PS Vita
4 stars
List Price
199.99
Amazon
150.98 (25%)
3rd Party
335.91
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Overall Grade
4 stars

(click linked text below to jump to related section of the review)

The Video: Sizing Up the Picture
4.5 Stars
The Audio: Rating the Sound
3.5 Stars

PlayStation Vita 3G / Wi-Fi Hardware

Street Date:
February 22nd, 2012
Reviewed by:
Review Date:1
February 15th, 2012
Game Release Year:
2012
Platform:
PS Vita
Publisher:
Sony Computer Entertainment
Developer:
Sony Computer Entertainment

Introduction

While smartphones have recently taken the mobile gaming community by storm, Sony has been working on a new version of mobile hardware to take over where the PlayStation Portable started. The PSP was a mild success for Sony, but not nearly as successful as the much more powerful PS3 counterpart. As both Microsoft and Sony are moving toward new versions of console hardware, Sony has upgraded the PSP hardware in the form of the Vita. Likely designed to offer near-PS3 quality for current PlayStation 3 owners, the Vita is also an answer to Apple’s iPhone.

Including a 5-inch AMOLED touchscreen as well as the much needed upgrade of dual-analog sticks, the Vita is specifically designed to perform one task extremely well; games. Including online store functionality from the start is also a step forward for dedicated gaming hardware. While Nintendo has made strides with an online storefront for the 3DS, Sony is pushing a more aggressive strategy on the Vita by making full-disc releases available in digital form on day one. However, Sony’s position on price point is to ignore Apple’s aggressive pricing strategy on apps and sell mobile games for price tags up to $50.

Hardware & Design:

With a split-second, passing glance, it’s fairly easy to mistake the 3G / WiFi version of the PlayStation Vita for Sony’s last portable gaming device. Designed with a similar body style, the majority of the front of the device is dominated by the 5-inch touchscreen. To the left, Sony’s included the familiar directional pad along with the analog stick and the opposite side has a second analog stick as well as the four main control buttons.

On the top of the device, the power and volume button design appears to have been influenced by the popularity of smartphones. While the metallic buttons offer a sturdier feel than the plastic buttons on the PlayStation Portable, the casing that covers the game port as well as an expansion slot feels as cheap as the flimsy plastic casing that snapped over UMD discs in the previous model. The left and right trigger buttons definitely look better in tinted black than the clear plastic on the PSP.

At the bottom of the unit, there’s a microphone in addition to a headphones jack and a power to charge and transfer data through USB. The “Vita card” memory slot is also at the bottom of the device with a small plastic flap that covers the tiny memory card. On the back of the Vita, Sony has covered the rear touch panel with the square, triangle, circle and x pattern. The rear mounted camera sits at the top of the unit and there are two indentations in the back of the device to allow hands to comfortably fit holing the unit while index fingers sit on the two triggers.

Similar to most smartphones and the previous PSP, the Vita is a fingerprint magnet. Over the past few days, we frequently used a soft cloth to wipe away excess smudges on the controls as well as the touchscreen. We also felt like the size of the device is still going to discourage people from simply slipping the Vita into a jeans or pants pocket. Measuring more than seven inches in length, lugging around a backpack, satchel or briefcase to carry the unit is a must if the owner isn’t wearing cargo pants or a jacket with a large pocket. Regarding how heavy the device feels, the weight is more evenly distributed across the device compared to the previous PSP.

Controls:

Simply put, the control layout on the Vita is the closest we have seen when it comes to replicating the console controller. By adding the second analog stick on the right side of the device, developers can simply translate the control scheme from a PS3 game right to the Vita.

While it’s a vast improvement over the PSP nub analog stick, the size of the actual sticks are small and require more precise movements within most games. In fact, the face buttons and the directional pad have also been downgraded in size. If someone had a hard time with the controls on the PSP due to large hands or fingers, the size of the Vita’s controls are going to be more problematic.

Most importantly, the quality of the touchscreen is top notch. While smartphone users are likely going to miss the touch of glass, the capacitive multitouch screen is responsive, works extremely well with the user interface and feels like Gorilla Glass. However, developers haven’t utilized the touch screen as well as we would have liked in launch games like Uncharted: Golden Abyss. There are moments in the game where touchscreen actions break up the action in a very abrupt, pointless way.

We are more interested in how the rear touch panel will be used in future games since the player doesn’t have to take their hand off the controls to use the rear panel. For instance, Hideo Kojima recently mentioned on Twitter that the Vita version of Metal Gear Solid HD collection will allow the player to slit an enemy’s throat with your knife by flicking the rear touchpad.

