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Sony PlayStation Vita review

Sony's second portable brings the fight to smartphones and Nintendo

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Sony’s PlayStation Vita represents the company’s second entry into the volatile handheld gaming market. The original PlayStation Portable found reasonable success as a largely traditional system, with console-style games being bought in boxes from stores just like other PlayStations, but the portable gaming market has changed in the six years since that console launched. With $0.99 smartphone apps like Angry Birds satiating the boredom of many commutes, just how much appetite there is for a "full" on-the-go gaming experience is debatable. Sony's answer? Pack as much as it can into a single device, and price it starting at $249.99.

On paper, the PS Vita is an astonishing piece of hardware, with a quad-core processor powering nearly PS3-level graphics on a 5-inch AMOLED touchscreen backed up by two analog sticks, a touch-sensitive back panel, and a smartphone-style OS. It's a confusing prospect — a dedicated gaming handheld with a lot of features taken from devices that have caused people to question the need for dedicated gaming handhelds in the first place. "Vita" means "life", but will there be a place in yours for Sony's latest creation? Let's find out.

Note: This review was originally for the Japanese version of the PlayStation Vita, but we've since updated several sections to reflect the US variant as well. In particular, check out the Connectivity section for impressions of the AT&T 3G model. We've also added a video review just below!

Video Review

Video Review

Hardware

Hardware and design

The PS Vita keeps the same basic shape and layout as the PSP, with an ovoid body dominated by a large widescreen display and flanked by a D-pad on the left, face buttons on the right and an analog stick on either side (more on the controls later). Sony appears to have taken some design cues from Apple's iPhone 4, with the Vita's glossy black face being surrounded by a metallic rim that runs along the edge of the device and houses various ports and controls. So far, so original PSP, but details like the volume controls are particularly reminiscent of the iPhone 4, with small + and - symbols set into round, silver buttons. The top of the device has two flaps for access to game cards and an as-yet unused peripheral expansion port, which both open easily while feeling a little cheap. The power button is in between the L shoulder button and game card slot, within easy reach of your left index finger, and next to the R shoulder button the volume controls can be accessed similarly with your right. Along the bottom is a headphone socket, proprietary port for power and data transfer via USB, and a small microphone. Overall, the layout of the system is functional yet attractive, with everything being easily accessible without getting overly complex.

Like an iPhone 4, with a lot more buttons

Stereo speakers sit to the side of each analog stick, and while they sound okay in a quiet room, they’re likely to be the weak link in your quest for a console-quality game experience on the go. As with any handheld system, I’d recommend headphones for anything on Vita where you actually want to listen to the sound. Thanks mostly to the display it's gained a little in height and length over its most immediate predecessor, the PSP-3000, but is almost identically thick at 18.6mm (0.73 in). I wouldn't want it to be much thinner, either — the rear of the device has a couple of recesses for your index fingers (or middle, if you’re using the shoulder buttons) to comfortably fit into, and its relatively large footprint makes for a even fit in the hands. Since you’ll likely be wanting a case, there aren't too many places you could put a PSP that you wouldn't be able to get your Vita into as well (neither being especially pocketable devices), and the obvious benefits to comfort and the display are well worth the increase in overall size.

Those iPhone design cues don't extend to actual glass or aluminum, as the Vita is a decidedly plastic affair. The system is surprisingly light at 260g (9.17 oz), but nevertheless it feels very sturdily built, with little flexing under pressure. While the area on the back panel surrounding the rear touchpad is matte and helps provide a solid grip, the touchpad and entire face of the unit are glossy and smooth to the touch, also picking up fingerprints very easily. While I didn’t test this out, my feeling is that the system is durable but the screen could get scratched quite easily — the Vita is large enough that you’ll probably be carrying it in a bag of some sort, and I’d consider a case, pouch, or sleeve an essential purchase. The style, build quality and materials used means that the overall feel of the device is more reminiscent of the original PSP-1000 unit than than the lighter, cheaper-feeling 2000 and 3000 models that followed, which is a welcome return to form — the Vita is large without feeling bulky, and light without feeling insubstantial.

