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Sony PlayStation TV review: a PS Vita on your television

Before Apple enters the market, Sony tries to corner it

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Nearly one year after its launch in Japan, Sony is releasing the PS Vita TV — now clad in black and rechristened the PlayStation TVin North America today, Tuesday October 14th, for $99.99. Read our original Vita TV review below.

The video games industry has recently been chattering in hushed tones about the likelihood of an apocalyptic scenario. “I think Apple rolls the console guys really easily,” Valve’s Gabe Newell said of the possibility that Cupertino might extend its impact on the gaming scene, from smartphones and tablets to TV screens. “Apple has gained a huge amount of market share,” he says, “and has a relatively obvious pathway toward entering the living room with their platform.” And with iOS 7 leading to the first game controllers with official support at the system level, that moment has never seemed closer.

The PS Vita TV looks an awful lot like Sony’s attempt to preempt that eventuality. Released in Japan this week, it mirrors the Apple TV in many ways: it’s a small, roughly $99 box that repurposes mobile hardware to fit your TV set. But the Vita TV is based on the PS Vita handheld, meaning that it can offer a premium gaming platform in addition to the usual media functionality. Sony has all the pieces of the puzzle here: the games, the controller, the content.

On paper it’s an exciting and promising system, then, but Sony isn’t doing much to talk about it. There aren’t any international release plans for now, and here in Japan it’s been quietly pushed out in the same week that the US is experiencing the full force of Sony's PlayStation 4 marketing blitz. So what is the PS Vita TV? Is it an essential part of Sony’s living room strategy, or a consolation prize for Japanese customers who have to wait three more months for the PS4?

The tiny PlayStation

Sony is marketing the Vita TV as “the world’s smallest PlayStation” in Japan, and it isn’t kidding. Measuring just 65mm x 105mm x 13.6mm (2.6 x 4.1 x 0.5 inches), the Vita TV is an impossibly tiny console. Its footprint is roughly the size of the handheld Vita’s 5-inch screen, making it closer to a smartphone than a typical gaming system; if it were much thinner, there wouldn’t be any room for the Ethernet jack on the back. It’s also beautifully minimalist, with a simple, silver PlayStation logo on top, an embossed Sony legend on the edge, and little else in the way of adornments on the plastic frame. The Vita TV’s origins in mobile hardware confer a few advantages: there are no vents to be found, the console is completely silent in use, and it boots from standby in just a few seconds. Like the handheld Vita, you can put the Vita TV into standby mode in the middle of a game and resume almost instantly.

Not quite the least obtrusive console ever made, but certainly the smallest PlayStation ever

The Vita TV would be the least obtrusive console ever made were it not for its color. It’s only available in white, meaning it’ll stand out somewhat in most people’s entertainment centers. (Update: the US version will be released in black.) Product designer Taichi Nokuo told Famitsu that while the team thought about making the console black, it ultimately decided to go for a slightly off-white tone that matches many people’s walls so as not to make the console stand out. Black would probably have been more successful in that regard, but the white color is attractive and draws attention to the system’s compact, austere frame.

The most obvious way to place the Vita TV would be lengthways, so that the I/O ports point towards the back. But in this position the PlayStation logo faces the side, and the Vita game card slot — hidden behind a fiddly flap — is awkwardly oriented in the opposite direction. From the company that included rotatable logos on the PlayStation 2 and 3 to ensure the console looked right in both horizontal and vertical orientation, it’s a little jarring.

The $99-ish (¥9,480) price doesn’t quite get you the same out-of-box experience as an Apple TV or Roku. You’ll need a PlayStation 3 (or 4, after a forthcoming firmware update) controller to use the Vita TV, for one thing, which doesn’t come in that base package. You’ll probably want more storage beyond the built-in 1GB, too, and for that you’ll have to splash out on Sony’s expensive proprietary Vita memory cards. For those not already entrenched in the PlayStation ecosystem, Sony is selling a Value Pack that bundles a PS3 controller, an 8GB memory card, and three months of PlayStation Plus for about $150 (¥14,280).