Battery:

One of the weakest aspects of the PlayStation Vita, just like the PSP Slim, is the amount of battery life the device offers new owners. On the default settings, the Vita only offers three hours of dedicated playtime when playing graphic intensive titles like Uncharted: Golden Abyss. If traveling on an international or cross-country flight over three hours, the only options are to decrease the brightness to the lowest level and put the device into the de-facto “airplane” mode to squeeze another 60 to 90 minutes out of the unit. Using the device to play PSP games is less power intensive and offers slightly more battery life; right around five hours.

In regards to a media player, we were able to watch both Batman Begins and The Dark Knight (a combined 292 minute run-time) and still have about an hour of battery life for video left in the unit. In regards to audio, we left the device playing music for about 8 to 8.5 hours before it died on us. While the Vita isn’t going to replace an iPad for watching movies while traveling or an iPhone / iPod Touch for listening to music, it makes for a great secondary option when traveling on extended vacation. We also believe that the Vita is more travel friendly than the Nintendo 3DS in regards to battery life.

When completely dead, the battery requires about two and a half hours to completely recharge via the AC adaptor. The owner can also use the USB cord to charge the device, but we found that required more time to completely regard the unit. When trying to determine the power state, the owner should check the LED light under the main PlayStation button on the Vita. For example, a solid blue light indicates the Vita is plugged in and powered up, standby mode is shown with a flashing blue light, flashing orange means that the battery is almost out of juice and a solid orange light displays when the unit is charging while powered down.

Camera:

At a fairly dismal 640 by 480 resolution, it’s highly unlikely that you will be using the Vita to capture many photographs. Even the most basic of smartphones offer higher resolution pictures and it’s notably odd that Sony, responsible for creating a new 12MP CMOS sensor for smartphones, had limited the Vita to such as low resolution. We are curious if Sony could eventually offer an HD camera sensor through the Vita’s accessory port, potentially at a high markup.

The Vita offers both rear and front-facing cameras similar to the Nintendo 3DS. Vita owners can choose between 4:3 ratio or a widescreen version that crops the top and bottom of a 4:3 picture. There’s no optical zoom included with the camera and shots are often overexposed when shooting outside. The camera offers decent low light performance, but it’s extremely poor in low light when compared to a regular point & shoot like the Canon S95. It takes a painstakingly long five seconds to save a picture to the camera. In the same amount of time, you can take about three pictures with the iPhone 4.

Sony recently added video recording to the camera’s capabilities, but the poor quality is going to dissuade any owner from actually sharing clips with anyone. If anything, the two cameras have been added for augmented-reality games as well as video chat over Skype. When viewing photos within the Photos application (both taken with the camera and photos loaded onto the Vita), be aware that the Vita doesn’t support image resizing when zooming into a picture. In regards to picture formats, the Vita currently supports JPEG, PNG, GIF, TIFF and BMP formats.

User Interface and Apps:

Likely taking cues from iOS and Android when it comes to developing a user interface, the overly colorful appearance is littered with bubble-shaped icons. Just like an iPhone, these icons can be rearranged on the screen as well as completely deleted, unless it’s a preloaded app. When inserting a new game into the Vita, you will notice a new icon related to the game pop up on the screen. Launching into that icon will allow the player to access information such as DLC as well as the instruction manual, ideal for those sticking to digital downloads.

All open applications appear at the top of the Vita’s screen and the PlayStation button launches a visual menu designed for quick switching to other apps. For instance, if you are browsing content on the Web and want to change tracks on the current album you are listening to, simply open the quick-launch menu and pop over into the music player. The operating system is nearly entirely controlled by touch, so don’t bother using the physical controls unless you are using a specific app or playing a game.

Similar to a smartphone, all text entry is handled by an on-screen keyboard. It’s not ideal for quick communication though as we found it somewhat difficult to type on quickly based on how a typical user holds the Vita. Attempting to stretch our thumbs over the 5-inch screen often becomes futile and forces the user to hold the device in a different way. It’s pretty obvious that the Vita will never become a preferred chat device with this layout.

The Web browser is fairly speedy over a Wi-Fi connection and is easily the best browsing experience available on a dedicated gaming system. However, the browser does not support Flash or HTML5, so be wary of blank spots and missing media when browsing. Using the touchscreen, the user can scroll up and down a page, click links and zoom into a page. While the iPhone 4 is still faster over the same Wi-Fi connection, the difference isn’t incredibly noticeable.

Wireless Connectivity:

When testing the 3G / Wi-Fi model of the Vita, we found the performance of AT&T's 3G network to be extremely underwhelming. When comparing a smartphone on a 3G connection versus the Vita on the 3G connection, the speed at which the Vita receives and processes data over 3G is significantly slower than comparing the two devices over the same Wi-Fi connection. One of the biggest problems is rendering speed when navigating different sites as well as using Google Maps. While the 3G model exclusively has built-in GPS compared to the Wi-Fi model, the amount of games or apps that offer a GPS feature will likely be limited due to the lower adoption rate of the 3G version of the Vita.