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Display

Display

The Vita's screen is amazing, whichever way you look at it
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The most prominent part of the Vita hardware is the 5-inch, 960 x 544 Super AMOLED Plus display from Samsung, which takes up most of the front of the unit. It's 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. Viewing angles are very good, with the picture remaining clear at extreme positions, though like many other OLED displays it can take on a blueish tint when the system is tilted — you can see what’s happening on screen from nearly 180 degrees, but the color temperature is inaccurate unless you’re looking at it relatively straight on. The screen is glossy, but I found it generally easier to view outside than any PSP model ever was — it still didn’t get great results in direct sunlight, though. With a pixel density of about 220ppi, we're not talking Retina Display (326ppi) or Galaxy Nexus (316ppi) levels of sharpness here, but at the distance you're likely to be holding the device, pixels are rarely distinguishable. Even when you can see the pixels, the RGB stripe arrangement makes everything clear and accurate — no PenTile graininess here. However, certain software titles we've been testing have exhibited resolution issues that undo a lot of the good work the display can do — more on that later.

Cameras

Cameras

You probably shouldn't be taking photos with the Vita
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The Vita has both front- and rear-facing cameras, but I wouldn't expect shutterbugs to be using them for actual photography. Like the 3DS, both of the Vita’s cameras capture images at VGA (640 x 480) resolution (though in 2D, obviously), and the quality is actually a little higher than Nintendo was able to muster — which is saying absolutely nothing at all. There’s no video or audio recording functionality to speak of in the Photo app, which is purely for taking stills. The rear-facing camera often overexposes, with a lot of blown highlights outdoors, though the flipside is that I often got better results in low light than the 3DS or iPad 2. The lens is fixed-focus, but deals surprisingly well with macro. Pictures are shot in 4:3 format by default, and while you can change the aspect ratio to fill the screen by pressing the square button, this simply crops the top and bottom from the sensor image. Perhaps most annoyingly, it takes about five seconds to save a photo to the Vita’s memory, during which you’re unable to shoot again.

Update: Sony's added video recording to the Vita's cameras, but you wouldn't want to use it.

The front-facing camera is a few millimeters away from the face buttons on the right side of the unit, which lends a slightly disconcerting angle to your image — if you’re looking at the screen, you won’t look like you are. The cameras were clearly included for augmented reality and video chat (not available at launch, though we're promised Skype soon), and they should do you fine for those purposes, aside from the front-facing camera’s unusual angle issue.

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Controls

Controls

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The Vita hardware makes use of just about every control paradigm used in the gaming world today, from traditional hardware buttons to touch and motion. The physical layout is pretty similar to the PSP, with the four face buttons, two shoulder buttons, and a D-pad joined by a pair of analog sticks, though unlike the PS3 you don't get button functionality by pushing them in. The second stick is a much-needed upgrade over the PSP's single nub and handheld systems in general, but it's not only the quantity that counts — it's the quality. The sticks mostly deliver on that front, taking a different approach to the sliding pads of the 3DS and PSP by actually pivoting on a point, which gives a much more natural feel. They are very small, though, only extending a few millimeters from the face of the system. This lack of throw and leverage means that you'll need to make much finer movements than you would on a PS3 or Xbox 360 pad, but overall the sticks are a huge improvement over what's come before on portable consoles. There's no comparison at all with the PSP's nub, and while the 3DS's Circle Pad is generally accurate it's less comfortable to use. I often find my thumb slipping off the Circle Pad because of its flat shape and strong, springy resistance, neither of which are a problem on the Vita.

The face buttons are very small but have a good, clicky response to them that reminded me of the DSi, and the shoulder buttons have a smooth, trigger-like action that complement the dual sticks well in action games like Uncharted. The D-pad is very accurate, and links the four directions in a single cross for the first time in place of the four separate buttons that all previous PlayStation systems adopted. One issue with the layout, though, is that the sticks are a little close to the face buttons and D-pad — try pulling off a Street Fighter "hadouken" and your left thumb will likely be touching the stick at the same time, which at best feels kind of strange and at worst could give you unintended inputs. I got used to this quickly, though, and found that the D-pad performed really well in demanding games like BlazBlue. I’d personally never use an analog stick for fighting games, but I can see people who play that way having a good time with the Vita’s sticks as the lack of travel distance makes switching between directions faster than a standard pad.

