It's hard to believe that Sony's venerable first portable has just reached its seventh birthday. The PSP launched in 2004: a year when the Motorola RAZR V3 claimed top phone prizes and tablets were called tablet PCs. Since then, its closest rival has undergone several substantial transformations, but the PSP has remained largely untouched, aside from getting a little slimmer. Sony's hoping its new portable superstar is less evolutionary, more revolutionary. And it may have to be. Mobile gaming is snapping at its heels, with game developers continuing to boost the scale and polish on smartphone offerings. Even Sony has been attempting to get in on the mobile action, with underwhelming results so far.
So here's the PlayStation Vita, attempting to breath new life into the portable gaming market. There's no 3D screen, it doesn't do phone calls (although our test model is the 3G-connected variant) but there is, however, a load of power underneath that 5-inch OLED hood. It looks to be the answer to more "traditional" gamers' prayers, but there are plenty of questions we've been itching to answer. Is a portable gaming console still a valid gaming option? How long will the battery last? What's that rear touchscreen all about? Read on and see how Sony's next-generation portable stacks up. %Gallery-142174%
The Vita arrives in a piano black guise and that glossy finish is pretty hungry for your fingerprints. It's likely to pick up more than its fair share with the double touchscreen setup found here. In our hands, the Vita feels pretty similar to the original launch PSP, although it's impressively light for all the high-end internals. The 3G / WiFi model weights in at 279g (9.8 ounces), matching the first generation Sony handheld, although it remains heavier than the 3000 series, which scraped underneath 190g (6.7 ounces). The 3DS is also slightly lighter, although due to its clam-shell composition, it's a little thicker when in transit. Your eyes will be immediately drawn to the broad 5-inch OLED capacitive touchscreen. The apparently Samsung-manufactured screen makes the most of its 960 x 544 resolution and the OLED technology makes for superb viewing angles, although we'd have appreciated a bit more brightness here for outdoor play. Videos downloaded from the PlayStation Store are optimized for the Vita's not-so common resolution and are sharp and vivid. Games also sparkle, with an occasional frame-rate wobble that we're (optimistically) hoping disappears when developers get to grips with the new hardware.
The touchscreen is paired with another narrower patterned touch panel across the back. We, however, didn't just come here for touchscreen gaming -- let's take a look at the controls. You'll find them evenly distributed on either side of the screen. On the left side you'll find a d-pad slightly smaller than the one found on both its predecessor and the DualShock controller. Underneath it resides the primary analog stick, which is suitably 'sticky 'enough for play, although it seems to give a little easier than the sticks on the PSP and the PS3 controller.
Finally, a PlayStation button anchors you to the UI's home screen whenever it's pressed. Press it in tandem with the start button and you can take a screen grab in both the UI and (some) games. Like the PlayStation button, both the start and select buttons lie flush with the screen, this time joining Sony's trademark button medley and the (increasingly necessary) second analog stick on the right side. The pair of shoulder buttons round out the controls and, like we mentioned in our first hands-on, seem a tad livelier than those found on the PSP. Sound like enough control options? Well, don't forget that there's also the same Sixaxis motion controls found in the PS3 controllers.
Touring the rest of the hardware, there are two slots along the top edge of the Vita, both protected with silvery plastic covers. While the Vita-labeled cover on the left takes the new proprietary game cards, the one on the right has been revealed as the anonymous-sounding "accessory port." [Thanks, Rodney]
Next to the covers, you'll find a design nod to the PSP Go, with some reassuringly sturdy volume controls and the power button. Standby mode is a brief button press away, while you'll need to depress for three seconds for a full shutdown.
A cover on the left edge accepts the SIM card for 3G connectivity, with Sony's new game memory storage slot located at the base.The proprietary connection for power is also here and around the back, the aforementioned capacitive touchpad is flanked by two grip pads to rest the device comfortably in your hands. They'll also raise the Vita slightly off the surface, sidestepping the chances of scuffing the symbol patterned touchpad. The placement here seems better located for petite hands, as we found our fingers typically placed themselves closer to the center. A metallic plastic strip that runs around the circumference of the device extends into two strap loops at the bottom of each corner.
