The PS Vita hasn't exactly gone according to Sony’s plan. Unveiled in Tokyo at the start of 2011, the PSP's successor was supposed to be a world-beating handheld console with PS3-level graphics and smartphone sensibilities. But despite strong reviews for the hardware itself, sales never took off, and it never attracted much in the way of high-profile games.
Sony isn't giving up, though. It cut the Vita's price earlier this year and has positioned the brand as the "ultimate accessory" for the highly anticipated PlayStation 4 — you’ll be able to stream next-generation games straight to the portable console, and the upcoming PS Vita TV set-top box promises to take the platform into the living room. The new, slimmer, and lighter 2000-series Vita has just launched in Japan, and though Sony tells us it doesn’t have “specific plans” to release the new model elsewhere, history suggests it should make it out of Asia at some point.
Nearly two years after the Vita’s initial release, and on the eve of the PS4, the system's refresh is an appropriate time to check in on how the system is doing. Sony got full marks for effort first time around — but turning Vita into a viable gaming platform is a much steeper task.
New and yet familiar
The new Vita may look much the same as the old, but it feels quite different. Sony has trimmed 20 percent of fat from the original unit, and the reduction is striking. It's much more comfortable to hold, with subtle tapers and sloping corners that dig into your hands far less, and the slightly textured matte plastic on the rear panel feels a lot nicer than the glossy material used before. While the original Vita is ergonomic enough, it's hard to go back to after using the 2000-series — even if you probably still won’t want to cram the new model in your pocket.
Slimmer, thinner, much more comfortable
The Vita’s analog sticks, D-pad, and four main face buttons weren’t really in need of improvement, and they’re untouched on the new model. The Home, Start, and Select buttons, however, were incredibly fiddly elliptic shapes, and they've been replaced by circular buttons that are a lot easier to press. The Home button no longer glows with notifications — there's now a dedicated light on top for that purpose. The shoulder buttons have been improved, too, sitting under your fingers a little more naturally.
The original Vita forced users to buy expensive proprietary memory cards to save and store games, so thankfully the new model improves things slightly. It comes with 1GB of internal storage, which won't get you very far if you want to download games, but will at least guarantee that you have somewhere to store saved files for physical Vita titles. You can't use this in tandem with a memory card, though — the system will only recognize one or the other.
One unexpected change is to the rear touchpad, which lets you control some games and apps by tapping and swiping the back of the device — it’s been slightly shrunken and is now noticeably smaller than the touchscreen in front of it. This was presumably done to avoid accidental presses, which was an occasional problem for me on the old model, but the alteration does mean that the pushing-through-the-screen metaphor doesn't quite work as well. Very few Vita games to date have used the input effectively, however, so it's not a big loss. Another minor omission is the mysterious expansion port on the top edge of the system, which Sony never managed to find a use for.
More importantly, the proprietary charging and data connector has also been removed in favor of the far more convenient Micro USB. As for the battery itself, I found that the new Vita lasted slightly longer than its predecessor — you can expect around six hours of mixed use on a full charge, which isn’t as much as you’d hope for from a smartphone, but is probably more than you’d get if that phone was constantly running Infinity Blade.
The biggest visual change is that the new model no longer uses a single plastic front-panel, instead separating the screen from the rest of the device — an aesthetic step back, for my money. I liked the way that the original Vita's screen appeared to blend into the rest of the device, and the new model's design adds a seam where there doesn't need to be one.
The new Vita does look better in one important way, though: color. It comes in six colorways, including the typical all-black and all-white options, but the other four use a two-tone effect that matches a colored back panel to a black or white facade.
The effect is great — you can see the color coming through on parts of the system even from the front, and it adds flourish to an otherwise staid design. My review unit came in an attractive light blue and white, but I also like the khaki and black option, and the pink and black model I used at the Tokyo Game Show isn’t without its charm.
Overall, Sony has given the Vita a series of welcome nips and tucks that improve the experience of using the system, if not quite revolutionizing it. Most of the changes appear to have been made in direct response to niggles with the original model, and the result is a smoother, more refined device. But Sony made one change that is likely to prove far more divisive.
The original Vita's headline feature was its beautiful 5-inch 960 x 544 OLED display, but Sony has made the somewhat controversial decision to replace it with an LCD for cost-saving reasons. On paper, that’s not necessarily a bad thing: LCD technology has improved leaps and bounds since the Vita's introduction, and many of the best screens in the smartphone world are LCDs.
But the Vita is a fixed gaming platform, so upgrading the resolution was likely never an option for Sony. The new model’s 220 ppi LCD is decidedly behind the curve on paper, then — more like a two-year-old smartphone than an HTC One — but in practice it's not really a problem for the Vita. Despite Sony's continued reputation for putting out phones with less-than-top-tier displays, this panel does reasonably well in terms of contrast, color reproduction, and viewing angles, and the resolution is more than sufficient for games and the system's chunky OS.