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Underneath the left analog stick is the Home button, flush with the face of the system and adorned with a silver PlayStation logo. It glows a blueish purple when you have a notification, and orange when the system is charging. A single press will bring you back to the home screen, and a longer press brings up a control panel that lets you adjust brightness, volume and microphone settings. The brightness control is particularly welcome, and makes up for the loss of the dedicated button on the PSP. Oddly, though, I found that apps can control its parameters — Ultimate Marvel vs Capcom 3, for instance, only let me set it to a maximum of around 80 percent. The Start and Select buttons are under the right analog stick, and are the same shape as the Home button but a good deal smaller. Their small size and lack of protusion from the screen makes them difficult to find quickly, though I imagine I’ll get used to it — they feel fine when you know where they are.

The Vita uses a capacitive multitouch screen, which works the way you'd expect — no stylus here. The plastic screen isn't quite as smooth to the touch as the glass that we've got used to with smartphones, but it's accurate and responsive. More interesting is the touchpad on the rear of the unit, which is the same size as the screen and sits directly underneath, allowing you to touch objects on the screen as if you’re pushing through the device itself. This is a pretty out-there inclusion, but the obvious use case scenario is the manipulation of onscreen elements without them being obscured by your fingers. The Vita also has an array of motion sensors, including a gyroscope, accelerometer and digital compass, which allows for the same sort of input as the PS3's Sixaxis controller.

Software

Software


Getting Started

Setting up your Vita is straightforward, though not without its quirks. After turning it on for the first time, you enter the time and select your language — the Japanese Vita has full support for English and many other world languages, though the setup process doesn’t give you the option to use multiple input methods. I initially thought that I couldn’t type Japanese if my Vita was set to English, but you can add more keyboards by revisiting the language menu after setup. Next up is signing in with or signing up for a PlayStation Network account, but I didn’t have much success here. Attempting to sign in with my existing account resulted in a familiar message stating that a firmware update was required, but provided no way to actually get the update there and then. I eventually just skipped this part and reentered my details later on the settings page.

Update: Obviously, the US version of the Vita starts up in English, and we also didn't have any trouble getting our existing PSN accounts set up.

A word on PSN accounts — while the Vita is essentially region-free, you can’t use content from more than one account at a time, and switching accounts forces you to reformat the system memory. You can keep save files on memory cards, but you won’t be able to earn trophies in those games on the new account. If you’re importing a Vita, know that you won’t be able to use the PSN store until it officially launches in your region, and that anything you download from the Japanese store today will cease to function if you switch to your home account in the future.

The Vita is region-free, if you stick to one account
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Look, Feel, and Usability

The Vita dispenses with the PSP and PS3's XMB interface in favor of a new, smartphone-inspired OS. Sony loses major points for style here, with an incredibly cluttered visual appearance and some cheesy muzak backing your every move (you can turn this off, thankfully), but for the most part it’s provided a straightforward, efficient interface. The home screen works along the lines of Android or iOS, with app icons held in rearrangable bubbles across multiple pages. Holding down on an icon for a second will let you view its information including size, parental control and the date it was added, and you also have the option to delete it directly from the home screen. Inserting a retail PS Vita game card adds an app to the home screen that stays there until you manually delete it, so you have a quick link to trophy information, the digital manual, DLC and so on. You can’t delete any of the preloaded apps, and redownloading or reinserting a game will always add its app to the home screen. Tapping on an app icon will bring you to its LiveArea screen.

Each app has its own LiveArea, which can be as simple as a single start button or a lot more elaborate. Hot Shots Golf’s LiveArea, for example, includes direct links to the game’s website, multiplayer features within the game itself, and the PSN store for downloadable content. You can have up to six open at a time, though there currently are some restrictions — you'll have to quit your game if you want to switch to the web browser, for example. (Sony says it wants to add the ability to browse the web while playing a game via a firmware update, however.) Swipe through the LiveAreas to see what's been running recently on your Vita, tap the Start button in the center to reopen one, and close any of them by sliding your finger from the top right of the screen to the bottom left, like tearing a page off a calendar. This gesture is also used to unlock the Vita upon waking it from sleep — at first I thought that using the same gesture to close apps and start using the system was a little incongruous, but you come to think of it as "discarding" the lock screen.

