Editors' note (May 6, 2014): While the original Vita reviewed here can still be purchased at some retailers, Sony is shifting focus to the PlayStation Vita 2000 (aka Vita Slim), which is thinner and lighter, includes 1GB of on-board storage, and --a potential downside for some -- uses an LCD screen instead of the OLED screen found in this original model.
Editors' note (September 11, 2013): Effectively immediately, Sony hasof the Wi-Fi Vita from $249 to $199.
Originally referred to as the NGP or Next Generation Portable, the Sony PlayStation Vita is the follow-up to the PlayStation Portable (or PSP) that was introduced back in March 2005. The Vita was officially named and priced at Sony's E3 2011 press conference.
At the time of the announcement, it seemed that Nintendo's 3DS was already in trouble, with its disappointing launch lineup, an audience divided over 3D, and a short battery life atypical of Nintendo handhelds. All this plus a matching $250 price point gave Sony all of the momentum going in to the next-generation battle of portable consoles.
While Sony had teased the Vita's release for the 2011 holiday season, only Japan got to see the Vita for sale before the new year. Subsequently, the Vita missed the highly lucrative US holiday shopping season, getting bumped to February 22, 2012.
I imported a Japanese Vita in December and have had weeks of hands-on time with the device, including playing most of Uncharted: Golden Abyss. The Vita is easily the most impressive portable gaming device that I've ever handled. Its brilliant touch screen is as responsive as an iPad's, and the onboard operating system is smart, logically laid out, and easy to use.
Priced at $200 for the Wi-Fi version, there still remains some hidden costs in owning a Vita (which I'll cover below). But perhaps the Vita's biggest challenge is proving itself as a worthy device, important enough to convince the casual gamer that he or she needs to carry around not just a smartphone, but a portable console as well. How this generation of handheld devices shapes up will say a lot about where portable gaming is headed, and Sony has made what I think is a very impressive effort right out of the gate. While the Vita suffered a dearth of AAA titles soon after its original release, the platform has evolved into a haven for indie PSN games.
Design, specs, and other features
First available in two versions, the PlayStation Vita retails for $200 (Wi-Fi only) and $300 (Wi-Fi/3G, though it's becoming increasingly harder to find this model). At a quick glance, it could be confused with the PSP, but upon further inspection you'll find it's wider, taller, and just a few millimeters thicker and few ounces heavier than the PSP-3000. Most noticeable of all, though, has got to be its dazzling 5-inch (960x544-pixel) OLED touch screen, which is nearly an entire inch bigger (diagonally) than the PSP-3000's screen.
Even though it weighs in at 9.2 ounces (9.8 ounces for the 3G model), the Vita is still a considerably lightweight device. Its screen is flanked by two analog thumb sticks; above those are the classic PlayStation buttons on the right and a D-pad on the left. Both the buttons and D-pad are smaller than the ones on the PSP. That said, I didn't find that they negatively affect gameplay. If anything, they're more responsive. There are also left and right shoulder buttons, a PlayStation button, and Start and Select buttons. The latter two are quite tiny, tucked away at the bottom-right corner and aren't always very easy to hit, though they aren't used too often. A power toggle is easily accessible on the top-left brim of the unit, while two volume buttons rest on the right side. In between that you've got a Vita game card slot and a proprietary port of some sort that I haven't had any use for yet.
Under the hood the Vita boasts a four-core ARM Cortex-A9 processor and a four-core SGX543MP4+ GPU (graphics chip). Sure, that's not the sexiest-sounding jargon, but it results in the best portable gaming graphics I've ever seen anywhere.
Other Vita features include two 640x480-pixel VGA cameras (rear- and front-facing), a rear touch panel, Sixaxis motion sensing, Bluetooth, 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi , and GPS (only in the 3G version).
Along the bottom of the unit is a headphone jack, microphone sensor, and proprietary USB connection/charging port.
