Sony had a tiny surprise to share just ahead of the Tokyo Games Show: the PS Vita TV, appearing from inside SCE President Andrew House's jacket pocket. Having already announced a new, slender PS Vita handheld less than an hour earlier, Sony showed off this minute console -- roughly the same footprint as a smartphone -- that plays Vita games, PlayStation games and streams video content, as well as music and video from Sony's own store. It can also connect with multiple PS3 DualShock controllers, allowing for proper, responsive gaming -- something we're not quite used to getting from something so tiny.

You could see it as a brutal counterstrike from the PlayStation team against the cheap, mini-console likes of OUYA and GameStick, even Huawei. Aside from contemporary Vita titles and indie games, you can also tap into an ever-increasing catalog of hits from yesteryear -- something that the Android and iOS platforms also dip their feet into, but with the peace of mind (read: stability) of PlayStation hardware, and the ability to steer the action with a DualShock controller. Sound like something you'd like to try out? Well, unfortunately, unlike the new PS Vita, this is currently a Japan-only deal. What's more, availability in Nihon is directly tied to compatibility there, too; you'll need a Japanese PSN account to even use it. We're still getting a vague line from SCE on whether it will eventually arrive outside of Japan. (It would be a convenient bit of hardware to sell alongside Sony's PlayStation Now streaming-game service, set to launch in the US later this year, right?)

So, is this just a tenuous experiment or a whole new console line for PlayStation? Or, given that it's practically got all the same internals, would you be better off just buying a Vita?

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Sony PlayStation Vita TV review

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Sony

PlayStation Vita TV

Pros

  • The cheapest, most portable way to remotely play your PS4 on another TV
  • Plays PS1 and Vita games using a full-sized DualShock controller
  • Reasonably priced

Cons

  • Doesn't play every Vita game, excludes some important ones
  • Video services need more work, content
  • Same UI as the Vita, but harder to use without a touchscreen 
Summary

The Vita TV can play PS1 and Vita games, and, if you have a PS4, you can use Remote Play, too. It's cheap, but the video services are limited, both in content and picture quality. For now, it may be a Japan-only experiment, but it has potential, assuming Sony can work out some of the game compatibility issues.

Hardware

It's deck-of-cards small. And stylish. And somehow cute. Sony clearly got the hardware right, with neatly curved sides and all the cable ports relegated to the back. It comes in an off-white finish, which, oddly, is slightly darker than the companion white DualShock controller that came included in the 15,000-yen ($144) value pack we tested for this review. The front panel is glossy, with some Sony branding on the left and a single LED to display when the Vita TV is on. There's also the 19-year-old PlayStation logo on the top, but that's about it. It's an unassuming little console, and we like it for that, though once you've got all the necessary cables plugged in (HDMI, power, possibly Ethernet), it loses some of its style points. That can't really be helped though, can it? Maybe. Sony could have tried powering the whole device through MHL (the same standard that allows smartphones to shift content to HDTVs while charging it at the same time) and that would have wrapped those display and AC adapter ports together. We're guessing the relatively high level of graphics rendering and processing that the Vita TV has to do might be too much for an MHL port.

Because it isn't housing bleeding-edge GFX, it's quiet. So quiet. Sony has told us that it uses the same processor found in its Vita handheld, which makes sense: The mini-console loads and responds to navigation at an identical pace. You will, however, need the aforementioned DualShock controller to do this, which might bump up initial costs if you don't already have one from a PS3. (As we'll elaborate on later, a PS4 controller also works.)

The USB port along the back acts as the charging port for controllers, meaning you've got yet another cable there to clutter up the design. To the right, there are HDMI and Ethernet ports, while a 5V AC socket for powering everything is on the far edge. On the other side of the USB port, you'll find the second media slot, alongside another for Vita game carts. This is for your Vita memory card, which could mean another add-on purchase, assuming you didn't already plump for the value pack. The cards are still overpriced, but at least there's now a 64GB one -- which seems like it could be enough to last the lifetime of one's Vita TV. If you already own a Vita handheld, you'll need just the one card. We could eject the Vita game cart and memory card, slot them into our portable Vita and play the same games from the same game saves. Aside from wrestling the memory card out of the slot, it's a pretty straightforward process, meaning you can continue your portable gaming on a bigger screen, with an arguably more comfortable control setup.

Along the back, on the far left edge, there's a power button, although with a wireless controller in hand, we tended to power down from inside the menu -- it's one of several software differences between the Vita TV and the handheld that came before it.

Software

The PS Vita TV has the same interface as the Vita handhelds: Games and apps are housed in floating bubbles, and you press the PlayStation button to switch out of games, multitask and get back to the home screen. However, with the Vita TV there's no touch panel to navigate through those icons and menus, which does fight against how it was originally designed.

