Monday, February 13, 2012

PlayStation Vita - Review

Look familiar? It should: that's the PlayStation Vita, Sony's up-and-coming challenger to the mobile gaming throne. It's made the rounds a few times before, from E3, to Tokyo Game Show, to San Francisco's Vita Hill Social Club, and it even took an early pass through Engadget's review gauntlet -- courtesy of the Land of the Rising Sun, of course. After a strong start in its homeland (followed by a quick holiday slump), the budding portable hit the books, brushed up on its English and barreled its way back into Engadget's game room, demanding another review. And why not? We're happy to oblige.

And here it is, an extremely familiar looking slab of plastic, glass and electronics that calls itself the North American 3G / WiFi PlayStation Vita. Sony's new region-free tradition ensures that it won't be too different than Japan's native model, but we're diving in for a more detailed look anyway. Read on for a peek at its content management system, backward compatibility, the particulars of its fancy new thumbsticks, the latest firmware update's contribution to the platform and much more.

The PlayStation Vita's face is dominated by its luxuriously large 5-inch OLED display, and with good reason: this touchscreen not only pops with rich colors, crisp textures and deep blacks, but it's also the user's primary method of input outside of games. Yes, this gorgeous display is capacitive, and is responsive enough to make the 3DS' resistive screen feel decidedly dated. The 960 x 544 panel boasts some fantastically wide viewing angles, to boot. We did encounter a hiccup or two with the touchscreen, though. After sucking the battery dry during Engadget's requisite endurance tests, the rebooted handheld failed to respond to finger input. Things were right as rain after a hard reset, but we braced ourselves anyway -- the US release may have to ride the same bumps its Japanese counterpart hit late last year. (Note: shortly after the incident, our Vita was updated to system firmware 1.60, and as of this writing, the issue hasn't returned.) Flanking either side of the screen are the unit's primary physical controls, with a classic D-pad on the left, and the traditional PlayStation triangle, circle, square and X buttons on the right. Each side also has its very own miniature thumbstick, situated above the port side's PlayStation "home" button and the starboard's start and select buttons.

PSP veterans will find the Vita's face buttons and directional pad a bit smaller than those of their old mashing grounds, though they don't feel too petite. The tiny set of user-facing toggles favor the "clicky" depression style Nintendo integrated into the 3DS, rather than the poppy, soft-bottomed buttons found in Sony's last-generation handheld, as well as the DualShock 3, Xbox 360 controller and classic gaming consoles of yore. Although we personally favor the slight mushiness of the classic controllers we were brought up with, the Vita's buttons respond to a comfortably light touch, and are plenty responsive. The D-pad is different as well, joining the four islands of Sony's traditional directional offering to form a single unified joypad. It's smaller, and a little different than the PlayStation norm, but it's also less stiff than the PSP's old D-pad, and rolls easily under the thumb.

Both the face buttons and directional pad are conveniently located just north and to the outside of the handheld's dual-analog thumbsticks -- that's right, there's two of them. Rather than simply adding one later or mimicking the original PSP's layout, the Vita simply includes both analog sticks up front, giving the handheld controls reminiscent of its big brother, the PS3. The sticks have been shrunken significantly, however, and don't have quite as much play as the joysticks that inspire them. Compared to a DualShock 3, these petite sticks don't tilt as far from their center, but because they still offer an appropriate level of resistance to their size, it's still possible to execute delicate maneuvers. The twin sticks also have a smaller turning radius than the 3DS' solitary circle pad, but their height lends them a feeling of leverage that Nintendo's handheld simply can't emulate. Unfortunately, that height also makes them stick out of the handheld's surface somewhat oddly, which returns us to an issue haunting the original PSP: portability.

Measuring 182.0 x 18.6 x 83.5mm (7.1 x .73 x 3.3 inches), the Vita's pushing the edge of pocket-friendly gaming. We haven't had so much trouble getting a portable gaming system into our pants since the Sega Game Gear, though the Vita is of course smaller. A pair of large, "only around the house" cargo pants held the Vita just fine, but any pair of trousers worthy of wearing public will hug the handheld with an awkward and uncomfortable firmness. This is a portable console, not a pocketable one, and prospective owners should plan on keeping it in their backpacks, suit jacket pockets or at home, on the nightstand. The 3G / WiFi version of the handheld logs a respectable 9.8 ounces (279g), but it seems lighter. The same wide, long body that makes the Vita look heavy at first glance also distributes its weight evenly, creating the illusion of a featherlight handheld. Yes, it's a hair heavier than the PSP 3000 and Nintendo's latest, but not by enough that you're likely notice the difference.