In fact, the entire OS is touch-controlled, with the hardware buttons having almost no role to play whatsoever. This is mostly fine, as the UI is designed around touch, but it feels restrictive at times — there’s no scrolling around webpages with the analog stick, for example, and no using the shoulder buttons to skip songs in the music player. Unlike the DS’s interface (which relies on a resistive screen) you won’t get very far in this OS with gloves on, though the screen does respond fine to input from a capacitive stylus.

Text entry is handled by a software keyboard, and while the keys are accurate the size of the screen can make rapid typing difficult, as you’ll need to stretch your thumbs a bit to reach keys in the middle. Despite almost never using autocomplete on any other device, I usually found myself resorting to it when using the Vita to type words containing the letters "G" and "V". I’m not crazy about the numpad-style number input, either, with all the keys bunched together on the right-hand side of the screen — since bringing it up requires a tap on the left side of the keyboard, it’s difficult to activate and use in a single motion. I would have preferred a more standardized numeral row along the top.

The corners of the screen are usually reserved for standardized actions. The lower left corner, for example, pops up with a Back button at appropriate times, like when using the browser or going a couple of levels deep into menus. The bottom right corner displays ellipsis when there are further options available than what’s currently displayed on screen — this is how you access your download list or redeem a code in the PlayStation Store, for example, as these functions have no discrete buttons in the main view. The upper right corner of the screen has a notification counter, and touching it brings up a pop-over list with friend requests, trophies and various other updates.

Apps

Apps

The Vita comes preloaded with a selection of apps, with more available in the PlayStation Store.

Web Browser

Now this may be faint praise, but the browser is the best we’ve seen on a game system to date. Though it's not up to speed with a good smartphone, it’s very usable in basic operation — pages default to their full versions and look good on the Vita’s large screen, the odd rendering issue aside. The interface is in line with modern mobile browsers, with features like pinch-to-zoom working as you’d expect. There can be quite a lot of checkerboarding when moving around heavier pages (our own is, sadly, an example of this), but this keeps the scrolling smooth and assets normally load quickly once your finger is off the screen. While admittedly I'm not sure how often I’ll use the browser with my phone in easy reach, it’s nice to know it’s there. You won’t get very far using it for video, though — Sony has said that it wants to add Flash support to the Vita, but it doesn’t even support HTML5 right now, with videos appearing as little red X marks. The browser also performed pretty abysmally under the SunSpider benchmark, returning a result of 36,776.5ms. In normal use over a Wi-Fi connection it’s snappy enough, but it’s clear that we’re not looking at a full-featured browser here. Of course, browser performance will also depend on your connection speed, and with AT&T 3G we weren't really impressed with page load times.

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CORE APPS

The Vita OS includes a lot more apps preloaded into the system, with mixed execution. I'll start with three that really should be one: Party, Group Messaging, and Friends. Party gives you cross-game voice and text chat functionality for the first time on PlayStation Network, and links you directly either to the game session your friends (up to 8 people in a single party) are in, or to the game's PSN store page if you don't have it. Group Messaging is another real-time chat application, this time for up to four people, but this time you can send photos as well and it’s looped into the existing chat framework on PS3. Friends is a simple friends list for viewing profiles, trophy information and your PSN friends' own friends lists. The total functionality of these apps is great, but it's strange that they're fragmented the way they are — surely a unified communication app would have been a more elegant solution.

