It may be chunky, but it's comfortable for lengthy gaming sessions and looks the business
The interface is streamlined and simple to use, you can multitask with ease, and the dual analogue sticks are perfect for controlling games
The accelerometer, cameras and rear touchpad offer great flexibility for controlling games, although the cameras are sadly low-res
We never noticed any slowdown while gaming, but HD movies are a stuttering mess
We survived a five-hour journey before the battery finally gave up
Review by Sunetra Chakravati,4/12/2012 1:00:36 PM
Look and feel
Ease of use
Flexible controls, sharp and vibrant screen, smart interface
Expensive games, HD video stutters, stilted web browsing
Spot someone fiddling on their mobile phone on your daily commute, and chances are they'll be absorbed in a game of Plants Vs Zombies or Grand Theft Auto. Smartphones are used as much for entertainment as they are for staying in touch these days, with thousands of games available for pocket change on the Android Market and Apple's App Store.
However, most of these games are simple casual five-minute time-wasters. Hardcore gamers are looking for something more akin to a console experience, and Sony has delivered with the PS Vita, a powerful handheld gaming machine that's almost like carrying a PS3 in your pocket.
Power up the PS Vita and the first thing you'll notice is the cartoony interface. Gone is the old PlayStation dashboard, replaced with a series of smartphone-like desktops that you scroll through by flicking your finger up and down the touchscreen.
Apps and games are represented by bright, colourful icons. Tap one and the program loads, and each open program becomes a ‘page' which you can flick through by swiping sideways. It's a quick and easy way of multitasking, and we liked how you can exit a game, message a friend or mess around with another app, then get stuck back into the action. The only exception is web browsing – launch the browser and any open games will close, which is a shame.
The desktops are fully customisable, allowing you to rearrange the icons and set the background wallpaper. We also liked the Android-style notifications bar, which informs you of any achievements, messages and friend requests you receive. Although the cartoony icons are more akin of a Nintendo system and may put off some hardcore gamers, we doubt it'll have anyone cringing every time they power up their PS Vita. We also weren't too put off by the constant ‘loading' screens that seemed to crop up when using apps.
There's been a lot of debate about the PS Vita's chunky build, which is similar to the original PSP's. We did manage to cram it in our jeans pocket, but we like ‘em baggy. Most people will need to carry it in a bag.
The PS Vita (bottom) compared with the PSP Slim & Lite (top)
And again from the side: the PS Vita (left) is slightly chunkier
More importantly, the Vita feels comfortable when clutched two-handed, and we didn't feel our hands cramping up even after a couple of hours of constant use. The much-heralded dual analogue sticks provide perfect control for games such as Uncharted: Golden Abyss, allowing you to look and move as smoothly as if you were playing with a console gamepad.
Even more intriguing is the rear touch panel, which adds an extra layer of control. For instance, in Uncharted you can use gestures to perform actions such as climbing and swinging on ropes, while Escape Plan has you ‘squeezing' characters by pinching the front touch-screen and rear touch panel simultaneously. Factor in the built-in accelerometer, and developers have a lot of flexibility when designing titles.
Launch titles are a mixed bag, as with most consoles on day one, but there's something in there for pretty much everyone. Uncharted really show offs the system's abilities, looking just as good as the PS3 versions while playing as smooth as butter thanks to the quad-core processor. Everything from the touch-screen to the accelerometer can be used for control, or purists can stick with the joysticks and buttons – again, the flexibility is incredible.
The five-inch screen somehow seems even larger, offering plenty of space to show off the incredible graphics. We found ourselves gaping at the scenery in some titles, and smashing into corners in Wipeout 2048 because we were too busy admiring the space-age buildings. Despite the power-sucking display, we still got five to six hours of gaming between charges.
Unfortunately, the games can only be downloaded direct from Sony and they're rather expensive. As in, you better hope daddy has a real good job. Uncharted is £40 at launch while most other titles cost around £30. We don't mind paying the same price as a PS3 or Xbox game for something we'll get hours and hours of play from, but factor in DLC and the fact that these games won't be dropping in price any time soon – as there are no retailers competing for your hard-earned bucks – and the Vita is a rather costly plaything.
As with its bigger brother the PS3, you can sign onto the Playstation Network and build a network of friends for online gaming. The Friends app shows you all your connections, and you can spy on them to see exactly what they've been playing and what trophies they've managed to bag. You can also message your friends or a group of friends, and chat using the built-in mic and camera.
Sony clearly intends the Vita to be used for hooking up with fellow gamers, via apps such as Near. This little program reveals other Vita users in your general vicinity, so you can connect for some multiplayer if your friends are all busy. You can also share game items such as costumes and extra content. The PS Vita comes in 3G and Wi-Fi only models, so if you opt for the cheaper Wi-Fi option you'll have to rely on public hotspots.
We've only briefly seen Near in action, but we're interested to see how Sony expands on the idea now that the Vita is on sale. We also have high hopes for social networking apps such as Twitter, which appears to be just as smooth and simple to use as on its smartphone counterparts.
Like the PSP before it, the PS Vita is intended as an all-in-one device. If you're bored of games, you can browse the web, enjoy a movie, or simply listen to some tunes. Unfortunately, the PS Vita succeeds more as a gaming device, and falls short when it steps outside of these boundaries.
Browsing the web is a sadly stilted affair. Scroll up and down a busy page and it'll take a while to update, leaving you staring at a blank screen in the meantime. Zooming in and out is also a jittery experience, often throwing you to a different part of the page for no reason at all. You can't perform web searches by typing words in the address bar, which seems ridiculous these days, and Flash video isn't supported either. What is this, an iPad?
Still, we thought, at least the PS Vita should handle our media well. The sharp, bright, vibrant screen is a great way to enjoy movies on the go, but we hit rocky waters when trying to play an HD MPEG-4 film. From the very start the movie juttered, so it appeared that every single character was having a violent seizure. We had to turn it off before we had a fit ourselves. If you want to watch video, you'll have to stick with standard definition.
The cameras are also disappointingly low-res. The front-facing camera is fine for video chats, but the rear-facing snapper takes pixelated shots and is only suitable for novelty snaps. No flash means you're limited to daytime use too. Still, the cameras have been successfully integrated into games such as Reality Fighters (which creates a freaky animated version of you as the protagonist), and at least taking shots with the Vita doesn't feel as ridiculous as with a 10-inch tablet.
If you're bored of simple iPhone and Android games and are desperate for some ‘proper' gaming action on your daily commute, the PS Vita will no doubt satisfy. The games are costly, as are the necessary accessories, but this is the closest you'll come to having a PS3 in your pocket. It's just a shame the Vita doesn't handle web browsing and media as well.