The Vita's perimeter is laden with ports, slots and even more buttons. The handheld's topmost edge is home to power buttons and volume controls, an unmarked accessory port and the PS Vita game card slot. Rounding out the top edges are the console's left and right shoulder buttons, which complete the handheld's oval curvature and mold to the insides of your index fingers. On the 3G model, a SIM card slot adorns the Vita's left side, made flush by a small, attached door. The handheld's south edge houses its proprietary goods: a combination data / charging port, and a slot for Sony's new (and unofficially required) PlayStation Vita memory card. The card looks remarkably similar to a MicroSD card, although it's a bit wider, a bit thicker and significantly more expensive -- a 32 GB MicroSD card will set you back about $30, versus the $100 you'll spend on Sony's equivalent storage media. Thankfully, the Vita's south side isn't a completely Sony exclusive zone --the headphone jack supports the 3.5mm standard.

The console's backside is painted with hundreds of Sony-styled triangles, circles, squares and crosses, highlighting the console's rear touchpad in between a pair of matte black grips. This new piece of hardware hopes to give players a smartphone-like interaction without crowding the screen with fingers -- an admirable goal, considering how well the Vita's glossy exterior collects fingerprints. In our time with the handheld, we didn't stray too far from our microfiber cloth; the console's smooth surface is a magnet for oil, dust and assorted fibers just begging to be wiped away. The edges collect minor scratches quite easily, and proved vulnerable to scuffs even when we casually placed it on a wooden table. We'd definitely recommend a case for the exacting perfectionists out there. Meanwhile, the handheld's back is headlined by the VGA rear-facing camera, but we'll get to that (and its front-facing companion) later. Now that we've got a good feel for the machine, let's see what it can do.

Blowing off the buttons is a bit of a bold move, but when the touch controls work this well, we really don't mind.

The Vita's smartphone-esque user interface hasn't changed one bit since we first smudged it at San Francisco's Vita Hill Social Club. Its staggered icons are still accounted for, as are the intuitive touch controls. And touch is indeed the name of the game; the menu won't accept any input, save that of your capacitive-friendly digits. Blowing off the buttons is a bit of a bold move, but when the touch controls work this well, we really don't mind. Navigation is simple and intuitive -- flicking north or south brings you through as many as ten pages of staggered icons, each representing an app, game or feature. Tapping an icon opens up a starboard path, allowing up to five open apps to trail to the home screen's right. Scrolling horizontally allows you to mange these applications through their "LiveArea" screens. Here you'll find a centered launch button, as well as various shortcuts peppering the screen -- these might take you to the camera's photo album, for instance, or perhaps to a featured movie available for rent in the PlayStation store. A diagonal swipe closes a LiveArea tile with an animated flourish, "peeling" the program off of the Vita's screen and effectively terminating the program.

Open applications headline the status bar at the top of the screen, and can be viewed in a cascading file view with a quick click of the PlayStation button. Holding the button down produces a quick menu, allowing the user to adjust the screen's brightness, manage music playback and fiddle with the chat and microphone settings. A long press on any of the Vita's home screens will allow you to rearrange the icons, delete programs and customize any specific page's background with a new color scheme or an image from your photo gallery.

The Vita comes equipped with a small suite of apps, and most of them are pretty straightforward. Through Photos you can manage your images and control the Vita's cameras (more on that below), while the Music and Videos apps allow you to organize and -- you guessed it -- play your music and videos. These three media applications all share the same general layout: categories, artists or items flow in a vertical list. We've seen prettier media apps, but these get the job done just fine.

There are also a few applications pertaining to PlayStation Network that do the obvious. Group Messaging, Friends and Trophies all do exactly what you think -- that is, send PSN messages, organize your buddies and manage your Trophy data, respectively. The other shortcuts peppering the home screens are a bit more unique. Party, for instance, brings cross-game voice chat to the Vita, allowing friends to catch up using the Vita's internal microphone and send each other chat messages and game invitations (you can thank the Vita's extra RAM for that). Parties also monitor a user's status, letting your pals know if you've started a game or left the room.

