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PlayStation Vita Slim review: PlayStation Vita Slim makes the case for a dedicated gaming handheld

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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?

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8.0

PlayStation Vita Slim

The Good

The new Vita Slim charges with any Micro-USB cable, is thinner and lighter, has improved battery life, and works nicely as a PS4 accessory for local game streaming. The game library's gotten really good, too, including freebies for PS Plus subscribers.

The Bad

Expensive proprietary memory cards are necessary and annoying; new LCD display is less vivid than the original Vita's OLED display; the lack of rumble and extra buttons means some remote-play PS4 games translate awkwardly.

The Bottom Line

Two years in, the PlayStation Vita has come of age and become a refined piece of hardware and an excellent place to play a lot of games. You don't need one, but it's really fun and worth its price.

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 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.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

Unless, of course, you're into indie games, in which case the Vita has a treasure trove of little wonders. Many of the best of this generation's independent titles have, strangely, found homes on the Vita: games like Fez, Limbo, Thomas Was Alone, Spelunky and many others like on Sony's handheld and give it a freshness that's totally unique from the Nintendo 3DS. The 3DS feels like Disney-type family fun, while the Vita feels like a hipster's game paradise. Weird pixel-art games and titles that normally live on the PC and mobile make their way to the Vita and take advantage of the handheld's superior game controls. It's an excellent place to play games you haven't gotten around to playing in other places, like a Kindle for books or Netflix for old movies.

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PS4 Remote Play: Worth it if you own a console. Sarah Tew/CNET

Vita: A PS4 accessory, in a sense

The PlayStation Vita does several interesting things if you own a PlayStation 4. It can stream games remotely, either in your home or outside of it, as long as your PS4 is in standby mode. You'll be able to start your system up, tool around in the UI, and even tell your PS4 do start downloads while you're out. (As always, you're home broadband needs to be top-notch, or the experience falls apart.)

Games play surprisingly well when streamed, but the Vita has its drawbacks; for example, the buttons don't exactly match up with what's on the Dual Shock 4 controller, so extra trigger buttons end up getting mapped to rear touch controls. It makes some complicated games like EA's Madden Football a lot less playable. Resogun, a side-scrolling shooter, played fantastically.

The Vita can be used as a second screen for some games, and the home remote-play aspects turn it into the sort of away-from-your-TV gaming device like the Nintendo Wii U GamePad. It can be useful if your main TV is being occupied (trust me), just don't expect a perfect experience with all games.

The Vita will also support PlayStation Now, Sony's streaming-games service launching later this year. How that will work remains to be seen, but these extra perks make the Vita an even better buy for someone already in the PlayStation fold.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Value galore: Cross-play games, plus PS Plus subscription service

There are a lot of ways to get "bonus" or low-cost games on the Vita, starting with the fact that many new PS4 or PS3 games are cross-compatible: buy it once, play it on several systems. This has been true for years, and has helped PS3 or PS4 owners get extra games in their Vita library easily.

But PS Plus, Sony's yearly subscription service, is the best bet of all: that $50 yearly fee means at least two games a month that can be "owned" for as long as you're a paying PS Plus member. Dozens of games, from indies to major releases, have hit the service already. It's a ton more value than anything Nintendo's offered for the 3DS.

If you owned a PSP, there's also a good chance that older downloadable games you may have purchased years ago will already download and play on the Vita, too. (Alas, the old PSP discs will not work with the Vita.) Just make sure you're using the same PSN account.

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Vita (left), Vita Slim (right) Sarah Tew/CNET

Get a Vita Slim, or the 'old' original Vita?

Here's the question: do you value a slightly better screen, or easier on-the-go charging, slimness, and improved battery life? The original Vita is basically the same hardware as the new slimmed-down Vita, at least under the hood. The differences come down to the little things. The new slimmer Vita is indeed thinner and lighter, but its biggest advantage is a switch to Micro-USB charging. You can recharge with nearly any spare cable and AC adapter you may already have lying around. The battery life's a bit better, and the Vita now feels more than ready to last a long plane flight.

But the new IPS LCD display's noticeably less vivid than the original Vita's OLED one. If you can get the original Vita for a great price, it's probably a smart move. But if you're going to play a lot of long games on the road, the improved charging will pay dividends.

Conclusion

You don't really need a dedicated handheld game system anymore, now that phones and tablets play so many great games. But tell that to a serious gamer and they'll want to start a fight. There's still value in a standalone, sharply engineered handheld like the PlayStation Vita, provided you like the games it offers. Like a Kindle is for reading, it's a better overall experience for playing games than using a multipurpose device.

And, in the past couple of years, a lot of great games have arrived on the Vita: mobile-style game ports, classic PS1, PSP, and PS2 games, and lots of indie masterpieces. As a handheld game fan myself, I've preferred Nintendo and the 3DS. But lately, I'm finding myself using the Vita instead. Or I alternate. Both systems have nearly completely different game libraries, and different aesthetics: the Nintendo 3DS has the worlds of Mario, Zelda, Kirby, and Donkey Kong, and tons of original, can't-get-anywhere-else gaming, while the PlayStation Vita is a home to PlayStation franchises, interesting throwback games, adult console games, and great-looking indie experiences.

The PlayStation Vita is an indulgence in an age of do-everything portable gadgets. You don't need one to be entertained on a flight or a long car ride. But if you're a serious on-the-go gamer who buys one, something tells me you won't regret it.

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8.0

PlayStation Vita Slim

Score Breakdown

Design 8Ecosystem 8Features 9Performance 8Value 7