If you’re not in Japan, you probably won’t get much use out of an imported Vita TV — at present, you need a Japanese PlayStation Network account to sign in and access the system’s store and online services. Overall, though, the Vita TV is an impressive feat of engineering wrapped up in an attractive package. Unfortunately, Sony didn’t pay as much attention to the software that powers it.

The Vita, in your TV

Say what you like about the PS Vita’s lurid, bubbly operating system, but it is at least responsive and clearly designed for the fingers that touch it. The Vita TV, on the other hand, copies and pastes this smartphone-style software onto a big TV screen and asks you to manipulate it with a D-pad and buttons. It’s the same simple system: apps and games have their own icons, and pressing them takes you to a “Live Area” that lets you view relevant information or start the game itself. This is fine for basic launching functionality on the Vita TV, but it doesn’t take long before problems appear. The Vita’s icons aren’t arranged on a four-way grid, so it’s often unclear where directional button presses will take you. Typing with the on-screen keyboard requires a Herculean effort to switch between panels of characters that were easy to select on the Vita. The handheld system’s touchscreen and rear touchpad can be awkwardly emulated on the analog sticks by clicking in the L3 or R3 buttons, but I never found a single good use for this.

The careless grafting of the PS Vita’s interface onto the TV is perhaps best exemplified by the way you close apps and return to the home screen. While PlayStations have used the O button to select and the X button to cancel since 1995 (the button order is reversed in the West), the Vita’s main interface dropped that in favor of touch control.

Fine, but that leads to the Vita TV’s insane patch — after you’ve entered an app with O, you have to press the home button to return to the Live Area screen, then hold down the X button for a couple of seconds to simulate the handheld console’s “peeling off” touchscreen gesture. It’s functional but unbelievably unintuitive, even for someone who’s owned a Vita since its launch two years ago. Weeks after first starting to use the Vita TV, I still find myself pressing X when trying to exit the PlayStation Store.

The Vita TV’s interface is functional but unbelievably unintuitive

The Vita TV only outputs at 720p, but that’s the least of its worries when it comes to the UI. Everything is colossal on a TV — the Vita’s tap-friendly targets, designed for a 960 x 540 screen, result in comical situations like the Twitter app displaying just four huge tweets at a time, Fox News-style</a>. Basic UI elements, such as the clock and notifications, appear several times larger than on a PlayStation 3. The Apple TV’s interface is no great shakes, but it’s a model of usability and restraint next to the Vita TV’s.

The episode of Homeland I watched looked decent enough but still suffered from artifacting; the experience is nowhere near that offered by the Apple TV’s 1080p files. The 720p restriction limits the Vita TV’s appeal as a media box — not that there’s much HD content in the PlayStation Store anyway. Although Japan’s fragmented media landscape is no doubt partly to blame, the selection of content is lacking for now: Hulu Plus is the predominant streaming service here, for instance, but even though support was announced alongside the console it’s not available yet. Other preloaded services, like Tsutaya TV and DMM, are pricey and unintuitive. If Sony does decide to release the Vita TV outside Japan, it’ll need to make more effort to ensure that local audiences can access the apps they’ve come to expect.

From controller to touchscreen and back

The Vita TV makes a lot more sense as a gaming machine, and it does a pretty good job in that regard. It supports PS Vita, PSP, and PSone games, plus a selection of retro titles from more obscure systems such as the PC Engine. All games are upscaled to 720p, and Vita releases look the best by far. I tested ports of Ultimate Marvel vs Capcom 3, Limbo, and Rayman Origins, and though the loss in fidelity is clearly noticeable, the games are more than playable. And, since the Vita TV is technically a Vita, you can use it to play local wireless multiplayer with owners of the handheld. For such small and inexpensive hardware, the results are impressive.