The Near app also hopes to strengthen social ties between Vita owners, although the execution is less intuitive than we'd hoped. Diving into the Vita's online manual tells us that Near finds players in your area and exchanges play history data, in-game items and, if you allow it, usernames with local gamers. In practice, however, this is a bit more confusing; the app's "out and about" menu does indeed find a smattering of local Vita owners, shown on a friendly looking radar-screen. From here we were able to view expanded information on a recently played game, including a "buzz rating," the number of people playing and a map of emoticons detailing how players felt about the game. The application is interesting, to be sure, but far from straightforward; even after thumbing through the Near portion of the Vita's manual, we found ourselves stumbling through the program, unsure what, exactly, to do with it. It seems like a more robust (or maybe just complicated) version of Street Pass on the 3DS, but in the end we just found it to be the Vita's most muddled feature. We're hoping it'll make more sense as our local userbase fills out.

Sadly, the Vita's web browser hasn't improved one iota since we reviewed the Japanese model. It remains shockingly slow, struggling to render most websites at a respectable clip. It's not that it doesn't load pages fast -- it does -- it just doesn't tolerate much navigation. Even after fully loading a page, scrolling and zooming in feels painful, if not stunted, and that's true even if you're returning to an area of the screen that had previously been drawn. Some pages fared better than others, however. Google, for instance, didn't suffer any of the above maladies, nor did the mobile versions of Engadget, Facebook or any other watered-down site, really. In a pinch, the Vita's web browser is serviceable, but any modern smartphone simply crushes it in terms of usability -- which is surprising, considering how smoothly the rest of the Vita's applications run. Hopefully future updates will make up for the PSV's clunky introduction to the world wide web.

Our review unit didn't have Google Maps in tow when we first unboxed it, but firmware update 1.60 handily tacked it on. The Vita's map app is relatively simple, tapping Google's servers for traffic data, directions and satellite imagery. Zooming in and out or panning to a new section of the map usually causes the app to stutter, though it recovers faster than the web browser. It won't replace your GPS, or even your PC's Google Maps bookmark, but it's a nice feature to have if you're lugging around a 3G-enabled games console.
Content Management and backwards compatibility

The Vita's proprietary memory card won't play nice with your laptop's multi-card reader, so you'll be loading media and backing up games with the help of Sony's Content Manager Assistant, a piece of desktop software designed to help you, well, manage content. This is no iTunes, however: the PC / Mac GUI does little more than tell the Vita what folders it has permission to play with (the Vita itself browses the file system, selects content and initiates the data transfer). Cutting out the necessity of learning a separate desktop interface for data management keeps things easy, and creates a uniform experience that doesn't change regardless of platform. In other words, backing up files and transferring data works exactly the same way with a PC / Vita pairing as it does with a PS3 / Vita setup. It keeps thing simple, with just two menus: copy content, or backup utility. The copy content section lets you pick and choose the files you copy from your handheld to your host device or visa versa, and the backup utility lets you backup your Vita, restore it from a backup, or delete your previously saved backup files altogether. Update: The Content Manager Assistant was made available to Mac OS users when the Vita was updated with firmware 1.60.

While the device-controlled environment is easy to use and refreshingly uniform, it has some drawbacks, mainly stemming from the very strengths we just mentioned. Ease of use comes with a consequence. By making the PC syncing experience identical to the one you'll enjoy on the PS3, Sony abandoned the opportunity to build a more robust file management system on the desktop end. The Vita will only browse files located in a handful of pre-specified folders -- if the Content Manager Assistant isn't assigned to the folder that contains the particular picture or video you want to transfer, your Vita isn't going to find it.

Even then the Vita is only looking at certain types of files. It favors MP3, MP4 and WAVE audio files, likes its films in MPEG-4: SP (Level 3) and H.264 and plays nice most major image formats, including JPEG, TIFF, GIF, BMP and PNG. Knowing exactly what kind of game data will transfer, on the other hand, is a little less straightforward. Yes, the Vita has a degree of backward compatibility with its father handheld, but its love of last-generation games isn't universal. Be it licensing issues or a fault of the Vita's PSP emulation, a chunk of the PlayStation Store's PSP library, such as LittleBigPlanet and Killzone: Liberation, simply won't run on the next-generation portable. These games won't appear in the PlayStation store when you're browsing from the device itself, but you can still download them through the PS3. And in case you were wondering, no, the Content Manger isn't a loophole to compatibility. Purchase with care, or live with the consequences.

