It's about time Sony's next-generation handheld got a redesign. Not that the new PS Vita is so different from the original models. The screen's no bigger, and it hasn't lost any backward compatibility either. In fact, nearly everything that Sony's changed here is for the better (and that includes the fizzy new array of colors too). Perhaps the biggest negative, however, is that the new Vita is a Japan-only device, at least for now. But importers delight: our non-Japanese PSN account worked fine (as did our game cards), and with 1GB of built-in memory, there's the possibility that you won't need to pony up more money for Sony's pricey Vita memory cards. But how does that cheaper screen fare against its predecessor's sparkling OLED? And can you play it for more than five hours? Keep reading, folks: we've got some good news and some bad news. 35 Photos
PlayStation Vita review (2013)
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The original Vita started out as a thick slice of handheld. Fortunately, though, at 15mm thick (20 percent less) and 219g (a 15 percent weight reduction), this new model is more comfortable to use -- far more than those numbers would suggest. Indeed, playing for extended sessions was less of a test of upper-body strength than it used to be. We kid, but it does feel substantially lighter. The previous Vita was very much at the limits of handheld gaming, size-wise. Portable, yes, but not pocketable, at least in our opinion (and our trousers'.) The thinner Vita easily slides into jacket and blazer pockets, and also takes up less space in messenger bags. Still, we're not going to be storing it in our jeans any time soon.
The new Vita also looks better. Ranging from hot pink and black, to white and lime green, it's great to see Sony experimenting with colors beyond just monochrome and primary shades. Shape-wise, the edges now curve inwards rather than remaining flat, which means the new Vita is easier to grip too. Otherwise, it's the same oval-shaped handheld, although the buttons have received some minor cosmetic changes. Some of the lightweight decorations have been ditched, so there are no more circles surrounding the d-pad and analog sticks. Meanwhile, the PlayStation home, start and select buttons are now circles rather than ovals, matching the Vita OS' game and app icons. Weirdly, Sony also shed the backlighting underneath the home button; you'll have to make do with the pair of notification lights on the top edge.
On our lime-green iteration, Sony added two gray, rubberized pads to the white analog sticks, while on the other models, these are both black. The sticks themselves feel slightly springier than on our old Sony handheld, although that could well be wear and tear, and not a change in the construction of the sticks themselves. The d-pad remains unchanged -- identical to the last Vita, but different from the separated-out direction keys found on PS3 and PS4 controllers. Speaking of the PS4, it clearly had some influence on the Vita's redesign, too. The rear touchpad has shrunk by about 3cm in width (the other dimensions are about the same), putting it much closer in size to the incoming touch panel on the PS4's DualShock 4. And indeed, smaller is better. During Remote Play for PS3 titles and when the Vita emulates PS1 games, the handheld migrates those L2 and R2 collar buttons to the rear pad, which used to mean a lot of unwanted L2 and R2 input. While using the new Vita, however, the smaller rear panel meant we made much fewer accidental presses.
Those clicky buttons are still around, and there's the same button setup along the top edge. This time, though, those power and volume nubs are made of colored plastic instead of the machined aluminum found on the original. In general, the Vita's slender new shape was apparently made possible by reshuffling the components inside and, well, swapping some out. The major swap-out was the screen, which has gone from a well-received OLED display to an LCD one, similar to the screen technology Sony uses on its Xperia smartphones. We will say this: the quality of the LCD in the new PlayStation Vita is miles beyond the watery, shady screens of your PSP. Still, is it for the better?
Battle of the PS Vitas: OLED vs. LCD displaysSee all photos
The short version: we preferred the OLED. Not only are the blacks blacker on the OLED (it's what we always say about OLED and AMOLED, but it's no less true), but also in-game colors appear more washed out and less vivid on the LCD. What's more, when we lay the two devices next to each other, everything on the LCD panel has a slight yellow tinge to it. If you drop the brightness down to the minimum, the LCD loses a lot in viewing angles, while the OLED model fares perfectly fine. At top brightness, it's more difficult to discern any drop-off in viewing angles. Even then, though, the difference between color reproduction on both devices is fairly obvious.
Cranked to full, the original Vita shows a bluish overcast on white backgrounds (see above), while the new Vita shows more accurate colors, at least while displaying photos and websites. In the middle of a game, though, we'd prefer everything on the screen to pop, and the OLED display does this best. But will you notice? Perhaps not. Vita content stays pretty much the same on the Vita -- at least until that TV mini-console gets here. Does the LCD at least offer up decent battery life, though? Stay tuned.
Aside from the screen, there's now a whole 1GB of available built-in storage, meaning you can play through your favorite Vita titles without ever having to buy one of Sony's own (still pricey) memory cards. However, if you're already paying for PlayStation Plus (or are going to -- you really should), you're going to have to buy some more storage, because one gig really isn't going to cut it if you're downloading games.
Sony's move from a proprietary charging port to micro-USB is another pretty darn logical one. Most of us have plenty of spare micro-USB cables from smartphones past, so in a pinch, you'll be able to charge your new handheld even if you don't have the official AC adapter. There's no MHL support within the new charging port, although we did give it a try. While it's not on this new Vita, it's very much one of the bigger selling points for, yet again, Sony's Vita TV, and if you could already connect your Vita handheld to a TV-connected mini-console, what would be the point of that?