The games that work, work well — but there aren’t many

Less impressive is the selection of Vita titles that are actually available to play. Ostensibly due to the lack of touch input, a lot of Vita games are incompatible with the Vita TV —” and that’s a bigger problem than you might think. For example, key launch title Uncharted: Golden Abyss doesn’t work, despite being a spinoff of a series of PS3 titles that uses the very same controller as the Vita TV; it’s a casualty of developers’ earnest efforts to shoehorn the Vita’s “unique” control features into games that never really needed them.

And it’s by no means unusual. Wipeout 2048, Gravity Rush, Killzone Mercenary; the list goes on. The Vita TV has its own section of the PlayStation Store to highlight compatible titles, but you can still view the full Vita catalog, of which vast swathes return incompatibility warnings when you try to download them. It’s possible that developers will patch their games to enable Vita TV support, but for now the experience reminds me of the early days of the Xbox 360, where Xbox backwards compatibility was limited to a slowly expanding list of seemingly random titles. While it’s understandable that inventive titles like Tearaway won’t be compatible, it’s ridiculous that simple racing games don’t work at all simply because of their elaborate touchable menus.

vita tv

For now, the Vita TV is better at playing older games. Its PSP support is great, with games like Mega Man: Powered Up often looking surprisingly good on the big screen; until now, hooking up your PSP to a TV would result in a letterboxed picture. PSone games look a little rougher, of course, but they play as well as you could hope for in 2013. There’s no better way to return to Ridge Racer Type 4 or Um Jammer Lammy.

The Vita TV is better at playing older games

The Vita TV can also be used as a wireless extender for the PlayStation 4, letting you stream next-generation console titles to another TV in the house. When paired with a Dual Shock 4 controller, it will effectively become a tiny facsimile of your PS4. I wasn’t able to test this at home due to the PS4’s delayed launch in Japan, but from what I saw at Tokyo Game Show — not the most hospitable of wireless environments — the Vita TV kept up smooth frame rates at the expense of a little image clarity. You probably won’t want to play through the climactic moments of Metal Gear Solid V this way, but it should be useful in a pinch when someone else wants to use the TV.

And, though Sony hasn’t talked about this specifically in relation to the Vita TV, the possibilities for the company’s Gaikai streaming service are huge. (Update: the system will indeed support PlayStation Now, the cloud gaming service spawned from Gaikai.) The PS4 and Vita will get the ability to stream PS3 games at some point in the future, and there’s no reason why that shouldn’t come to the Vita TV as well. Though there aren’t many details about how or how well the service will work, in theory it could be a killer app for the Vita TV, dramatically lowering the cost of entry to Sony’s excellent library of PS3 titles — with the exact same controller. It’s not a reason to buy a Vita TV today, but it’s an obvious move for Sony, and a hugely compelling future for the console.

Full of potential but lacking in execution

When Sony announced the PS Vita TV, my first thought was that the name and branding was oddly niche for something with so much potential. But after using the device for a while, it's hard to think of anything more appropriate — it's a PS Vita on your TV, little more and slightly less.

If Sony had taken more time to tailor the Vita to the TV screen more effectively, this could have been a seriously disruptive product. The price is right, the hardware is competent, and the PlayStation brand and legacy should be a major advantage over competitors that have to build up gaming ecosystems from scratch. But as it stands, the Vita TV is a neat extra for existing PlayStation fans that's unlikely to convert many more. For that, it’d need an overhauled interface and something more than Sony’s weak hope that current Vita games would automatically work. Unless developers decide that the ability to play their games on the big screen is more important than touch control, the Vita TV isn’t going to do much for the Vita platform, and its so-so media capabilities aren’t going to take over the living room.

If the Vita TV gets released in the US in its present form, it'll at least be more worthy of gamers' $99 than something like the Ouya. But it won’t stop everyone else from waiting for Apple to flip that switch.

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