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 has cut the price of 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.
Music: A standard music player is installed on the Vita, which allows for background playback.
Videos: Video playback looks great on the Vita. In terms of compatibility, it supports the MPEG-4/H.264 format. While that has become somewhat of an industry standard, the Vita lacks the comprehensive movie file support that the PS3 so proudly boasts. If you're stuck with an incompatible format and you want it to play on the Vita, try using the free encoder HandBrake (Windows | Mac) to convert your file into an MP4.
Content Manager: This app acts as a means to manage all the media (music, photos, and videos) that's stored on the Vita's Memory Card. It can also be used to back up game saves and entire game files. A one-time installation on PC or Mac allows your computer to talk to the Vita and swap files. While it might be a bit cumbersome to set up initially, the Vita software works well and is very easy to use as long as you respect the content directory paths that you assign when setting up the Content Manager Assistant software. It seems like one too many steps, but again, Sony is clearly making this as unattractive to piracy as possible. This also means that you cannot mount the Vita as a USB mass storage device.
Maps: Maps is a Google Maps app that provides a lot of the functionality from the smartphone and Web-based platforms. GPS locates your location, from which you can search addresses, businesses, and directions.
Remote Play: Remote Play allows a Vita to connect to a PS3 over a home network. While Remote Play initially seemed promising, I've yet to see it really impress. It has a lot of potential, but almost every desirable feature seems to be blocked. Very few games will even work with the service; I've only seen Killzone 3 work over Remote Play, and you can't watch any Blu-rays or DVDs, either. That said, I was able to play videos stored on my NAS through the PS3's DLNA client.
Sony claims that the Vita's battery life should net around 3 to 5 hours of gameplay on a single charge. I've been getting just over 4.5 on a regular basis. This number increases when just watching video or listening to music in addition to using other features.
The big improvement I've noticed over the PSP is standby time. The Vita lasts a very long time in standby mode -- I'm talking over a week in my testing. This would have been unheard of in the days of the PSP.
Finally, the battery is internal and not user-replaceable. Again, this decision was probably made to combat piracy, as some of the original PSP's vulnerability was unlocked because of its replaceable battery.
Games and performance
Sony describes the Vita as the "best lineup in PlayStation history," and I'd be lying if I said I disagree. Clocking in at a whopping 25 total launch games (this includes PSN-only titles), there really is something for everyone.
Great graphics is where the Vita shines, and most of the launch titles look absolutely fantastic. It's the closest thing I've seen to a PlayStation 3 in your hands.
I love the ability to be able to pause a game state by hitting the PlayStation button. It freezes your game, which then allows you to use other applications. I should also note that like PSP games, Vita titles require a bit of loading time.
So what about those dual analog thumb sticks? I can't deny that they are definitely needed -- Nintendo's introduction of the Circle Pad Pro for the 3DS is living proof. That said, their tiny demeanor doesn't allow for much range of motion. I like that they pivot as opposed to slide, but what this has translated to seems to be an increase in their overall sensitivity as they relate to onscreen action. For example, using them to control aiming in Uncharted definitely takes a fair amount of practice to get right. Even then, I still find myself totally missing targets on a regular basis. It's a much different experience compared with what I'm used to on a DualShock controller.
During my testing with the launch games, I found that some titles (aside from those where touch is a central mechanic like in Little Deviants) give you the option to bypass touch controls. It seems the jury is still out on whether all games should offer that option, but I think touch-screen controls occasionally break the flow of gameplay. Needless to say, touch control was a must-have feature from the start, so we'll have to see how its evolution plays out on the new platform. What I do love, though, is the rear touch panel and how it prevents any visual impairment while still using touch controls. Using the panel feels natural and from what I've seen so far, I enjoy it more than using the front screen for touch.
Just like the DualShock controller, the Vita uses motion control as well. It's another game mechanic that I'm not totally sold on, but it does appear in a sizable chunk of launch games. Love it or hate it, it's still a better experience compared with the 3DS', simply because moving that system around almost always breaks up the 3D effect.
The inclusion of two cameras allows the Vita to enter the world of augmented reality (AR). The technology superimposes game elements into the environment around you by looking through Vita's screen. Nintendo wowed us with a collection of AR games included with the system; the games force the player to move around a general area (in most cases a table top). Bundled in with the Vita are six AR cards that work with a free game available in the PlayStation Store. The AR experience on the Vita is much smoother (in terms of frame rate) and arguably better implemented than what I've seen on the 3DS. Still, the technology does feel a bit gimmicky, but Vita developers seem to be using it more than 3DS game makers.
