Sony PlayStation Vita Review

A few weeks ago, Sony released the PlayStation Vita, the follow-on product to the PSP and PSP Go.  I bought a 3G(AT&T)/WiFi US unit and I’ve been putting it through its paces…read on for details!

 

We told you about the Vita here, back when Sony was calling this product the Next Gen Portable (NGP) system.  Sony’s goal here was to introduce a gaming system with top-notch graphics to appeal to hard-core gamers who want a mobile gaming option.  Did they succeed?  We’ll give you our impressions!

Technical Specifications

Sony put a beautiful 5 inch OLED screen in the Vita, as well as dual analog sticks and a rear touch pad.  The screen is touch enabled as well.  Here are the complete specs for the US AT&T 3G model.

CPU ARM® Cortex™- A9 core (4 core)
GPU SGX543MP4+
External Dimensions Approx. 182.0 x 18.6 x 83.5mm (width x height x depth)
(tentative, excludes largest projection)
Screen (Touch Screen) 5 inches (16:9), 960 x 544, Approx. 16 million colors, OLED
Multi touch screen (capacitive type)
Rear Touch Pad Multi touch pad (capacitive type)
Cameras Front camera, Rear camera
Sound Built-in stereo speakers
Built-in microphone
Sensors Six-axis motion sensing system (three-axis gyroscope,
three-axis accelerometer), Three-axis electronic compass
Location Built-in GPS
Wi-Fi location service support
Keys / Switches PS button
Power button
Directional buttons (Up/Down/Right/Left)
Action buttons (Triangle, Circle, Cross, Square)
Shoulder buttons (Right/Left)
Right stick, Left stick
START button, SELECT button
Volume buttons (+/-)
Wireless Communications Mobile network connectivity (3G)
IEEE 802.11b/g/n (n = 1×1)(Wi-Fi)(Infrastructure mode/Ad-hoc mode)
Bluetooth® 2.1+EDR (A2DP/AVRCP/HSP)

Overall Hardware

The Vita is a well-executed piece of hardware.  It feels solid in the hand, and the 5” screen that is the heart of the unit is beautiful.  The layout of the controls is similar to the PSP, but have been updated.  In particular, the addition of dual analog sticks is a welcome change from the PSP.

This is not a small unit…it feels heavy.  Since it is built like a tank, it is a bit heavier than the PSP, but it is much more capable.

The PS Vita uses proprietary memory cards, which are at least double the cost of SD format cards.  You must purchase a memory card to use with your unit…I purchased an 8 GB and a 16GB card to use with mine.  While I understand why they wanted a proprietary format, I wish that they had priced the cards a bit more reasonably.  If you plan on loading videos or downloading full games to the Vita, go with the largest memory card that you can afford.

System Software

The operating system is a customized version of Android.  Sony engineers worked hard to deliver a differentiated experience; this feels consistent with Sony and you can’t tell that it is running Android.

Here is the lock screen that you see when you start the PS Vita.

Did you notice the dog eared edge in the top right hand corner?  That is where you open up the lock screen to log into your Vita.  Just swipe from the top right hand corner down towards the bottom left corner and that opens up the lock screen to allow you to enter your access code.  This is how you close all apps on the Vita.  The lock screen looks like this:

Just enter your access code and you are brought to the home screen, which looks like this on mine:

Here are some details on each application on the home screen.

  • Welcome Park: This is a very thorough training application that teaches you how to use the features of the Vita by playing games that accent a feature or two,  For example, there is an activity that teaches you how to use the onboard camera by challenging you to find and photograph objects that look like faces.  It evaluates the pictures that you take and gives you feedback on whether the photo is of something that resembles a face.  There is another one that lets you get the hang of using tilt controls as well.  Overall, this is a really well-executed training program to help new users acclimate to the controls and features that the Vita includes.
  • Party:  This is a group chat feature for chatting with multiple PlayStation Network members simultaneously.  Chat and audio only, no video, and only for people on the PlayStation Network, but it is a useful feature.  You can also play games while in a party.
  • PS Store: This is the commercial solution for the PlayStation Network and is integrated with the Vita.  You can purchase games, movies, and TV episodes, and can also download demo games and trailers for games and movies for free.  It is well organized and easy to browse on the Vita.  Here is what the games section looks like:

And the movies:

And the apps:

Note that there is a Netflix app, and also the Sony Music Unlimited service available for the PS Vita.