The Vita feels great to hold and is among the more ergonomically satisfying handhelds out there. I occasionally have to stretch my thumbs to hit the center area on the screen, but it's nothing unfamiliar to someone who's typed on an iPad or smartphone.
I was a little surprised that the Vita lacks any kind of video output, unlike the PSP-2000 and 3000. I think video-out remains an important feature -- I use it with my iPad 2 whenever I travel.
The Vita's games operate off of proprietary Sony flash media that most resemble SD cards. There is no support for the PSP's UMD disc, but the Vita is backward compatible with PSP games that are available via the PlayStation Store.
Anything downloaded and installed on the Vita must be done with the use of a Vita Memory Card, as the Vita has an undisclosed -- but seemingly small -- amount of onboard storage. Vita Memory Cards are even smaller than the game cards themselves, mostly resembling Sony M2 and microSD cards. Vita Memory Cards have become a particularly controversial subject with the Vita, as it's also required to play almost all Vita games and media apps. Even more disheartening is the fact that a Vita Memory Card isn't included in the box.
For the first time since its 2011 release Sony has finally lowered the price on its memory cards for the Vita. They still don't line up with the reasonable flash storage prices you'd see with other platforms, but it's a step in the right direction: 16GB and 32GB cards have dropped $20, and it's tough to recommend a capacity below 16GB.
Nevertheless, Sony continues to play the proprietary game with the Vita, forcing customers to shell out more cash on accessories from the get-go. That aside, these tactics are nothing new, and we've seen it from plenty of other companies, such as Apple. When I asked Sony PlayStation Director of Hardware Marketing John Koller about the card at CES 2012, he cited that piracy was one of the major contributing factors in making it a proprietary format. It's no secret that the PSP suffered from widespread piracy and a determined hacking scene, though a lot of that resulted in homebrew applications and emulation software. Any way you slice it, it's a hidden cost that gets passed on to the consumer.
Interface and apps
The Vita's operating system is fantastic. It's very easy to use and navigate through because it just makes sense. The best way to describe its behavior is a cross between WebOS and Android. The OS borrows the "card" multitasking concept found in WebOS by allowing apps and games to be frozen or paused, then flicked away to close. It's also extremely responsive and quick, similar to the experience of using iOS. Animations are smooth, and there are plenty of visual indicators to help you learn your way around.
The OS allows for a decent amount of customization, too. You can change background colors, move apps around, and create or delete pages. The first time you play a game on the Vita, it installs an icon to launch the game. It stays there even when the game card isn't inserted into the system.
Preinstalled in the Vita's OS are a series of apps, and users have the option to sign up for a PlayStation Network account (you can also use an existing one) and download social ones like Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare, and Skype. Netflix and other streaming platforms are available, too. In addition to the self-explanatory items, (Friends, Group Messaging, and Trophies) there a few other items. Here they are with short descriptions:
Party: Players can create a party, chat, and play games with friends over the PlayStation Network.
PS Store: See the Online section below for more on the PlayStation Store.
Near: Near is the Vita's response to the 3DS' Street Pass technology. Near allows players to connect and monitor their friends' gaming activities as well -- taking geographical location into consideration. I don't know too many people with Vitas just yet, so I'll update this section once it's released to the public.
Photos: The Vita's photo app works fast and takes photos from either the front- or rear-facing cameras. Here you can view all of your images as well as screenshots. The Vita can take a screenshot any time by pressing the PlayStation and Start button together. Also new to the Photo app is the ability to record video. Overall quality of the camera isn't great, and it's nowhere near smartphone resolution or crispness, but it's noticeably better than what the 3DS can do. Of course, though, the Vita can't shoot 3D photos like the 3DS can.
Browser: The Vita's Internet browser looks a bit like the PSP's, but performs much faster. It's a similar experience to what smartphone browsing is like, but it doesn't support HTML5 or Flash. Those shortcomings aside, typing URLs on the screen is certainly a welcome change of pace compared with manual entry on the PSP.