There are also a few applications pertaining to PlayStation Network that do the obvious. Group Messaging, Friends and Trophies all do exactly what you think -- that is, send PSN messages, organize your buddies and manage your Trophy data, respectively. The other shortcuts peppering the home screens are a bit more unique. Party, for instance, brings cross-game voice chat to the Vita, allowing friends to catch up using the Vita's internal microphone and send each other chat messages and game invitations (you can thank the Vita's extra RAM for that). Parties also monitor a user's status, letting your pals know if you've started a game or left the room.
The Near app also hopes to strengthen social ties between Vita owners, although the execution is less intuitive than we'd hoped. Diving into the Vita's online manual tells us that Near finds players in your area and exchanges play history data, in-game items and, if you allow it, usernames with local gamers. In practice, however, this is a bit more confusing; the app's "out and about" menu does indeed find a smattering of local Vita owners, shown on a friendly looking radar-screen. From here we were able to view expanded information on a recently played game, including a "buzz rating," the number of people playing and a map of emoticons detailing how players felt about the game. The application is interesting, to be sure, but far from straightforward; even after thumbing through the Near portion of the Vita's manual, we found ourselves stumbling through the program, unsure what, exactly, to do with it. It seems like a more robust (or maybe just complicated) version of Street Pass on the 3DS, but in the end we just found it to be the Vita's most muddled feature. We're hoping it'll make more sense as our local userbase fills out.
Sadly, the Vita's web browser hasn't improved one iota since we reviewed the Japanese model. It remains shockingly slow, struggling to render most websites at a respectable clip. It's not that it doesn't load pages fast -- it does -- it just doesn't tolerate much navigation. Even after fully loading a page, scrolling and zooming in feels painful, if not stunted, and that's true even if you're returning to an area of the screen that had previously been drawn. Some pages fared better than others, however. Google, for instance, didn't suffer any of the above maladies, nor did the mobile versions of Engadget, Facebook or any other watered-down site, really. In a pinch, the Vita's web browser is serviceable, but any modern smartphone simply crushes it in terms of usability -- which is surprising, considering how smoothly the rest of the Vita's applications run. Hopefully future updates will make up for the PSV's clunky introduction to the world wide web.
Our review unit didn't have Google Maps in tow when we first unboxed it, but firmware update 1.60 handily tacked it on. The Vita's map app is relatively simple, tapping Google's servers for traffic data, directions and satellite imagery. Zooming in and out or panning to a new section of the map usually causes the app to stutter, though it recovers faster than the web browser. It won't replace your GPS, or even your PC's Google Maps bookmark, but it's a nice feature to have if you're lugging around a 3G-enabled games console.
Content Management and backwards compatibility
The Vita's proprietary memory card won't play nice with your laptop's multi-card reader, so you'll be loading media and backing up games with the help of Sony's Content Manager Assistant, a piece of desktop software designed to help you, well, manage content. This is no iTunes, however: the PC / Mac GUI does little more than tell the Vita what folders it has permission to play with (the Vita itself browses the file system, selects content and initiates the data transfer). Cutting out the necessity of learning a separate desktop interface for data management keeps things easy, and creates a uniform experience that doesn't change regardless of platform. In other words, backing up files and transferring data works exactly the same way with a PC / Vita pairing as it does with a PS3 / Vita setup. It keeps thing simple, with just two menus: copy content, or backup utility. The copy content section lets you pick and choose the files you copy from your handheld to your host device or visa versa, and the backup utility lets you backup your Vita, restore it from a backup, or delete your previously saved backup files altogether. Update: The Content Manager Assistant was made available to Mac OS users when the Vita was updated with firmware 1.60.
While the device-controlled environment is easy to use and refreshingly uniform, it has some drawbacks, mainly stemming from the very strengths we just mentioned. Ease of use comes with a consequence. By making the PC syncing experience identical to the one you'll enjoy on the PS3, Sony abandoned the opportunity to build a more robust file management system on the desktop end. The Vita will only browse files located in a handful of pre-specified folders -- if the Content Manager Assistant isn't assigned to the folder that contains the particular picture or video you want to transfer, your Vita isn't going to find it.
Even then the Vita is only looking at certain types of files. It favors MP3, MP4 and WAVE audio files, likes its films in MPEG-4: SP (Level 3) and H.264 and plays nice most major image formats, including JPEG, TIFF, GIF, BMP and PNG. Knowing exactly what kind of game data will transfer, on the other hand, is a little less straightforward. Yes, the Vita has a degree of backward compatibility with its father handheld, but its love of last-generation games isn't universal. Be it licensing issues or a fault of the Vita's PSP emulation, a chunk of the PlayStation Store's PSP library, such as LittleBigPlanet and Killzone: Liberation, simply won't run on the next-generation portable. These games won't appear in the PlayStation store when you're browsing from the device itself, but you can still download them through the PS3. And in case you were wondering, no, the Content Manger isn't a loophole to compatibility. Purchase with care, or live with the consequences.
