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Sony's PlayStation Vita: first hands-on impressions

We've seen Sony's PlayStation Vita, and more importantly, what it can do -- but this evening, we touched that Next Generation Portable for the very first time. How does it compare to its single-sticked predecessor? And will we make another Madonna joke? Find out after the break.

Update: Sony wouldn't let us take any pictures or video of the Vita at the time of this post, but we just got some on the E3 show floor.

The first thing that struck us is just how light the Vita feels in the hand. It's got a gorgeous five-inch OLED panel, monstrous for a portable system, but the plastics used in its construction make it seem lighter than the PSP or even some of our weightier smartphones. You're looking at firm glossy and matte plastic surfaces here, with the Start, Select and Power buttons flush in the glossy front. The face buttons feel small compared to the PSP or a DualShock 3, but they're firm and comfortable to press, and there's a nice floating D-pad on the left side which feels like it could handle a Street Fighter shoryuken or three. The transparent shoulder buttons don't feel much different than the ones on the PlayStation Portable, though perhaps a tad springier in their action, and between them there are a pair of iPod nano-like volume buttons and a pair of thin plastic covers. One hides the flash card slot, while another reveals a mysterious port of some sort -- none of the Sony representatives could tell us what it does, though there's also a larger port on the bottom of the system which apparently connects proprietary USB and / or networking cables.

Despite the lack of weight, the PS Vita definitely has a bit of bulk, and we have to admit it wasn't completely comfortable to hold as instructed. There are a pair of smooth plastic indents on the back for your fingers to rest on (when they're not manipulating the rear touchpad) but they may only work for smaller hands given how close they are to the edges of the system -- we found it far more comfortable to rest our fingers on the touchpad itself, which could potentially pose trouble in certain games that use it, though the jury's out on that one. Speaking of touch, we found both the front and rear screens plenty responsive in early use, and they really do add a lot to well-thought-out games, with both Uncharted and LittleBigPlanet using them to fantastic effect.

Navigating obstacles in Uncharted really is as simple as swiping from ledge to ledge; you can line up a whole series of ledges to have Drake shimmy along by himself; and LittleBigPlanet had us not only dragging objects but intuitively pushing and pulling blocks in and out of the screen with both touchpads simultaneously -- building a staircase of Tetris-like blocks. And how about the dual analog sticks? We're glad you asked -- they completely blow away the original PSP's analog nub, and we don't think first-person combat (or most any PS3 port) will be much of an issue. On this demo unit, they were slightly looser than those on a DualShock 3, but we had no trouble squeezing off a few headshots in Uncharted with a little bit of practice. There were other games on display, but Uncharted and LittleBigPlanet were by far the standouts here, and they both look and play fantastic in person. On the 5-inch screen, we have to say neither entirely looked the junior of its console counterpart -- given the relatively high PPI, you have to look closely to see the graphical compromises. We said it before, but we'll say it again: $250 is a chunk of cash, but it sure looks like you're getting a lot of handheld for your money here.