Some may even prefer the LCD, as it doesn’t exhibit color shift when viewed at an angle. Still, the punchy colors and fast response time of OLED are perfectly suited to video games, and for me the old model has the better screen overall. It shouldn't be a big issue for first-time buyers, but many with an original Vita will want to think twice about upgrading.
Software-wise, the new Vita is exactly the same as the old. That's not to say that there haven't been improvements since the system's original launch, however; Sony has released several updates to improve and expand the Vita's functionality. The browser's rendering is a little speedier, you can transfer files over Wi-Fi, and the Control Center-style sheet that pops up anywhere when you hold the Home button has been revised. Notable omissions from launch, such as PSone game support and a Mac syncing client, have since been added.
The Vita software isn't new, but it's changed a lot in two yearsSoftware
This week’s firmware update was more significant than most — among other things, version 3.00 prepares the Vita for the PlayStation 4’s launch with features that enable the two consoles to work with each other. Remote Play will let Vita owners stream PlayStation 4 games to the handheld, PS4 Link allows for Wii U or SmartGlass-style second-screen functionality, and cross-system chat has also been added. I wasn’t able to test any of this out before launch, but the Vita should be most useful to anyone planning to pick up a PS4.
Sony also now includes dedicated apps for Google Maps and email with the OS, alongside extras in the PlayStation Store such as Skype, Flickr, Netflix, and so on. You'll almost certainly prefer to use smartphone equivalents at any given time, but I'm sure someone's life has been saved by needing to email on their Vita for urgent Google Maps directions with no other device available, so it's nice to have the option. And the LiveTweet app somehow remains one of my favorite Twitter clients on any platform.
Overall, my assessment of the Vita OS is much the same as it was two years ago: it has its quirks and its gaudy bubble-based interface is no more attractive, but it's fast, stable, and functional. Of course, the OS is just a small part of the software story.
In the game
It’s fair to say that the vision of a pocket-sized PS3 didn’t quite come to pass — blockbuster AAA titles have been thin on the ground or, in the case of Call of Duty, an outright disaster. Most major developers have largely stayed away from producing out-and-out exclusive titles for the Vita, either bestowing the system with lightweight ports or ignoring it completely.
The Vita has plenty of good games, but not the ones you might expect
It’s a shame, because in the right hands it’s an extraordinarily potent console. I spent much of my review period playing the recently released Killzone Mercenary, the latest entry in Guerrilla Games’ first-person shooter series that Sony often uses to show off the power of its PlayStation systems, and came away impressed on a technical level. Its bleak setting and brutal gameplay may not be my cup of tea, exactly, but it executes well on the console-in-your-hands dream with tight controls and graphical pyrotechnics. Unfortunately, there aren't many Vita-exclusive games like it. Early titles such as Gravity Rush and Wipeout 2048 showed what the system could do, but the well of high-budget games designed to play to the Vita’s strengths has largely dried up.
But there's another side to the Vita's lineup. Over the past year or so, the system has emerged as an unlikely haven for indie games. The hardware is powerful enough to run just about any game created on an indie budget these days, the simple and catchy nature of indie releases tends to be well-suited to portable play, and the myriad of control options means that most of them work at least as well as they would on PC and console. Sony's indie outreach means that Vita owners will get access to many games headed to PlayStation 3 and 4, often for no additional cost. That's been the case for the likes of Hotline Miami, Limbo, Guacamelee, Sound Shapes, Retro City Rampage, and more.
Coupled with the steady stream of free content that comes with a PlayStation Plus subscription, Vita owners with a PS3 will rarely be stuck for something to play, even if they're not actively buying Vita-specific titles. The platform is also rich with HD remakes of PS2 games, which often hit PS3 and the portable console simultaneously. They might not be the most exciting releases in the world, but that doesn't mean I had any less of a blast playing through excellent portable versions of Metal Gear Solid 2 and 3 earlier in the year.
A compelling $200 luxury extra for gamers
The Vita hasn't quite blossomed into an essential system in its own right, then; instead, it's a compelling $200 luxury extra for hardcore gamers. Don't buy one expecting access to a huge library of games that you can't play anywhere else — buy one because you want to play games that you know and love on the go. Anyone planning to buy a PlayStation 4 should consider a Vita, too, with its Remote Play support promising to make for the greatest bedtime console ever.
But should they wait for the newer model to leave Japan and come around the world? That's a tougher call. At $199, the original Vita isn't any more expensive than the 2000-series will likely be, and it has the benefit of being available on US store shelves today. If you're the kind of person still doggedly hanging onto your plasma TV as manufacturers switch to LCD panels, you'll probably find it equally hard to let go of the launch model's OLED screen. That's understandable, but I think the physical improvements to the 2000-series will be enough for most to consider it the better buy. Whichever model you go for, though, the PS Vita is a surprisingly solid offering at this point in time — just not really in the way that anyone expected.