In addition, crucial functions of the Vita aren’t even supported by AT&T's overburdened 3G network. Vita owners cannot download new games, use online multiplayer or use voice chat over a 3G connection. Vita owners can queue up downloads over 3G, but they won’t be completed until the owner connects again over Wi-Fi We are scratching our heads over why someone would actually pay AT&T $15 a month for 250MB, $30 a month for $3GB or $50 a month for 5GB for the ability to check Google Maps or browse the Web, a function that's significantly faster on most smartphones.

The Video: Sizing Up the Picture

While the impact of the gorgeous 5-inch AMOLED touchscreen isn’t as keenly felt as the first time we saw an iPhone screen, the sheer beauty cannot be denied. Displaying at 960 by 544 resolution (1/4 full HD), the sharp graphics and colorful images pop off the screen. While viewing angles are definitely much better than the dim PSP screen, there is noticeable blue shading when watching someone else play the device. However, this issue isn’t very important as players will be staring at the screen directly and can change the angle on the fly.

Similar to the iPad or iPhone, don’t bother attempting to play the Vita outdoors unless in an extremely shady spot. After testing the Vita outside, the reflection off the screen makes it very difficult to see what’s happening on-screen. We were able to rig up a laptop shade protector to get a quality image, but that’s a fairly ridiculous request for anyone traveling with the Vita. The screen offers 220ppi, a far cry from the 326ppi of the iPhone Retina display, but the level of sharpness is excellent and the quality can be seen in the polished look of the user interface as well as the higher quality launch titles. However, the lower quality launch titles can bring out the flaws in addition to the PSP ports.

In regards to video formats, the Vita can handle MPEG-4 in addition to H.264 video files up to a maximum resolution of 720p files. Since the max resolution of the actual screen is limited to 960x544, it’s in your best interest to encode files at that resolution to increase the amount of open file space on the expensive memory cards. The video player does support frame scrolling, so feel free to jump to a specific point within a video by using the preview window on the screen.

When downloading content from the PlayStation Store, be aware that files are only available in standard definition. If you have a PlayStation 3, expect similar wait times when downloading new video content to the Vita through the PlayStation Store. Identical to the policy on the PS3, video rentals have to be viewed within a 30-day period and must be completed within 24 hours after starting the video.

The Audio: Rating the Sound

The on-board speakers within the Vita are somewhat better than the quality of the speakers found on the original PSP and definitely on par with newer smartphones. Positioned next to each analog stick, the small, stereo speakers can easily get overwhelmed when cranking up the volume. Similar to the previous generation of mobile devices, a set of quality headphones or earbuds is nearly always preferable over the sound emanating from the built-in speakers.

When using the Vita to listen to music, the music application is simple and currently supports MP3, WAV and MP4. Similar to consoles, Vita owners can queue up music and listen in the background while playing games or performing other functions on the device. The audio play application also supports custom soundtracks as well.

Final Thoughts

In many ways, the Vita reminds us of the first revision of the PlayStation Portable, the PSP Slim (PSP-2000). It’s as if the Vita has already gone through an initial design revision, but leaving opportunity for Sony to upgrade the battery life, camera quality, internal memory capacity, 4G connectivity and other specs down the line with new models and bundles over the next five years.

However, the Vita’s current iteration is an extremely powerful, mobile gaming platform that has the potential to capture the popularity of the PlayStation 3. It has a strong launch lineup, especially compared to the 3DS last year, and titles such as Resistance: Burning Skies, Madden NFL 13 and other popular 2012 releases will encourage PS3 owners to branch out into mobile. We don’t see the Vita as a direct competitor to the Nintendo 3DS as the two platforms offer very different experiences in games. We also don’t see the Vita as a direct competitor to the iPhone as smartphone games are typically very different from games like Uncharted: Golden Abyss and Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3. The Vita is sitting in a class of it's own making.

Should you become an early adopter of the PlayStation Vita? Sony is putting all focus on how the Vita performs as a gaming machine, thus your purchase decision regarding the platform should directly reflect the amount of interest you have in the launch titles. If you want to dive into Nathan Drake’s or Rayman's next adventure immediately, jump in now. While we specifically tested the 3G / Wi-fi model, the Wi-Fi only model is definitely the more attractive deal at launch, especially due to the uselessness of 3G data right now. It’s inevitable that hardware costs will drop in the future, but it’s unlikely that Sony will drop the price of the Vita prior to the end of 2012.

Tech Specs:

  • CPU: ARM® Cortex™- A9 core (4 core)
  • Dimensions: 182.0 x 18.6 x 83.5mm
  • Screen: 5 inches (16:9), OLED
  • Sensors: Six-axis motion sensing system, Three-axis electronic compass

Video Resolution/Codec

  • 960 by 544
  • Approx. 16 million colors

Audio Formats

  • Stereo

Motion Controls

  • Yes

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