Lukewarm reviews, complaints of system crashes, and reports of unresponsive touchscreens from the Japanese launch hasn't instilled us with confidence for the U.S. and U.K. release of PlayStation Vita, but finally we get to judge Sony's new handheld for ourselves.
Though we still have no idea how Vita will perform when online services such as NEAR and the PlayStation Store are officially activated, we can tell you all about Vita's hardware, its operating system, its games, and how it performs right at this very minute, a little over one month prior to its February 22 release date.
Reviewed: Vita, U.K. Edition, Wi-Fi version
At first glance, there doesn't seem to be a huge amount of differences between Vita and a PlayStation Portable. Other than the dual-analog sticks sitting either side of the 5-inch OLED touchscreen, and the noticeably smaller action buttons, truth is (apart from sporting a similar chassis and the fact that they're both designed specifically for gaming) they couldn't be more different.
Drooling over hardware specifications
The PS Vita, for instance, is powered by an intensive quad-core ARM Cortex-A9 MPCore processor, capable of clock speeds of 2GHz, but more likely to run between 800MHz and 1.4GHz, which probably explains why a fully-charged battery has lasted a disappointing three hours and 10 minutes with moderate use.
While playing the processor-intensive Uncharted: Golden Abyss, we clocked it at just two hours and 45 minutes before it shutdown. Charging times were much more impressive as it took approximately one hour and 15 minutes until the battery icon indicated it was fully-powered.
We've therefore spent most of our Vita experience plugged into a wall socket so that we don't need to worry about the battery icon draining in front of our very eyes. It's a bit disappointing that gaming on our Xperia PLAY smartphone outlasts our dedicated gaming device, but it's not an issue that's likely to ruin our experience, unless the games don't live up to expectations.
What it lacks in battery potency, PS Vita makes up for in power, with a quad-core GPU SGX543MP4+, the plus indicating that it's been modified specifically for Sony's device. It has some serious graphical and computing power behind it, and you only need to spend five minutes mesmerized by the quality and performance of Sony's flagship launch game, the lag-free Uncharted: Golden Abyss, on its 960 x 544 screen to witness this impressive new benchmark in handheld gaming.
It also comes equipped with 512MB of RAM, compared to the paltry 64MB of the PSPgo, and is backed up with 128MB of VRAM to ensure you can move between the features of the PS Vita quickly to multi-task, chat, game and watch videos.
Using some of PS Vita's power is the Sixaxis motion sensing system (three-axis gyroscope, three-axis accelerometer,) multi-touch display and a rear touchscreen pad that should, in theory at least, deliver a new kind of gaming experience.
Examining PSVita's sleek design
On the front of PS Vita, to the left of the screen, sits the d-pad, analog stick and PlayStation Home button. The multi-directional d-pad makes a slight clicking sound as you move it around with the tip of your thumb, while the analog stick rotates extremely smoothly and silently, though is smaller than we imagined it to be (being almost exactly the same size as the original PSP's awkward analog stick).
The Home button is sunk into the chassis of the Vita unit, which is a deliberate design decision that ensures you don't accidentally press it. The same applies to the Start and Select buttons situated on the right hand side of the unit, which are impossible to press when your finger-tips are flat on the unit but can be pushed with ease when you raise your digit at an angle.
On the right hand side of PS Vita's display sits the 1.3 megapixel camera, which is extremely tiny, as are the action buttons - about half the size of the circles that surround Vita's analog sticks. The four action buttons are also fairly close together and require a little bit of force to activate, which ensures you don't accidentally knock the wrong button by mistake.
While holding the Vita in two hands, our thumbs rest perfectly vertical across the length of the device on either side of the screen, ensuring that we can move the analog sticks with the area of our thumb (just above the crease), while pressing action buttons and moving the d-pad without having to make exaggerated actions. Design-wise, the lay-out couldn't be better or more comfortable.
The large rectangular screen of PS Vita compliments the rounded edges of the unit as do the two table tennis paddle-shaped panels that host the d-pad and analog stick on the left and the action button and analog stick on the right. The left and right bumpers on the top of the unit also blend into the design nicely with their curved shape. The fact that the bumpers hardly make any noise at all and feel soft to touch when you press them is a bonus.