Meanwhile, "elegant" is the last word in the dictionary I'd use to describe Near. Ostensibly a location-based social networking app that lets you find players around you and give and view feedback on the games these people are playing, it’s saddled with an amazingly convoluted interface that frequently left me pages deep in the menu system wondering where I was, how I got there and how to leave. Moreover, the app is less than clear about what data it is sharing at any time, and kept telling me that certain features were locked because I wasn't sharing enough — despite what the app's own settings page was saying to the contrary. On the other hand, potentially useful features such as user feedback on games are simplified too much, restricting you to applying universally positive emoticons with labels like "Exhilarating!" and "Rewarding!". There are some cool ideas buried in Near, but the focus and implementation are seriously lacking.

Welcome Park is essentially the opposite, offering a minimal, well-designed introduction to some of the Vita's simplest functions. It teaches you how to use the touchscreen, rear touchpad, tilt functionality and more through a series of minigames. While the visual style is pretty uninteresting and the games lack challenge, they could serve as a useful introduction to modern touch and tilt interaction for anyone who's never owned a smartphone before...and for the rest of us, at least there's Trophy support.

OTHER APPS

Sony has also announced apps for other services like Facebook, Foursquare, Skype and Twitter, but none were available at the Japanese Vita launch save LiveTweet. LiveTweet has to be downloaded from the PlayStation Store, and is actually a really well-designed app that plays to the Vita’s strengths. The widescreen display offers space for tweeted photos to be displayed in-line, for example, and the app can access the camera and photo library. It’s nothing revolutionary for anyone who’s used a decent Twitter app on any smartphone platform, but unlike the Vita’s browser it’s good enough that in most cases we’d be just as happy to use it.

In case you're curious, the two other applications that were available on the Japanese PSN store at launch were Nico Nico Douga and UkeTorne. Nico Nico is a popular video-sharing site in Japan, similar to YouTube but with the added twist that comments are displayed over the video itself in real time. The Vita app is well-done, letting you view the videos in full screen and post comments just like the full browser version. I watched a few cat videos for research purposes, and can confirm that our fellow viewers were mostly posting variations on "Cute!" and "I’m posting from my Vita!" — these comments are showing up all over the web version of the site, too. You can’t currently upload videos to the service, but the LiveArea promises this feature is coming soon. UkeTorne is an app for use with Sony’s PS3 DVR peripheral Torne (similar to PlayTV in Europe), and works in the same way as the Content Manager application to get recorded TV downloaded onto your Vita. Torne broadcasts are also viewable live via Remote Play, and you can also schedule recordings right on your device.

Update: Google Maps is now on the Vita as well, albeit a little slow. Read our full impressions right here. As of February 13th, the US Vita actually doesn't have any apps yet, but Sony told us several should be in the PlayStation Store, including Netflix, by the handheld's February 22nd formal launch date.

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Games

Games

Digital or physical, the Vita has your back
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Check out Vox Games' awesome PlayStation Vita buyers' guide

Retail Vita games come on proprietary memory cards, called "Vita cards" by Sony, and they're packaged in blue boxes the same width and approximately three-quarters the height of PSP boxes. The need for in-store advertising aside, that's about twice as high as they need to be, in my opinion — the cards are tiny, and none of the games I've seen have come with paper manuals so far (unlike 3DS releases, which come in boxes a little larger than Vita titles do). If you've got enough space on your proprietary memory card, though, you can download full games as well. All Japanese Vita games are available for download from the PlayStation Store, at a discount of around ¥500-1,000 over the MSRP, and as of February 13th, five US Vita titles are available for a discount, too: Uncharted: Golden Abyss is $44.99, ModNation Racers is $26.99, the download-only Super Stardust Delta is $9.99, to give you some idea. Both Hot Shots Golf and Wipeout 2048 are also available.

The Vita is also backwards-compatible with the vast majority of PSP games from the PSN store, over 275 games in all. Sony says some games are not compatible, but we’re not yet aware of any specific examples. PSP games are upscaled to quadruple resolution on the Vita’s screen, which doesn’t look bad, and there’s a bilinear filtering option to smooth out sharp edges — I’d recommend using this for 3D games and leaving it off for 2D games, as it blurs pixel-level detail. Other options include the ability to set the display to the PSP’s color space (the PSP-3000 also included this feature, with its wider color gamut than previous models), and you can also choose between which of the Vita’s cameras to use for the handful of PSP games that supported the camera accessory.