Inside, it's another quad-core beast, an ARM Cortex A9 with an additional SGX54MP4+ GPU AND 512MB of memory and an additional 128MBs of VRAM. When it comes to raw specs, it simply dwarfs the PSP. In fact, it also has double the RAM of the PS3, although that guy strikes back with more dedicated VRAM (256MB versus 128MB for the Vita). Unfortunately, while we expected the built-in apps to jump into action this generally wasn't the case -- the browser, in particular, puts on an especially poor performance. Games, which are understandably quite complex, often take their time to load up, but when they do, they offer us a very visible jump on the scale and detail of what we've come to expect from portable gaming. Sound quality is also suitably crisp, with rich noises projecting out from the two stereo speakers.
Charging and battery life
If the Vita had us worried about anything, it was reports of a lightweight battery. Three hours? That's on par with the 3DS, which didn't earn any points in the power department either. Like the PSP Go, there's no removable battery, so how does it cope? Were we going to be forever tethered to the AC socket? We tried several different run-down tests the get to the bottom of this. On an all-out gaming test, it looks like the rumors were right - you're looking at around three hours of playtime. It took us around an hour and a half to recharge from zero to full, during continued use. That aside, you'll be wanting to take some sort of power cable with you. USB recharging is possible, but boy, it's slow.
In more casual use, with a smattering of half-hour gaming sessions, some Twitter, video and music, this stretched out to around five hours, but it's very much dependent on use. Near, the Vita's location-based social network seems to assist in bringing the battery to an early demise. We were unable to get the DoCoMo-connected Japanese variant to connect with our own SIM cards, but we'd imagine 3G use would be even more taxing on the battery. It's hard not to take issue with the Vita's longevity, or lack of. Would it have been too hard for Sony to bulk up the proportions of its latest handheld to offer us a more substantial battery life? It's not going win any prizes for being the thinnest slice of gadget we've seen this year -- to handle it properly, we're pretty glad there's some depth to the Vita. A blocky battery extension is promised to arrive in Spring next year, but hopefully Sony -- or some prescient third-party manufacturers -- won't take long to offer up a more subtle battery-extending peripheral, but this is something the electronics giant could have seen coming much earlier. Also, we wonder how a life-extending batter grip might piggyback on this handheld without blocking its rear touchpad.
Camera and multimedia
While both the front and rear-facing cameras appear able to stream video, there's no recording functionality here. It's a shame not to see camera specifications on par with today's smartphones, given the premium price Sony's commanding for its latest portable. It's certainly got the tiny camera sensor chops to have provided something far more pervasive to this portable console.
The apparently resource-heavy web browser is locked-down during gameplay, although you'll be able to hop to music, your friends list and Twitter -- presumably to rave about your new favorite console. The browser itself, well... it works. Despite the touchscreen interface, rendering is slow and we suffered plenty of tiling. You'll find it takes an age for pages to load, even on a WiFi connection, and scrolling through a page seems to discard the previous parts of the page you've already seen. The capacitive screen makes this games console a triumph for typing in web addresses and tweeting, however. There are suggested words and even a customizable dictionary all built-in -- we'd love to see some version of Gmail on this 5-inch screen.
Other apps are relatively short on supply -- there's a Twitter client available in the PlayStation Store, and some lightweight Facebook functionality within the PlayStation network. Will third-party devs be willing to port their wares to the Vita, and jump through the PlayStation Store hoops? We guess that'll depend on sales, but for the moment, the app cupboard remains pretty bare. Connectivity with both the PlayStation 3 and PC is (at the moment) the only way to drag content off and onto the PS Vita, and no, there's no native Mac support here. It's worth mentioning that a lack of built-in storage means your media content will have bunk up with any game saves you've got on that proprietary Vita memory card. We also hope that the expanded controls (second analog sticks are a necessity for a lot of Sony's back-catalog) will improve the availability of future PS3 titles that can be remotely played. At the moment, remote play remains an extra option for streaming media from your more capacious "main" console.