On the base of the PS Vita sits the port for the AC adapter and a headphone jack. When you buy either the Wi-Fi or the 3G/Wi-Fi PS Vita model they come with an AC Adapter lead with a USB connection on the end, which you can use to either connect to your PS3 or PC, or plug directly into the AC Adapter unit to charge from the wall. There is one thing worth noting though, which may save you a phone call to Sony customers services complaining that your PS Vita has bricked when it hasn't.
Before you contact customer services...
The AC Adapter lead that plugs into the port on the bottom of your PS Vita can be slotted in the wrong way by mistake because the port is a simple oblong shape. If you do happen to insert it incorrectly it doesn't charge.
There's a tiny engraved PlayStation symbol on the connector to show you which way it plugs in, but if you don't notice this straight away--like we didn't for a whole day--you may end up thinking it's not charging at all and you've got a defunct unit on your hands.
Losing your memory
Back to the unit itself--on the base you'll find a very small slot with a flimsy plastic hinge which houses the proprietary flash memory card. We have a 16GB memory card, but they will also be available in sizes holding up to 32GB of data. As there is no internal storage on PS Vita, these cards host your game saves, personal data, patches and DLC, and are about the same size as a MicroSD card.
A word of warning though: memory cards are likely to get full quite quickly. After downloading six games directly onto the card, we only have 6GB of space left. Uncharted: Golden Abyss alone weighs in at 3384MB if you buy it direct from the PlayStation Store.
These cards aren't cheap either, with a 16GB version costing around £40 and coming as an additional purchase to your PS Vita unit. The good news is you can back up games to your PS3 and to your PC. So, providing you're not too bothered about the inconvenience of transferring data back and forth--a task which you can do simply and very efficiently with PS Vita--then you don't really have to buy new memory cards; an issue we were initially concerned about. Furthermore, PlayStation Plus subscribers can take advantage of Cloud Storage to submit game saves.
You can, of course, buy physical versions of each of the games you want to play, but they're likely to cost more than if you download directly from the PlayStation Store. Six games took us 900 minutes to download, so it's certainly not a quick process, but the convenience of digital downloads should outweigh the cons.
On the top of the unit, aside from the aforementioned bumpers, you'll find the power button and volume controls. There's also a cartridge slot where you can insert game cartridges, as well as an accessory port, which looks like a custom-built mini-HDMI port. Both slots are tightly sealed, unnecessarily so, and we've had to use a flat-head screwdriver to prize them open, though sharp fingernails will probably do the trick too.
Flipping it over
On the back of the unit, in the top centre, sits another 1.3 mega pixel camera with the same specifications as the front-facing snapper. There are also two oval-shaped grip pads that are slightly indented and matte black in colour. They sit either side of the back multi-touch screen, which is made of a glossy plastic material and decked out with PlayStation symbols. This screen, along with the touchscreen on the front of Vita, is what looks set to deliver a new type of gaming experience should developers make full use of it.
We're not too sure why the two grips have been included on the back of the unit, because (unless you have the hands of a small child) your finger-tips naturally sit on the back centre of the unit across the touch screen, and you don't end up actually touching the grips at all.
Overall, PS Vita looks slick and reassuringly expensive. The lack of a video out port and the fact we now need to grow Freddie Krueger-sized nails to open the top slots, plus the questionable inclusion of the grips on the back of the unit, don't end up distracting from the fact that it's a great-looking device with an impressive screen and well-designed layout. Despite it being bigger than PSP (182.0 x 18.6 x 83.5mm) PS Vita is surprisingly light to hold too, about the same weight as a mug of coffee.
Let's boot up this bad boy
Initially it's quite strange navigating a touchscreen on a device designed specifically for gaming. Our lives are run by our smartphones and iPads, and as a result it's easy to jump to the conclusion that PS Vita's interface should offer much more than it does, maybe some of the features and social connectivity options that we take for granted on Android and iOS systems.
If you think that way, you'll probably be a little disappointed at PSVita's lack of features on launch. This is a dedicated gaming device designed specifically to play games and interact with other PlayStation gamers. There's no Skype app, ability to post to Twitter or Facebook, or even an option to upload your photos to a variety of social-networking sites. However, it's worth noting these features have all been touted to make their way to PS Vita at some point down the line.
Bye, bye XMB, welcome to an Android-inspired interface
PS Vita's interface is a far cry from the XMB of the PS3, with bright colours and floating circular icons that represent the multitude of options available. It sports a customizable homescreen and, just like Android and iOS systems, you can hold a digit down on any icon and choose to delete it or move it around. You can prod icons with your fingertips to open them up, swipe down to access new pages and more features, and can swiftly move between applications with no stalling or signs of lag.