I also wanted to point out how well I think the Vita's onboard speakers perform. Now you'll probably want to opt for headphones for most gaming situations (it improves battery life and is general common courtesy), but it's definitely worth noting their clear and crisp sound and performance.
I've had plenty of hands-on time with around a dozen games, but here are a few words on some titles I've spent a considerable amount of time with:
Uncharted: Golden Abyss: Easily the one absolutely must-have game at launch, Golden Abyss is Uncharted in your pocket. Touch controls feel gimmicky, but there's the option to bypass them completely. Here's where I also really began to struggle with the analog thumb sticks, but after weeks of play, I'm much better than where I was when I started the game.
EA Sports FIFA Soccer: The Vita's 5-inch screen shines here the most out of any launch game. The level of detail is amazing, as you can see a huge chunk of the field at any given time. Here I really dislike the touch controls, though, including the rear panel. Accidentally hitting the panel is too easy to do, so I turned those controls off.
Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3: While I found this chaotic fighting game a lot of fun, it's limited in terms of modes when played offline. Even though there's a "touch mode," this one's best experienced with buttons only.
Wipeout 2048: Another great example of the sheer processing power the Vita packs in, Wipeout 2048 is a fast, dazzling racer that displays lightning-quick visuals. The pace to the racing is great, though it can spiral into anarchy at any given moment. Wipeout is a classic PlayStation franchise, and 2048 continues the legacy.
Touch My Katamari: I was very excited to see a Katamari game hit the Vita at launch. While it's an odd concept (you roll over items to make your Katamari ball bigger), it's extremely accessible, and the Vita's rear touch panel works great to stretch your Katamari. Pick up Touch My Katamari if you're interested in a game that you can pick up and play in short spurts.
Most games will range in price from $30 to $50 (and for less when downloaded off the PlayStation Store). PSN-only games start at $10 and up.
Online experience and PlayStation Store
The preinstalled portable mini version of the PSN Store is actually a breeze to use. I downloaded Super Stardust Delta fairly quickly, and the Vita performed this in the background. The store interface is tailored for touch controls and is split up into two main categories, Game and Video. Similar to its PS3 counterpart, the store allows for movie rentals and purchases, and full Vita game, PSP, Mini, and demo downloads. Judging by the initial pricing, purchasing full Vita games from the Store will net you a small discount. PlayStation Plus membership has also launched for the Vita and with it games like Uncharted: Golden Abyss, Gravity Rush and Wipeout 2048 can be downloaded for free.
The 3DS and the rest of the portable gaming landscape
Over the last couple of years the Vita and 3DS have taken separate paths although they appear to have overlapped in a few areas. Indie gaming has erupted on both platforms, allowing for the purchasing of inexpensive and entertaining titles. Their small size also makes it easy to carry dozens of games on the go.
But where the Vita can't catch up to the 3DS is first-party support and a steady stream of AAA titles. Only a handful of titles can be labeled as "must-own" on the Vita and only in the last year has things really begun to pick up steam on the indie side of things. Games like Spelunky and Guacamelee! make the Vita worth owning, but don't expect to get the PS3 experience of blockbuster games on the platform. Only recently has Killzone: Mercenary made its way to the handheld, which is the shooter diamond in what's otherwise a gigantic rough.
Should you buy a PlayStation Vita? If you're a fan of indie games it's almost a no-brainer. There are plenty of titles that launch simultaneously on PS3 and Vita, and one purchase allows play on both platforms. Sure, the cost of getting started is probably more than you thought, but the Vita's fantastic launch lineup, laundry-list of features, cool apps, silky smooth OS, and promising future definitely make a great case for owning one. Will Sony restyle the Vita at some point? Almost certainly (they did). But in terms of a first effort, the Vita is a complete package. Where a lull in AAA games has evolved, the Vita makes up for with an impressive amount of indie titles.
Of course with the impending release of the Vita 2000, we'd have to recommend -- at the very least -- waiting to see what it performs like. We're anticipating a $200 price point as well, but there's enough differences that'll require a new full review. Keep it here for our review of the Vita 2000!