Seven years after the launch of the PSP comes the PlayStation Vita, Sony's modern attempt at handheld gaming. Reviews of the PS Vita -- which hits North American shelves on February 22, 2012 at $250 for the Wi-Fi-only model and $300 for the Wi-Fi and 3G model -- are good so far, with a lot of praise being heaped on its excellent screen, controls, and launch titles.
But in a world where multi-purpose smartphones are killing off standalone devices like digital cameras and camcorders, the big question is whether the PS Vita can weather the iPhone's storm and convince gamers that standalone portable systems aren't a relic of a bygone era. Here's a look at where the PS Vita succeeds and fails.
The PS Vita's 5-inch 960 by 544 pixel OLED touchscreen display grabbed the attention of all reviewers. PCWorld's Alex Wawro called it "the best screen we've ever seen in a dedicated gaming handheld." 1UP said that "everything looks unspeakably gorgeous on Vita, even from a distance and at oblique angles." And The Verge's Sam Byford lauded the PS Vita's screen as "absolutely gorgeous, with fantastic color reproduction and deep black levels that often make it hard to tell where the bezel stops and the screen begins."
Reviewers compared the PS Vita's screen to that of the iPhone 4 and 4S, which, with its heavy collection of games, multiple purposes, and massive adoption scale, will be the PS Vita's main competitor. The PS Vita doesn't have the 326 ppi pixel density of Apple's 3.5-inch retina display, but it does have 220 ppi on a 5-inch screen.
What good is a gaming handheld if it has rotten controls? The PS Vita succeeds with great DualShock controls and a responsive touchscreen, as well as the addition of a gyroscope, accelerometer and digital compass for added controls.
Gizmodo's Sam Biddle said, "… the analog sticks and triggers are responsively chewy, and the D-pad and shape buttons are just clicky and firm enough. You'll feel equally confident throwing out flying 2D fighter kicks or rolling around a Katamari."
IGN's Scott Lowe praised the PS Vita's buttons as "… tightly mounted and responsive. The shoulder buttons are springy and loose but detect depressions accurately." Lowe did have problems with the touchscreen, though, saying that while fairly accurate, "… performance varies by application and game. For instance, swipes and taps are detected 1:1 on the main user interface, but gesture controls in games like ModNation Racers: Road Trip are slower to respond."
Sometimes video game hardware releases come with miserable launch titles -- the Nintendo Wii's lineup of forgettable licensed kids games and the Xbox 360's pile of meh (Kameo: Elements of Power, for starters) come to mind. But the PS Vita manages to have a handful of games you'll actually want to play on your new handheld, including Wipeout 2048 and Uncharted: Golden Abyss.
Even if those don't strike your fancy, the Vita's built-in PlayStation Store has a bunch of downloadable PSP games. The PS Vita will also be adding more cross-platform games, such as LittleBigPlanet, that will allow users to pick up where they left off with PlayStation 3 titles on the handheld.
The PS Vita's battery was a point of contention among some reviewers. Kotaku's Stephen Totilo got an average of 4 to 5 hours of life from the handheld, but emphasized that "… the battery life in this thing should be fine for the average commutes or non-plugged-in-session as long as you plug the thing in to charge when you get where you're going. Don't forget!"
Even though IGN's 8.5 out of 10 review highlighted the "impressive battery life," it was noted that enabling 3G connectivity sucks up juice quickly, reducing the PS Vita's battery to a scant 3 hours of gameplay. Wired's Andy Robertson said that the constant need to charge and recharge made it "hard to take the Vita seriously as a portable when you need to pit stop so frequently."
The Camera and the Speakers
Video game handhelds aren't typically known for high-def cameras and speakers (isn't that what your smartphone is for?), so it's not surprising that the PS Vita's front and rear facing VGA (640 x 480) 1.3-megapixel cameras and stereo speakers rated poorly. Time's Matt Peckham summed it up perfectly by saying the cameras are "clearly low-end, but they’re mostly for gameplay or throwaway snaps -- the Vita's not intended for serious photo or videophiles."
The Hidden Costs
CNET's Jeff Bakalar points out one of the PS Vita's biggest problems: price. While $250 isn't totally unreasonable for a high-end gaming handheld, Sony has once again built a new kind of proprietary format that requires purchasing Sony-made memory units that range from $20 for 4GB to $100 for 32GB. Again, not too unreasonable, but when you factor in that PS Vita games cost $50 -- only $10 less than most PS3 or Xbox 360 games -- and, for those who purchase a 3G model, a monthly data plan, the PS Vita quickly becomes a very expensive device, and somewhat hard to justify.