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Sony hasn't abandoned the PSP entirely

Maybe the best addition is analog stick remapping — you can assign the right analog stick to behave like the left stick, face buttons or D-pad. I tried this out with Monster Hunter Portable 3rd, a PSP game that normally has camera control on the D-pad and character movement on the analog nub, but by remapping the Vita’s right stick to the D-pad you can play with dual-stick control. It’s definitely comparable to the implementation of Nintendo’s Circle Pad Pro analog stick attachment with Monster Hunter 3 (tri-) G, as neither game uses true analog movement for the camera, and offers a dramatic improvement over control on the PSP. I’d still say that Monster Hunter controls better on the 3DS, because of the game’s reworked targeting system, but the Vita support is about as good as I could have hoped for. This extends to support for save transfer — normally, Monster Hunter save files are locked, but you can continue your PSP game using the Vita’s Content Manager app and a PS3 or PC as an intermediary, which is a pretty essential feature for a game that has players frequently logging hours in the triple digits. You also have full access to the Vita’s OS while playing PSP games, unlike the 3DS which essentially turns into an original DS in backwards-compatibility mode.

As the Vita jettisons the PSP’s much-maligned UMD drive, owners of physical games on that format are mostly out of luck. Mostly? Well, if you live in Japan, Sony has a solution of sorts in its UMD Passport program, which allows you to register your UMD games with a PSP app and download them at a reduced price on the Vita. Support is seriously limited, though — I personally don’t own any of the 262 games covered by the program, with major publishers like Capcom, Konami and Square Enix ignoring it completely. In the US, you're out of luck: Sony's dropped the UMD Passport idea entirely in that part of the world.

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Media

Media playback

At the heart of the Vita's media support is its Content Manager software, which lets you copy media from or to your PS3 or PC directly over USB. It's slick and simple — navigate your media library on the Vita's screen, select what you want to transfer, and it all copies over in a single process. Unfortunately, though, there's no Mac support at present, and you can't mount the Vita via USB Mass Storage either. If you don't have a Windows PC or PS3, you're out of luck right now. It would also be nice to see wireless syncing support in future, especially considering that you can only use Sony's proprietary USB cable to connect your Vita to other devices, though you can wirelessly play back any music or video on your PS3 via the dedicated Remote Play app, the same way as PSP.

Update: As of early February, Mac support is a go. Find the OS X version of the Content Manager software right here.

There were rumblings before launch that Vita could play back all PS3 games over Remote Play, but at least for now that’s not the case. The only games that I could get to work were the same ones that already did on PSP, such as Pixeljunk Shooter and Bionic Commando Rearmed. These games also display at the PSP’s 480x272 resolution, which doesn’t look great — there’s an image quality setting, but this is purely related to the bitrate of the stream. Games over Remote Play look sharper on PSP, but also have a little more lag.

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Playing media back on the Vita is done via the individual Music Player and Video Player applications, which both work well. Video in particular looks fantastic on the Vita's screen, and the app is nicely designed with a preview that lets you jump to any minute in the timeline by scrolling through frames. The Music Player app is simple, but runs in the background across other apps, including games — press down the Home button anywhere to bring up basic controls, and you can use your own custom soundtrack. Format support is pretty lacking, though, with the Music Player only working with MP3, MP4 and WAV, and the Video Player rejecting anything but MP4. You’ll need to convert files yourself — the Vita will play H.264 video, but only at a maximum resolution of 720p. Given the 960x544 resolution of the Vita’s screen, I don’t feel this is a big problem — I’d want to convert larger files down for size considerations anyway.

Of course, another option is to buy or rent video directly from the PlayStation Store. The store has a pretty decent selection of movies, anime and TV shows, but unfortunately on Vita content is limited to SD, with HD versions not even appearing on the store. Still, the files are high quality and look pretty good on the screen — I downloaded Norwegian Wood, which clocks in at 1709MB for 133 minutes and displays in 16:9. It took just over half an hour to download on Vita, which is a little slower than I’d expect on PS3 (I have a 100mbps fiber optic connection in Japan) but not bad, and unlike on PSP files can download in the background or in standby mode. There’s a 30 day viewing window for downloading rentals once you’ve paid, and after starting the video you have 24 hours to watch it.