We'll leave the full critiques to our colleagues battling through them over at Joystiq , but here's our brief impressions on a selection of the first draft of games you'll hopefully be enjoying when the Vita arrives over here in 2012.
- Uncharted: Golden Abyss - Likely to be the flagship title, if only because it showcases both the gameplay possibilities and graphical scale of the PS Vita. The Sixaxis sensors, both touchscreens and all the physical inputs are integrated into the first half-hour of play. Hopefully this is just the tip of the iceberg.
- Ultimate Marvel vs Capcom 3 - The 2D fighter arrives with the same bombastic presentation of the series. The tinier d-pad requires a little more concentration for the moves, although thankfully there's a simple control option for the less dexterous
- Dynasty Warriors: Next - The Vita manages a decent draw distance and number of characters on-screen. If you've played one Dynasty Warriors, you should know what to expect. The extra coating of graphical sauce doesn't go amiss.
- Touch My Katamari - The ball-rolling space opera demands the dual-analog sticks. Play is smooth and well, with this soundtrack -- it's just awesome.
- Welcome Park - This built-in bundle includes some lightweight "games", although they're not comparable to the likes of Face Raiders and those game cards built into the 3DS. There's a picture-sliding puzzle, a sound-echoing app and (our favorite) a mode where you try to find faces in things. We don't completely get it either. To be honest, we were hoping that Reality Fighters would arrive gratis on the handheld. In fact, it isn't yet on-sale in the PlayStation store.
So how much is the future of portable gaming going to set you back? Well, it's not for the fainthearted and will depend on whether you're looking for some cellular connectivity thrown into the mix. US buyers can net an early first edition 3G-capable Vita, like our review model, plus a case, a 4GB memory card and a copy of Little Deviants for $350, while Canadian buyers will be able to buy the WiFi-only version for $299.
Ours is the Japanese 3G model, which is priced at 30,000 Yen ($385). Meanwhile, its closest gaming rival, the 3DS, is now available new at around $165, following its price drop from a headier $250. That difference in raw power will be pretty visible on your bank balance. Regrettably, there's also no support for multiple PSN accounts on a single Vita.
The Vita is a beast. The first-string gaming selection really gives us a scale of portable gaming not seen before, while the ability to dip in and out remains effortless. For extended play, the OLED screen is sharp and comfortable on the eyes, although we worry how long it'll last unblemished in the rough-and-tumble of everyday use. The controls, too, soon felt familiar to these gaming paws. The additional analog stick now makes the device a close substitute for the PS3's DualShock. With the upgraded screen resolution, Remote Play is also stepped up -- for the games it does work with.
It's the extra flourishes like the pattern touchpanel on the back and software transitions that make this yet another stylish slab of hardware from Sony. However, there's something here that needs some attention -- we need longer battery life. Like we said in our 3DS review, it's a high price for a handheld device that lasts through just three hours of playtime -- a battery performance that's enough to make even the Thunderbolt smirk. We'd be willing to add some more bulk to the device's svelte frame for the privilege. Likewise, the games also attract a similar premium as Sony attempts to make two new proprietary media cards a success.
The cost will put it at odds with the new casual gamer ethos that's continuing to dominate the likes of Android and iOS. However, there's still nothing on these nascent gaming platforms that can stand up to the sheer scale of Uncharted. Until that happens with a $5 price tag, there certainly remains a space for this kind of premium gaming. Can you resist until Sony does the inevitable and brings out a thinner, less power hungry model? While we're not sure how many new fans the Vita's going to attract (and yes, that battery life will surely be a deal-breaker for many), the sheer spectacle of some of these launch games may have us hooked again on portable gaming. For the gaming faithful, we've found your first gadget buy of 2012.