When the stars (or licensing agreements, or emulation compatibility or whatever) are aligned, PSP gameplay on the Vita's gorgeous OLED display is a sight to behold. The colors are brighter and more vibrant, and have shed the washed-out look that the PSP's LCD screen sometimes produced. It's bigger, too, making full use of the Vita's 5-inch display -- although this can make the stretched classics look a bit more jaggy than they might have on Sony's last-gen hardware. We could live with this caveat, and probably would without much question if we didn't read the Vita's online manual. As it turns out, momentarily holding the touchscreen while playing a PSP game brings up a settings menu, offering players a handful of tweaks.

Not a fan of jaggies? Bi-linear filtering should smooth out those rough edges. Nostalgic for your PSP's LCD? Switch on the Vita's color space mode to give the handheld's bright screen the appropriate muting. The menu even has camera options for scant few PSP games that pulled the augmented reality trick. If all this wasn't enough, the Vita's secondary thumbstick can be given the power to emulate the D-pad, face buttons or left analog stick. Bilinear filtering won't make every game look better -- in fact, as far as we can tell it didn't make any difference at all when applied to Mega Man Maverick Hunter X -- but it adds a caring touch to a passable PSP emulator.

Despite its modest collection of multimedia apps, the PlayStation Vita is, first and foremost, a PlayStation. A portable games console, out to claim its place as king among handheld gaming beasts. It would stand to reason, then, that the PlayStation Vita has games. It does. Perhaps in response to the mistakes its competitors made, the Vita is hurtling towards launch day with a strong library of diverse launch titles.

Even Engadget's resident Nintendo fanboys had to give Sony's new portable props: these are by far the finest handheld console graphics we've ever seen. Still, it's not perfect -- close ups of Nathan Drake's shirt in Uncharted: Golden Abyss betrayed the games low-res textures, and a careful eye can see that some edges just aren't as smooth as they would be on a home console. We didn't expect anything else, of course. You aren't going to give up your PS3 for the sake of the Vita's graphical chops, but they're still darn impressive.

PlayStation Store

Although gamers around the world breathed a collective sigh of relief when Sony backed away from the PSP Go's digital exclusivity, Sony is still gunning for a future of games untethered by physical media. Getting there will mean making digital purchases more convenient and more appealing than the alternative. The Vita's PlayStation store isn't the solution, but it's a start. The handheld shop's main page is headlined with a rotating banner of featured content and four categories: featured, new releases, top downloads and all. Sony told us that more options are on the way, noting that game demos will start showing up after February 14th and that Netflix is due to arrive on the 21st. The default view, "All," offers the choice of PS Vita games, PSP games, minis, media as well as the chance to search by genre.

Jumping in is a fairly smooth, if somewhat basic, experience -- we easily hopped into the Vita category to see a short, alphabetized list of titles available for download. The PSP and Minis sections didn't stray too far from the formula, though here, the larger lists are further split various categories, arranged in alphabetical order. The Vita's online shop suffers the same faults as its PS3 counterpart: it's well organized, but no fun to use. While alphabetized games and clearly marked categories may make it easy to find the specific game you're looking for, but it doesn't make us want to just "look for games." The over-organized structure makes it difficult to browse, and the scarcity of gameplay screenshots put casual shopping out of the question. The aforementioned "Near" app seems to lean heavily on discovering new games that are being played in your local area, but users (this reviewer included) who find the location based social sharing application confusing won't find refuge here. The Vita's incarnation of the PlayStation store is no more engaging or creative than its big brother's online shop, but at the very least it's easier to navigate than its PS3 compadre, and for now, simpler as well.

Much like the Vita's web browser, not much has changed about the handheld's camera since its Japanese launch. Its rear-facing camera still whimpers with a maximum resolution of 640 x 480, often producing noisy images that skimp on detail. Swapping to the front-facing camera will frame the player's mug at the very same resolution, though its lens' off-center positing ensures they won't be looking at the birdie. These shooters work well enough for games like Little Deviants to use for augmented reality mini-games, but the Vita won't make you consider leaving your point-and-shoot camera (or even your cell phone camera) at home.

Still, firmware update 1.60 gave the camera a small kick in the pants, tacking video recording to the end of the list of things that the handheld's camera is "sort of okay" at. Videos adopt the camera's native resolution, keeping the same noisy grain and washed out colors that plague stills. It isn't any worse off than the 3DS' offering, but the Vita's camera simply doesn't measure up to the standard the rest of its hardware sets. A turn of the century camera phone, on the other hand, might be able to give it a run for its money.
Battery life

Three to five hours of gameplay -- it's what Sony promised, and it's what we got.

