot to look forward to in terms of big-budget exclusives.