As anyone who's tried to charge the older Vita can attest, the console can be a little picky with where it's willing to get its juice from. So, we tested out several options on the new model. It worked on a third-party smartphone charger that can output 2.1A. It even played nice with an iPhone charger -- so long as we had a micro-USB cable, anyway. However, it wouldn't pull power from either a laptop USB socket or an MHL-enabled USB port on our TV. How about those USB ports increasingly found on long-haul flights? Well, er, we haven't flown anywhere since taking the new Vita into possession, but when we can try it out, we'll let you know.
We'd recommend taking a look at our original PS Vita review for a deep dive of the handheld's built-in apps and services, as there's not much new here. The updates that have come since launch have mainly served to make the device more reliable when running non-gaming software, although the web browser remains pitifully underpowered compared to what we're used to on smartphones and tablets. Skype works surprisingly well alongside the front-facing VGA camera, while we also threw both Twitter and Facebook onto the new Vita, if only to easily share gaming screenshots. The social networking apps are usable, although they're not quite as accomplished as their smartphone iterations. The capacitive touchscreen makes typing a breeze, especially if we're comparing it against the resistive struggles of text entry on the 3DS.
If you're sticking with the 1GB of storage that's built in, you'll have to temper your enthusiasm when buying games from the store. A gig is enough for some PS1 games, indie games, saves and a few social networking apps, but not much more, so you'll have to get your Vita titles on old-fashioned cartridges. Recent updates mean you can now navigate through the Vita's UI with the d-pad and buttons, if you're not enamored with smearing the touchscreen every time you use it.
Games-wise, it's been an interesting journey for the Vita. Many of the major gaming series have now made it to Sony's handheld in one shape or another, but Vita titles are generally coming out at a pretty slow rate. At the same time, Sony's used the handheld as a springboard for its curated indie content. Half of the Engadget team swears by the likes of Spelunky and Hotline Miami for reinvigorating their Vita habits, and you can also relive some of PlayStation's former glories through an ever-increasing number of PS1 and PSP titles -- especially if you've got access to a Japanese PSN account. However, at least in comparison to the 3DS, must-have titles for the Vita are in shorter supply. If Sony delivers Remote Play for all PS4 games -- and changes how we use the companion handheld -- then this could be fine, but it's disheartening to see the same Vita games on store shelves each week.
Despite that, the games that are now rolling out onto the Vita are better than many of the launch titles. Touchscreen gimmickry has mostly subsided, and games makers are beginning to get to grips with the hardware and, thus, recent games look better.
Last year's Vita gave us around four and a half hours of gaming and Sony has promised at least an extra hour on the new model. In practice, we got up to eight hours of continuous gaming, and that's with brightness at 50 percent, WiFi on and several downloads during testing. This rocketed up to more than 12 hours when we played through less-intensive PSP and PS1 games. That's substantially better run time than we saw on the first Vita, and it beats Sony's own estimates, too; a pretty respectable run, we'd say. While we didn't time it, more casual use lasted around two days, and you can expect video playback to last roughly half a day. Regardless of whether you're thrilled to see LCD replace that OLED screen, we think the battery savings are worth it.
Pricing and the competition
Launching last week in Japan for 18,980 yen (about $190), the new Vita is cheaper than the original was at its debut (24,980 yen). In the US, original Vitas now cost just shy of $200, making them about equivalent, minus those pesky import premiums. If you buy your games on physical media, you could save a bit of money too, as there's no need to buy a memory card (which start at $13 for 4GB in the US), although we still think those cards remain a necessary add-on. Meanwhile, both the 3DS ($190) and 3DS XL ($220) continue to fare well for Nintendo, especially with big titles like Pokemon now arriving on the handheld series. So least in Japan, the Vita is now a smidgen more competitive, at least against gaming rivals -- and it's a more capable media-consumption device too.
The new Vita is better than the last, obviously. We're glad that Sony didn't just stop at making its new device thinner and lighter -- although these revisions are of course appreciated. For many gamers who already have drawers filled with cables, getting rid of the one-use Vita charging cable is a welcome relief. Now if only Sony would oblige in ridding us of its overpriced memory cards as well. Maybe in version 3? While there's no word on a global launch, we'd expect Sony will have something to say about US and European availability once the initial PlayStation 4 rush has subsided.
Available for a cheaper price than the original, there's one part of the Vita package that's arguably changed for the worse, and that's the screen. The OLED panel on the old model was pin-sharp with rich colors; the LCD here doesn't hold a candle. It's a good screen, and there's none of the black spot "burnout" that many OLED Vitas suffered from, and if the LCD means we can play for several hours more (and possibly make it through a whole flight), we're willing to make that sacrifice.
The Vita could also turn into a very different offering in a few months. We're really, really, excited about the opportunity that Remote Play will present for playing PS4 titles. We've had a taste, and the notion that we could be liberated from sitting in front of our PS4 block and HDTV is an extremely appealing one. A Vita purchase could be even more tempting a few months down the line.
Edgar Alvarez contributed to this review.