We already know better than to expect the Vita to pack enough juice to get us through an international (or even domestic) flight, but we couldn't resist running it through a handful of battery tests anyway. Our first few power drains matched our review of the Japanese unit almost exactly -- three hours of dedicated gaming on the console's default settings left our handheld dead. Dragging the Vita's brightness slider down to its dimmest setting scored us another hour of playtime, and kicking the console into flight mode seemed to buy it another twenty minutes. We were able to game for a little longer in PSP mode, stretching the battery to nearly six hours of gameplay on the minimum brightness level with WiFi and audio disabled. We were hoping to drag the handheld's longevity out a bit further than this, but were unable to get the Vita off of the company line -- our game-heavy battery tests match the Vita's official battery life estimates almost blow-for-blow. Three to five hours of gameplay -- it's what Sony promised, and it's what we got.

Sony seems to have made looser estimates for media playback, however. Although audio playback fell just a few minutes shy of the rated nine hours, our video test eclipsed the expected five-hour runtime by a full hour. Although the Vita's six hours of video playback isn't enough to make up for its other electrical shortcomings, we have to respect a device that can handle Gone with the Wind, complete with overture and intermissions, and still have enough juice left over for some light gaming. That's an inflight experience we could get behind. Despite our love of Rhett Butler, though, we still feel a bit let down by the Vita's longevity. At the very least, Sony's aware of this shortcoming, and has already announced an external battery pack.
3G connectivity and remote play

When we reviewed the Japanese PlayStation Vita 3G / WiFi, we were at a slight disadvantage, being several thousand miles outside of the handheld's chosen cellular network. The stubborn console simply wouldn't accept a foreign substitute. In the US, of course, it tapped into AT&T's 3G network without any fuss. Unfortunately, rumors of its limitations haven't been exaggerated. The cellular connection will get the Vita logged into the PlayStation network, browsing the web and even using Twitter on the go, but a 20-megabyte download restriction keeps the PlayStation store from using the connectivity to its fullest potential. Gamers on the go jonesing for something new to play will either have to settle for a PlayStation mini with a small data footprint, or return to the warm embrace of WiFi. Users can still "Party" over 3G, albeit without cross-game voice chat, as well as view their friends list, update their trophy data and check in with Near. Games will still let players check their leaderboard ranking over 3G, but won't let them climb any higher -- mobile multiplayer will have for Sony to build an LTE PSV.

Sony's Remote Play magic won't work over 3G either, though we were able pipe a PSone game through our local network just fine. The Vita currently supports the same list of Remote Play capable titles as the PSP, which mostly consists of simple PSN games, the home console's music, photo and video menus, and the aforementioned PSone games. We tried to recreate Sony's TGS Killzone 3 demo, but the Vita wouldn't have it. Right now, it's up to developers to activate Remote Play for their titles, and unless Sony decides to tweak the PS3's firmware to say otherwise, that's the way it's going to stay. In the meantime, Bionic Commando Rearmed and Gran Turismo numero uno will have to do.


Sony's latest contender is a little late to the game, nearly a year following the 3DS' debut. Still, the Vita is technically a stronger player. Sony's new portable eclipses Nintendo's latest on more battlefields than ever before, outclassing it not only in graphical output, but in touchscreen technology, controls and button layout, user interface design and, perhaps most importantly, game selection at launch. So is that enough for it to pull ahead of the competition? We can't be sure.

We will say, however, that the PlayStation Vita triumphs where it counts. It has its hiccups and blemishes, sure, but web browsers can be updated, as can the PS3's remote play limitations. Still, no amount of software updates can undo that disappointing runtime. Without performance-enhancing peripherals, the PlayStation Vita won't be getting you through long flights or cross-country road trips. For gamers spoiled by the endurance of the original PSP and DS systems, it's a tough sell. In fact, the WiFi edition's $250 price tag might give gamers burned by the 3DS' price-drop pause, to say nothing of the $50 premium they'll pay for the 3G model.

Still, it's hard to shake the Vita's siren call: adopt early, it says, I'm worth it. As seductive as that call from the souped-up PSP successor is, its real song is its games -- if none of them resonate for you, you'd better stay bound to your mast through these Uncharted waters.

Edgar Alvarez contributed to this review. (Special Thanks to Engadged)


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