Netflix is live on the PlayStation Vita, at least in the United States, and we just gave the free app a spin. The verdict? It's not everything we'd hoped for from a Vita app, and it could use some work, but it's perfectly serviceable for watching the occasional movie on the handheld's beautiful five-inch OLED display.
Like any other Netflix adaptation you've probably tried, the first step once you've installed the app is to sign in, and once you bang out your login and password on the tiny touchscreen keyboard (for some reason, the Vita's default software keyboard doesn't appear) you'll thankfully never need to do that again. Then, like most any Netflix app you've probably tried, particularly the one on PlayStation 3, you'll be greeted with the familiar scrolling rows of movie posters depicting popular genres, movies you've recently watched, and your saved queue.
As far as features go, the PS Vita's version of Netflix is fully functional: you can add and remove movies from your queue, there's predictive search if you don't feel like browsing (again using the tiny keyboard), audio and subtitle options for other languages, and you can easily jump ahead in a movie with little thumbnails of the action to guide your way. The problem is that the Vita app isn't all that responsive and the UI isn't really designed for a screen this size: it's clearly a web app that's been retrofitted to fit the relatively small touchscreen display. Buttons and seek bars are small and difficult for clumsy fingers, though admittedly everything you do succeed to tap works fine. Also, you can't smoothly scroll through movies while you're browsing as you'd naturally do with most smartphone applications these days: you have to move one line of movies at a time. Thankfully, there's no real need to use the touchscreen, as unlike the Vita's own UI, physical controls work too, with the D-pad, left analog stick and face buttons functioning just as you'd expect them to anywhere else.
Unfortunately, the "retrofit" feeling also impacts performance and reliability as well. While movies stream just fine over Wi-Fi, as you'd expect them to, the app's fairly sluggish throughout, taking long enough to respond to input that I sometimes ended up pressing a second time. Also, if the Vita loses connection at any point during your browsing or viewing session, or if you pause the program to go back to the main menu, the app sometimes fails completely. Normally, if you leave Netflix, you can come back and resume your movie from your Recently Watched section, but on a number of occasions Netflix crashed on me and failed to respond until I closed it and started fresh. Also, like most of the other major Vita programs you'd care to use (Browser, Facebook), Netflix requires that you close any game in progress before you launch the app. Netflix also doesn't work over AT&T 3G, and requires a Wi-Fi connection to begin.
Actually watching movies on the widescreen OLED display is a treat. Though films may not be displaying in HD resolution on the Vita, and a couch might make more sense for extended sessions, we could definitely imagine ourselves sitting down in a cafe or at an airport (connection permitting) and enjoying the inky blacks of our Vita. The rest of the experience doesn't match up, though.
"It only does everything" is the Sony PlayStation mantra, but if these launch apps are representative of what to expect, we'd argue that the PS Vita doesn't do everything well. Here's hoping swift software updates make them competitive with what we're enjoying on our smartphones.