After opening an application, you can handily swipe to the right on the screen to access all your frequently viewed applications to save you a bit of time. The only real downside when you're flicking through the menu screens is the Wii-inspired music that loops in the background, which does grate on you after a while, but it can be swapped for your own tunes via PS Vita's music application.
Across the top of the screen, you'll see the 3G symbol (providing you bought the 3G, Wi-Fi model) and Wi-Fi signal bar that lets you know whether you're connected, as well as the Bluetooth icon, which is turned on by default.
The Battery icon sits on the right alongside the clock, and in the right-hand corner you'll see a notification icon, represented as a half circle. If you get a message or a friend request, a number pops up in this space and you can tap on it to retrieve it. It's a handy little feature which saves you digging around in others applications.
Welcome Park will be PS Vita owners first port of call
The first application that most PS Vita owners will undoubtedly dive into is Welcome Park, which introduces you in a fun way to the new features of Vita. Through a series of mini-games you get introduced to the touchscreen controls and tilting, as well as the rear multi-touch, the rear touchscreen and camera-inspired gameplay, which involves taking pictures of everyday objects which can then be brought to life with eyes and a mouth.
Welcome Park is a great showcase for PS Vita's gaming potential with our personal highlight being Digit Chase, which superbly showcases the multi-touch and rear touch functionality of PS Vita. Though it's unlikely you'll play with Welcome Park's offerings more than a couple of times, it's a nice introduction to PS Vita and certainly gets you excited by its potential.
PS Vita boasts a number of applications aimed at getting you chatting with other PlayStation gamers. Party is essentially a group chat application that works when you're connected to the PlayStation Network, allowing you to text and voice chat with up to eight friends.
The lack of video support is a little disappointing, but the keyboard that pops up on screen is responsive, easy to use and has a decent predictive text feature embedded. The ability to use touchscreen input, rather than fumbling along with your controller like on PS3, makes it feel instantly familiar like you're interacting with your smartphone.
Within Party you can send out game invites or get invited to join games, and if you don't own a particular game someone is playing you get a handy link directly to the PlayStation Store where you can read more about it and download it if you wish. Interacting with your buddies on PS3 leaves a lot to be desired, so it's good to see a Party feature that works extremely well and allows you to connect and interact with people instantly.
The PlayStation Store is currently closed in the U.K., so we've yet to be able to access it from our PS Vita. We presume the interface and the way we interact with the store will be optimized for the touchscreen, so it should be far smoother than it is on PS3. Based on the Japanese launch, it looks like games are going to be cheaper to download directly too; just be prepared for large files and long downloads. Hopefully though, the wait will be worth it.
Sadly, we haven't been able to test out NEAR as the Wi-Fi version of PS Vita doesn't have a GPS chip inside it, which it needs to search for your location. NEAR tracks your location via GPS and tells you which gamers are near to your location and what they're playing.
The idea is to get you connected with more people and make more local friends that you probably would never have met. It sports an uncluttered, simple interface and tracks your every movement and game-playing action for others to see. You can then interact with people, share items and receive and send game invites. It's also another clever Sony tool for cross-selling as it directs you to the PlayStation Store should you be interested in a game that someone is playing that you don't own.
We've been assured that NEAR is compatible with the Wi-Fi version, but without a GPS chip we're unsure just how well it will work. In city environments, NEAR is undoubtedly going to be a useful tool for bolstering your friends list, but those in rural locations may find it a feature they'll never use.
The friend's hub is, quite simply, your friends list, which includes those friends that you've gathered on PS3, as long as you've used the same PSN account on your PS Vita. It's pretty cool how you can tap on the chat icon and switch to the Group messaging app, where you can text in real-time. You can also click the small camera icon, snap a photo and send it immediately to a friend.
It seems an oversight by Sony that you can't also set up a Party from within the Friends app, instead having to quit out and open the party application. The transition could have been a little smoother, but overall the Friends list is well laid out, colourful and a pleasant way to compare stats with other players.
Rarely do we use the PS3 browser for surfing the net because it's so awkward to navigate, but PS Vita's browser is certainly more appealing thanks to the added functionality that the touch screen brings.