When the stars (or licensing agreements, or emulation compatibility or whatever) are aligned, PSP gameplay on the Vita's gorgeous OLED display is a sight to behold. The colors are brighter and more vibrant, and have shed the washed-out look that the PSP's LCD screen sometimes produced. It's bigger, too, making full use of the Vita's 5-inch display -- although this can make the stretched classics look a bit more jaggy than they might have on Sony's last-gen hardware. We could live with this caveat, and probably would without much question if we didn't read the Vita's online manual. As it turns out, momentarily holding the touchscreen while playing a PSP game brings up a settings menu, offering players a handful of tweaks.
Not a fan of jaggies? Bi-linear filtering should smooth out those rough edges. Nostalgic for your PSP's LCD? Switch on the Vita's color space mode to give the handheld's bright screen the appropriate muting. The menu even has camera options for scant few PSP games that pulled the augmented reality trick. If all this wasn't enough, the Vita's secondary thumbstick can be given the power to emulate the D-pad, face buttons or left analog stick. Bilinear filtering won't make every game look better -- in fact, as far as we can tell it didn't make any difference at all when applied to Mega Man Maverick Hunter X -- but it adds a caring touch to a passable PSP emulator.
Despite its modest collection of multimedia apps, the PlayStation Vita is, first and foremost, a PlayStation. A portable games console, out to claim its place as king among handheld gaming beasts. It would stand to reason, then, that the PlayStation Vita has games. It does. Perhaps in response to the mistakes its competitors made, the Vita is hurtling towards launch day with a strong library of diverse launch titles.
Even Engadget's resident Nintendo fanboys had to give Sony's new portable props: these are by far the finest handheld console graphics we've ever seen. Still, it's not perfect -- close ups of Nathan Drake's shirt in Uncharted: Golden Abyss betrayed the games low-res textures, and a careful eye can see that some edges just aren't as smooth as they would be on a home console. We didn't expect anything else, of course. You aren't going to give up your PS3 for the sake of the Vita's graphical chops, but they're still darn impressive.
Although gamers around the world breathed a collective sigh of relief when Sony backed away from the PSP Go's digital exclusivity, Sony is still gunning for a future of games untethered by physical media. Getting there will mean making digital purchases more convenient and more appealing than the alternative. The Vita's PlayStation store isn't the solution, but it's a start. The handheld shop's main page is headlined with a rotating banner of featured content and four categories: featured, new releases, top downloads and all. Sony told us that more options are on the way, noting that game demos will start showing up after February 14th and that Netflix is due to arrive on the 21st. The default view, "All," offers the choice of PS Vita games, PSP games, minis, media as well as the chance to search by genre.
Jumping in is a fairly smooth, if somewhat basic, experience -- we easily hopped into the Vita category to see a short, alphabetized list of titles available for download. The PSP and Minis sections didn't stray too far from the formula, though here, the larger lists are further split various categories, arranged in alphabetical order. The Vita's online shop suffers the same faults as its PS3 counterpart: it's well organized, but no fun to use. While alphabetized games and clearly marked categories may make it easy to find the specific game you're looking for, but it doesn't make us want to just "look for games." The over-organized structure makes it difficult to browse, and the scarcity of gameplay screenshots put casual shopping out of the question. The aforementioned "Near" app seems to lean heavily on discovering new games that are being played in your local area, but users (this reviewer included) who find the location based social sharing application confusing won't find refuge here. The Vita's incarnation of the PlayStation store is no more engaging or creative than its big brother's online shop, but at the very least it's easier to navigate than its PS3 compadre, and for now, simpler as well.
Much like the Vita's web browser, not much has changed about the handheld's camera since its Japanese launch. Its rear-facing camera still whimpers with a maximum resolution of 640 x 480, often producing noisy images that skimp on detail. Swapping to the front-facing camera will frame the player's mug at the very same resolution, though its lens' off-center positing ensures they won't be looking at the birdie. These shooters work well enough for games like Little Deviants
to use for augmented reality mini-games, but the Vita won't make you consider leaving your point-and-shoot camera (or even your cell phone camera) at home.
Still, firmware update 1.60 gave the camera a small kick in the pants, tacking video recording to the end of the list of things that the handheld's camera is "sort of okay" at. Videos adopt the camera's native resolution, keeping the same noisy grain and washed out colors that plague stills. It isn't any worse off than the 3DS' offering, but the Vita's camera simply doesn't measure up to the standard the rest of its hardware sets. A turn of the century camera phone, on the other hand, might be able to give it a run for its money.