Meanwhile, if it crossed your mind that the Vita's five-inch AMOLED screen would be a wonderful place to show off your photography skills, you'd be partially right. Sadly, though, the gallery included in the Photos app doesn't resize images on the fly, so be prepared for ugly jagged edges if you zoom in on any of your DSLR pictures.

Connectivity

Connectivity

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The Vita comes in two variants; one with 3G and Wi-Fi support, one Wi-Fi only. Originally, we tested the Wi-Fi variant in Japan with an EMobile HSPA+ Pocket Wi-Fi router alongside (read our original report below) but we've since spent several days with a genuine US model running on AT&T's 3G network, and... we're fairly disappointed so far. Between slow cellular data speeds and slow rendering performance, the Vita's browser felt lethargic compared to the smartphones we typically use, and Google Maps was also pretty slow, though the embedded GPS in the 3G unit does seem to track fairly accurately once it gets a lock. Group Messaging was suitably snappy over 3G, though, allowing us to quickly communicate and even send images to friends. And while it might not be fair to evaluate 3G's utility quite yet without more apps to test with, we've pretty much just described everything you can do with cellular connectivity right now. There's no voice chat, remote play, online multiplayer, or game downloads over 3G, though you can browse the store for items and queue them up for your next Wi-Fi haul. Oh, and we even got a spam text message. No joke.

In Japan, coverage is provided by Japan's largest network operator, NTT Docomo, and operates on a pay-per-usage basis with users needing to buy packs of 20 or 100 hours at a time — the first shipment of Japanese Vita units includes a 100 hour card, with subsequent stock to carry a card good for 20 hours. My Vita model is the Wi-Fi only version, but I did get the chance to check out a friend's 3G unit, and it wasn't exactly an impressive show — pages in the browser loaded very slowly, often hanging for long periods before finally spitting out a poorly-rendered version of the final site. Next to my Vita connected to an EMobile HSPA+ Pocket Wi-Fi router, there was no comparison at all, to the point where I have to conclude that Docomo was having serious problems with its network. Of course, that was anecdotal evidence, but given the similar problems we had with the AT&T 3G variant in the US, we have to wonder if there's some deeper-seated issue here.

I'm actually unconvinced about the need for always-on internet access on the Vita at all, though, and feel that pocketable routers or smartphone tethering are better value, more versatile solutions. You can't download games over the 3G model's mobile connection, and it isn’t really suitable for online play either — two limits common to other devices, and solved well enough by a mobile router. However, the 3G model is not without its advantages. It has built-in GPS, which the Wi-Fi unit lacks, and due to this certain games will be exclusive to the 3G model. An example of this is Monster Radar, available at the Japanese launch, which is heavily reliant on GPS functionality. If you want to be absolutely sure that your Vita will be able to play every single future software release, it might be best to spend the extra ¥5,000 / $50 on the 3G model.

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Battery

Battery life

We're pleasantly surprised by the Vita's battery life, for now
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I haven’t had the system long enough to do anything resembling a comprehensive test, but I’ve been fairly happy with the PS Vita’s battery life so far. I’ve been using the system very heavily over the past weekend, and would estimate that I’ve been getting around five hours of active use out of the device, without factoring in time spent in sleep mode. This is with Wi-Fi on most of the time, and the screen brightness set between 50 and 100 percent depending on the ambient lighting (there’s no automatic adjustment). I did notice, predictably, that certain activities were more strenuous than others — Uncharted in particular seemed to give the battery more of a workout than most — but overall I’ve been reasonably impressed with the Vita’s endurance over the course of the past few days. This is in sharp contrast to the 3DS, which sucks power at an incredible rate even when in standby.

Charging time is quite fast, with the manual estimating 2 hours and 40 minutes to fill an empty battery. This is using the included AC adapter, of course, though the system can also charge over another device’s USB port as long as it’s switched off or in standby (no trickle charge if you’re using the device). One point of caution — the cable will actually fit into the Vita’s port just fine when upside-down, but it won’t give out any power this way. The home button glows orange when the system is charging, so be sure to confirm all is okay before you walk away. Another indicator is the battery icon in the top right of the screen, which visibly fizzes with electrons if it’s receiving power.