It offers a handful of features, including web security, history and the ability to create folders to bookmark sites, while the keyboard is intuitive to use to search for web sites. The first website we tried to access was YouTube, only to discover that PS Vita doesn't support Adobe Flash, which rules out watching some online videos. We understand Sony is still considering bringing Flash to its new handheld, but certainly don't expect to see it at launch.
It's also a bit disappointing that you can't switch between a game and the browser without quitting the game entirely and having to re-load the internet page. In truth, it's likely we'll only use the browser if we're desperate for a piece of information and don't have our smartphone handy, though the online PS Vita guide, which is optimised for the device, comes in extremely handy and is very well laid-out.
PS Vita doesn't pair to our smartphone, yet the manual says that it does support phones. We presume then that only certain phones will connect. Considering we have an Xperia PLAY, which was dubbed the "PlayStation Phone," it's a little disappointing we can't pair our device and share data across Bluetooth.
Bluetooth can be used, however, for headsets and specific devices, such as speakers, but it's probably worth checking a compatibility list to avoid disappointment.
PS3 connectivity and Content Manager
The latest firmware update ensures that the PS3 recognises the PS Vita instantly so it's simply a matter of scanning for a new device on your console. The PS3 picks up the PS Vita signal wirelessly and then gives you a code that you have to input into the Remote Play settings on your handheld. It's a simple and effective process that takes no more than a couple of minutes.
Connect the PS Vita via USB to your console and you can back-up and transfer data to and from the PS3 via the Content Manager app. Once again it's very easy to use, though large files can take quite a while to transfer. With the fairly small sizes available for PS Vita's memory card, it's likely we'll be transfering content quite regularly.
You can also back-up and transfer content between PS Vita and your PC, though you do have to download a piece of software onto your PC first. The transition of music, photos and video from your PC to the PS Vita is smooth, but once again it's worth checking a compatibility list as it restricts the playing of certain files, such as AVIs.
Remote Play has performed quite erratically since we've had our PS Vita unit, though we have been told that not all features will work properly until launch. Sometimes we've been able to turn on our PS3 remotely and navigate the XMB smoothly and other times we've had an error message and not been able to connect at all.
Most of the games we've tried, including Uncharted 3, Killzone 3 and Battlefield 3, aren't currently supported by Remote Play, so it would be helpful to see a list of what games are actually compatible. In fact the only games that we have been able to stream is PixelJunk Shooter and Bejeweled 2.
Nonetheless, we are assured that users will be able to stream all PS3 games at some point during PS Vita's life cycle, it's just a shame that it won't be at launch.
It's the games, of course, that are going to make or break PS Vita, and so far we've been blown away by the launch offerings. We're bound by an embargo not to talk too much about the games until mid-February, but we can tell you that the likes of Uncharted: Golden Abyss, WipEout 2048 and Little Deviants have kept us wildly entertained and showcased PS Vita's variety of control schemes incredibly well.
The touchscreen has been extremely responsive in-game, with Little Deviants totally dispelling concerns about the rear touchscreen being just a gimmick. What really shows off how much handheld gaming has evolved though is Uncharted: Golden Abyss, which is the most impressively produced adventure we've ever played on handheld. It will simply blow you away.
Indeed, PS Vita shows its strengths as a gaming device across the whole breadth of its launch titles from augmented reality offerings, such as Reality Fighters, to socially-focused titles such as Hustle Kings. The tilt controls and front and rear touchscreens work alongside the good old fashioned analog twiddling mechanics to offer an array of titles that caters for practically every taste. This is the best launch line-up we've seen, and if it's an indication of what's to come, the next couple of years are going to be very exciting.
PS Vita isn't perfect at launch, particularly if you come at it thinking you're buying a hybrid gaming/smartphone device that's also going to run your life, allow you upload photos to Facebook, take videos on the tube, or check emails quickly. As it stands, PS Vita is more about connecting PlayStation gamers together and making it easy for like-minded people to meet up, chat and play games together.
It's about the games and the hardware that powers them to perform so incredibly well and look so vibrant on its screen, but it's also about providing gamers with a multitude of options via a range of intuitive control schemes that are lots of fun to use.
Though we've been critical of some of PS Vita's features and still get irritated when the battery drains so quickly, the more time we've spent with it the less we've wanted to put it down. That's really due to one thing and one thing only: the games. As a handheld gaming device PS Vita has the potential for great things. All we can hope for now is that third-party developers keep supporting it.