As promised, version 1.6 of the PlayStation Vita's firmware went live today, so we thought we'd check it out ahead of the system's US launch. The two headline features are a new Maps application and video support for the front and back cameras, and the only other immediately obvious change is that the Home button now glows blue whenever the power is on, instead of being reserved for notifications.
The Maps application might as well be a direct port of Google Maps for iOS. The two apps are essentially identical feature-wise, though the Vita interface has been tweaked to be consistent with other apps for the system. Where it differs from and arguably betters the iPhone app is in its presentation — with such a large screen, it can display much more at the same time. Loading data is a little slow, though, with checkerboarding once you scroll the slightest bit in any direction. It seems sluggish next to an iPhone at similarly zoomed-out settings, but then the Vita has more data to load and render at once.
I tested the app on my Wi-Fi model, which doesn't have onboard GPS hardware, but found it kept track of my position reasonably well when I was walking around with a Pocket Wi-Fi mobile router. Compass performance was very accurate, though unlike the iPhone app the map doesn't rotate with your positioning — instead, the marker itself displays a directional arrow, which I actually think is easier to follow. Overall, Maps is a solid addition to the Vita's feature set, but is unlikely to replace whatever app you currently keep in your pocket.
The omission of video recording from the Vita's Photos app at launch was more of a curiosity than a gaping hole in functionality, as the VGA cameras' still performance indicated that the results wouldn't exactly be pretty. Sure enough, I can't see myself using the feature much in future, as video recorded on Vita suffers from the same problems as the still photos. As you can see from the samples in the video below, you'll be dealing with overexposed highlights, blurry texture, and washed-out color before you even think about the 640 x 480 resolution. I suppose there was no reason not to include the functionality in the first place, but it's unlikely to match or even come close to the hypothetical smartphone we have to assume most Vita owners will also be carrying.