Update: Our original tests were conducted with a Japanese unit, but after having spent a week with the US variant we're seeing pretty much the same result so far: roughly three hours of extremely heavy use with demanding games, or up to five hours of more sporadic or lighter play.

The PlayStation Vita is quite simply the most desirable handheldgaming device yet released. From the beautiful display to thehorsepower behind it, from the well-executed traditional controls tothe new touch inputs, Sony has thought of almost everything and theresult is a portable system that should be able to handle virtuallyany kind of game you care to mention. As a media player, it largelyexcels, video playback looks great on the screen and the ContentManager software offers reasonably easy syncing (a few caveatsnotwithstanding). It's less successful as a communications device,with confusingly-designed software and limited functionality, but itdoes integrate seamlessly with the PlayStation Network where itmatters.

At $249.99, the system offers excellent value, even factoring in theprice of a memory card. Game prices remain a concern, especially whenput up against the current crop of smartphone releases, but ultimatelyI don't think these games should be put up against smartphone games. Iplay a lot of games on my phone, so this isn't a knock against them,but the experiences offered by the Vita are simply in a differentleague. Now, it's very possible that a lot of people won't share thisopinion, and prices of up to $50 might prove just too much to pay fora timekiller on the train. Nonetheless, I feel that the Vita is avalid console platform in its own right, and am really pleased thatSony has gone all-out to create the best dedicated gaming system itpossibly could. Even if it stalls on the starting grid, it won't havebeen for lack of trying.

Against more direct competitors, the distinction is less clear.Nintendo's 3DS now goes for a whole $80 less than the Vita, and its11-month head start has given it a more mature software lineup thanthe Vita has at launch. Both are very capable systems, with the maindifferences to be found in their respective software libraries —however much I get used to playing near-console-quality games on myVita, I’ll still be keeping my 3DS around for Mario Kart andMonster Hunter. Whichever way you go, though, dedicatedhandhelds are as alive as ever — and the PlayStation Vita is the besthandheld ever made.

The PlayStation Vita is quite simply the most desirable handheldgaming device yet released. From the beautiful display to thehorsepower behind it, from the well-executed traditional controls tothe new touch inputs, Sony has thought of almost everything and theresult is a portable system that should be able to handle virtuallyany kind of game you care to mention. As a media player, it largelyexcels, video playback looks great on the screen and the ContentManager software offers reasonably easy syncing (a few caveatsnotwithstanding). It's less successful as a communications device,with confusingly-designed software and limited functionality, but itdoes integrate seamlessly with the PlayStation Network where itmatters.

The $50 premium for the 3G model just isn't worth it, especially given the limited use (20MB download limits, no multiplayer gaming). It's still a great piece of hardware, but that's money you could spend on games or a memory card.

Game prices remain a concern, especially whenput up against the current crop of smartphone releases, but ultimatelyI don't think these games should be put up against smartphone games. Iplay a lot of games on my phone, so this isn't a knock against them,but the experiences offered by the Vita are simply in a differentleague. Now, it's very possible that a lot of people won't share thisopinion, and prices of up to $50 might prove just too much to pay fora timekiller on the train. Nonetheless, I feel that the Vita is avalid console platform in its own right, and am really pleased thatSony has gone all-out to create the best dedicated gaming system itpossibly could. Even if it stalls on the starting grid, it won't havebeen for lack of trying.

Against more direct competitors, the distinction is less clear.Nintendo's 3DS now goes for a whole $80 less than the Vita, and its11-month head start has given it a more mature software lineup thanthe Vita has at launch. Both are very capable systems, with the maindifferences to be found in their respective software libraries —however much I get used to playing near-console-quality games on myVita, I’ll still be keeping my 3DS around for Mario Kart andMonster Hunter. Whichever way you go, though, dedicatedhandhelds are as alive as ever — and the PlayStation Vita is the besthandheld ever made.

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