  • Near: This application uses the GPS chip (if you purchased a Vita with a GSM chip like I did!) to see what people around you are doing with their Vita.  It uses the coarse location identifier in Near and compares Near information from other Vita users nearby.  I really liked this application; not too long ago, I used it in Chicago’s O’Hare airport and in a Marriott in Sydney, Australia.  Here is the screenshot from Sydney:

There were 5 people playing with their Vita at the time that I ran this on a Friday night.  My avatar is the cat in the middle, and you can see the others listed by their coarse GPS location provided by Near.  I have used this feature to find and connect online with about 6 local people near me so far, and this has been a really fun feature.

Here is what people around me were playing recently:

  • Friends: This is the application for managing your friends on the Vita.  It shows everyone that  you’ve connected with and their trophy count, what they have been playing, and their PlayStation Network level.  Here is the detail from my friend Chris.

Chris is a level 12 with 778 trophies, all earned on a PS3.  Nice!

  • Group Messaging: This is an app that allows you to send test messages to friends from the PlayStation Network.  It is a competent texting application and only works with people on the PSN.
  • Trophy Collection: This app lets you see the details of your earned trophies, both on the Vita and on the PSN as a whole.  Here is what my Vita trophies look like:

 

  • Photos: This application allows you to control the camera and to view the photos that you take.  The rear-facing camera has a resolution of 640 x 480, and the images captured are not very high quality, but it does open up the ability to integrate images into your games.  There is a game in Little Deviants that uses the camera to integrate your environment with the game and it works well for that.  Here is an example of a photo that my daughter took of the cat in a low light setting with the Vita.

Overall, the picture quality is not up to par.  Note that the Vita’s camera can also take video.

  • Network Operator: You can use this application to see the details of your cellular data plan and also to sign up and change your plan.
  • Browser: The Vita has a web browser.  It does not support Flash, but otherwise it is serviceable.  I would not plan on doing all of your mobile browsing with this, but it is good enough for a quick check of the weather and other such light web browsing.
  • Music: You can load music onto your Vita; MP4 files with AAC3 encoding worked well.  You can browse by artist, album, song, etc., and if you have embedded album art, it will display.  Music continues to play even when the screen is locked, a nice touch.  Here is what a song with embedded album art looks like when it plays.

  • Videos: The Vita will also play back videos loaded onto the memory card.  Stick with MP4 AAC/h.264 encoding for best results.  These files have played back with no issues; WMV files stuttered and failed to play back correctly.  Note that rented videos also show up here; if you rent a video in the PS Store, you play it back here.
  • Maps: Google Maps is loaded onto the Vita.  It appears to only use the coarse GPS location information, meaning that it is not as accurate as Google Maps on your cellphone.  I’d prefer to use the more accurate location service in this app…note that directions work fine and you can zoom in and out to explore the map, just like on an Android phone or tablet.
  • Content Manager: In order to load content from your PC or Mac onto the Vita, you need to load Content Manager onto your PC or Mac and then use this application with the Vita tethered.  It is a bit clunky but does work.  Content Manager is also how you back up downloaded content and game scores to your PC, Mac or PS3.  Note that you need the proprietary USB cable that is provided with the Vita to synch data to and from the device.
  • Remote Play: Using this app, you can connect to your PS3 from outside your home network and stream music or video from it or play games on the PS3 using the Vita from where you are.  This only works if your PS3 is connected to your router wirelessly.  I could not test this as my PS3’s are both wired to the router.
  • Settings:  This is where you update and change settings on the Vita, update the firmware, etc.  It works well.

Apps

Sony has made several apps available to extend the capability of the Vita beyond the standard capabilities.  As I write this, the following apps are available for download to the Vita:

  • Facebook;
  • Foursquare;
  • Flickr;
  • LiveTweet;
  • Music Unlimited (Sony’s online music service); and,
  • Netflix.