Fortunately, its sheer simplicity means we had no real issues making our way through it using a DualShock controller. Yes, typing is more of a chore than with a touchscreen, but because the Vita TV explodes exactly the same view from the Vita handheld to your HDTV, the onscreen keyboard is just as huge and this editor found it easier to use than the one on the PS3. Again, this is a credit to its simplicity. Because of the lack of presses to hold and swipes to delete we were using on the Vita, the Vita TV occasionally throws up subtle reminders for how to do these things -- a relief, because we wouldn't have known how to otherwise.

As a games console, you can play Vita games (on physical media, or downloaded) as well as a back catalog of PSP and PSX titles, both of which are easy to play on a DualShock controller. However, a lack of touch input (the original Vita has both a touchscreen and rear touch panel) does ultimately hamper which games you can actually play. Tearaway, Metal Gear Solid HD Collection, Wipeout, Uncharted and Gravity Rush are all unfortunate casualties of this compatibility oversight, each requiring a degree of touch within gameplay. The TV unit also lacks cameras and a built-in compass -- again reducing the list of compatible titles, but this doesn't seem to preclude any especially notable games.

When a compatible game demands some sort of touch input, Sony's come through with a system (included within a patch that automatically downloads) that attempts to lash a two-dimensional touch area to the analog sticks. Pressing R3 summons two pointers for the front panel, while L3 does the same for the rear one. Pressing both analog sticks down produces pointers on both. If our description sounds confusing, good -- because it's even more difficult to grasp in use, and it's only really a workaround for a handful of cases. Those aforementioned titles simply won't load to start with.

Regardless of which generation of PlayStation gaming you choose to dip your toes into, the Vita TV automatically upscales to 720p -- an improvement over the manual process needed on the Vita. Predictably, it's the Vita games that look the best on an HD screen. Animation is smooth and while upscaling from the handheld means that it doesn't quite look as sharp as on the original (it's a pixels-per-inch issue), it still looks good -- which surprised us. We'd cite Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 as one game that handles the big screen particularly well.

The years haven't been so kind to original PlayStation titles.

Alas, the years haven't been so kind to original PlayStation titles. To their credit, the likes of Tomb Raider, Final Fantasy and the original Wipeout play just like they used to. The original PlayStation was the first Sony console to use a dual-analog pad, the DualShock 3's distant ancestor, meaning that if there's a game available on the PlayStation Store, it'll work on the Vita TV. (Funnily enough, the Vita iteration of Wipeout doesn't work.) Despite that, the Vita TV is a wake-up call to middling (cheap) plug-in consoles that haven't quite made the cut. Regardless of the sluggish launch schedule of Vita games, there's that huge back catalog of titles to play through, along with all those indie hits. And aside from that touchscreen barrier, they all work; they work well; and there's no controller lag -- it is a PlayStation, after all.

The Vita TV isn't just gunning for cheaper console challengers, however. Alongside its gaming talents, there's a handful of video services too, besides Sony's own Video Unlimited store. Japanese rental chain Tsutaya offers both a video-on-demand store as well as a monthly subscription service for unlimited viewing. Hulu is meant to be here too. As of this writing, however, it still isn't available at the store.

There are other services you've probably never heard of, and they offer a pretty limited selection. Skappa On Demand broadcasts live J-League soccer matches and, at the moment, nothing else. Video output is capped at 720p too, meaning the Vita TV trails the likes of Roku and Apple TV in picture quality. The mini-console's talents outside of gaming are certainly secondary, which is a shame. It has such a small footprint that it could have been a great choice for making non-smart TVs a little more capable.

Because the Vita TV transposes nearly everything from the hand-held version, some of the apps, like the web browser, are downright diabolical on an HDTV. Due to the resolution limitations, you'll have to read sites one giant paragraph of text at a time -- it's far from a comfortable experience. Ditto for social networking apps like Twitter and Facebook: the text is huge. We spent most of our time scrolling and scrolling and scrolling.

Wrap-up

Thanks to a combination of petite, understated hardware and more than a little nostalgia, there's a lot to like about the Vita TV, especially if you grew up with PlayStation. However, Sony's littlest console still has some game-support issues it needs to sort out. In particular, it needs to get its entire PS1 back catalog online and work out a better way of bypassing the lack of a touchscreen. Relief could come from the PS4 controller, which already houses a tiny touchpad, although Sony hasn't said anything to that end and given that the fourth PlayStation hasn't even launched here in Japan, it's not something we've been able to test out. We're also thinking this could be the cheapest way to play Sony's incoming PS Now streaming-game service on your non-Sony TV, if/when PS Now and the Vita TV are both available in the same region.

For now, the PS Vita TV is, at its core, a cheap games machine (10,000 yen, or $96) that we can't recommend as a media-streaming device -- although that's all icing on the cake anyway. But until Sony reveals global plans for the Vita TV, this mini-console remains a tempting Japan-only curio. That's a shame, because there's so much more here to recommend it over those similarly priced, rougher-edged Android consoles.

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PlayStation Vita TV review: Sony's first mini-console has some growing pains