Here are my detailed observations on each of the apps that I have tried out.

Facebook

The Facebook app is pretty limited.  It shows your latest news feed items very well, but I could not figure out how to load photos or check in using the GPS capabilities.  It is good for keeping up with your news feed, your Facebook friends, your messages and with photos that have been uploaded, but really needs the ability to upload photos from the Vita and to check in with the GPS.

Foursquare

This app works very well.  I was able to use it to check in from the airports between home and Sydney (using AT&T 3G in the US and wifi in Australia), follow the check-ins of my friends, and explore nearby highlights.  Foursquare works as well as on my iPad or Droid 2 cellphone.

Flickr

Flickr works well for uploading photos from the Vita, and this is probably your best bet for sharing photos and screen shots.  However, there is a bug when reading photos from the online service.  When I click on a loaded photo, I get the message “An error has occurred in the following application C2-12828-1 Flickr” and the photo fails to load; this happens about 80% of the time.  The app then needs to be restarted.  If they can fix this, Flickr will be a great app to use with the Vita.

LiveTweet

LiveTweet is a really nice Twitter app.  Tweets, mentions, direct messages, and lists are all supported.  Here is what it looks like:

I have not used either Netflix or Music Unlimited as I don’t have accounts for either service, but would expect these to work fine.

Note that Skype is missing. I would really like to see a Skype app that allowed me to make video calls as that would really make it easy for me to take this with me on business trips.

Games and Game Play

I have played several games on the Vita so far; here are my impressions of each.

  • Drake’s Uncharted: Golden Abyss: This is an extension of the Drake’s series from the PS3 and was a launch title.  Gameplay makes great use of the rear touchpad, as well as the front screen, the analog controls, the tilt capability and the onboard camera.  This is a very fun and immersive game and really shows the Vita’s capabilities well.  Here are some screenshots from Drake’s:

  • MLB The Show 2012: This baseball game is another good match for the Vita.  You can play on the Vita while on the go and resume play and seasons on the PS3.
  • Hot Shots Golf: World Invitational: This golf game allows you to play courses around the world.  It requires you to line up shots correctly, apply the right amount of power, and to read the greens correctly when putting.  This is a fun game with really good gameplay on the Vita.
  • Little Deviants: This game highlights the control features of the Vita, with one level integrating the camera and another requiring you to use the rear touchpad and the tilt function to push a ball around the screen, for example.  I like this game, and my nine-year-old daughter loves it!
  • Hustle King: This is a pool and billiards game, and requires you to line up shots and make good use of the table sides.  This game also support cross-play with the PS3 and is a fun game.

The combination of the 5” screen, the rear touchpad and the analog sticks on either side of the device make for engaging gameplay.

Battery life was not great; I got about 3.5 hours of battery life when gaming and about 5 hours when playing videos back.  This is OK, but I’d prefer closer to six hours when gaming.

Overall Assessment

The Vita is a serious overall gaming system.  I prefer the graphics and overall layout to the PSP and to the Nintendo DS.  Video playback is great when using h.264/AAC3 encoded videos, and when combined with the ability to rent videos from the PlayStation Store, this is a seriously capable device.

I recently took a business trip to Australia and tossed it into my carry-on bag.  Boy, did it come in handy on the LAX-SYD 12.5 hour flight!  When teamed up with my Beats headphones, I had hours of gaming and video playback at my fingertips, and I had fun using the Foursquare app Down Under.  Seeing the Vita calculate the 15,000 mile trip in Near was amusing.  This device will be in my bag on my next business trip!

The release games are compelling, and I recently also added MLB The Show.  I’ve just started it but already am impressed with the gameplay.  If Sony continues to add compelling games, like Call of Duty and Grand Tourismo, then this platform will continue to have relevance for mobile gamers.

I like the ability to download games completely to the data card from the PS Store.  No need to wait for a Best Buy to open to buy a new game, and with the ability to back up games and scores to your PS3 or PC/Mac with Content Manager, you can minimize the risk of losing the downloaded game and score data.

Overall, the camera is underwhelming and I’d prefer that the data cards be less expensive, but I love the Vita and recommend it highly.

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