In a world where mobile gaming has radically changed over the past few years, there is intense pressure for “traditional” mobile gaming hardware vendors to attract, or retain gamers. Of course, competing platform -mainly smartphones- have a great advantage of having a killer-app, namely “voice”, that makes them nearly ubiquitous, which made them popular gaming platforms as a side-effect (you rarely buy a smartphone+subscription “to play”). Although touch gaming has an undeniable success by any metric (downloads, money…), the question for any dedicated gaming hardware is: is it good enough to get users to buy and carry another device?

Sony is in a very interesting position because it really plays on both sides: on one hand, the company has interesting prospects with its XPERIA Android phones, but its Playstation Certified program for Android phones is equally important. On the other hand, it has the Sony PlayStation Vita, which is a powerful mobile gaming and multimedia device. In this review, we will go over the PS Vita and give you a feel for what it is to use it in the real world. Beyond the hype and the specs, it is really the user experience and the game titles that matter.

Design (very appropriate for gaming)

At first sight, the PlayStation Vita does look chunky compared to smartphones, but upon holding it, it is clear that the gaming ergonomics are considerably better than on a smartphone or tablet. The thickness is just right to hold in, and the different controls fall naturally under the fingers, which makes them natural and quite familiar.

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All the buttons “click” fairly well and the analog sticks have proven to be precise enough for all types of games, ranging from Ridge Racer (car racing), to Uncharted (3rd person adventure). The left+right front button are also very accessible and are naturally placed where the index fingers are. Just above the PlayStation buttons, you can see the front camera.

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ps vita review 05On the front side, you can find the power and volume controls, along with the card reader and an additional accessory port. On the side closer to the user, there is a general purpose connector, the 3.5mm audio jack, and the slot for the 16GB memory card. On the left side, there is a slot for a full-size SIM card for the mobile broadband access. Finally, in the back, there is the primary camera and the rear touch pad.

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By the way, the memory card is proprietary and rather expensive. Sony has defended this technical choice in the past, and although we would have prefered to see a standard format, this is unfortunately set in stone now.

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16GB of Internal Storage

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Games are inserted from the top

Display (excellent)

ps vita review 15The touch screen 5” OLED display has a qHD resolution (960×544) and looks beautiful. While this is not the absolute highest resolution available on such screens (1280×720 is), qHD offers a great blend between sharpness and graphics performance. By graphics performance I mean that if there were more pixels, the framerate (FPS) in games would undoubtedly be lower. By choosing qHD, Sony made sure that developers can add more special effects or lighting. I think that the quality of the display is beautiful.

The presence of a touch screen makes things much better in my view. On the Sony PSP, selecting something or typing text induced a lot of button action. With the touch screen, most of that friction is now gone, and these actions can be taken with ease. There is really no downside in having the touch screen. In this instance, we’re using a 16GB card.

Controllers (very good)

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The main controls feel very much like a slightly smaller version of the PlayStation game controller, and while the proportions are (indeed) different, I was surprised to feel comfortable with it right away. I had a harder time with games like street fighter where actions like Down+Diagonal+Front were a bit harder to pull off when compared to using a standard controller, but you should be able to get used to it. I suspect that pulling a 10-hit combo in Tekken may be challenging as well without a fair bit of practice. The analog sticks were easy to use, so no problem there.

Some games use the rear touch pad (Uncharted is one of them), but you should be able to do without it as well if you don’t want to. Some people love it, others don’t care so much. In the end, its presence doesn’t hurt, and right now very few games actually require it. I think that if the gameplay has been built specifically for it, the rear touch pad could be fun to use. Right now, I’m not craving for it.

I haven’t played with the motion-sensor much, but it should typically work like smartphone games. Sony demonstrates how a golf game uses the motion sensor to give a different, possibly more intuitive, way to interact with the game. It’s great to have this option. Now it’s up to the game developers to make great games with it.

User Interface (fast!)

ps vita homeThe user interface is absolutely fluid and fast. It runs at full frame rate (60FPS) at all times, and it is fairly intuitive. It’s not really surprising, given that Sony’s gaming devices typically are that way. However, in a mobile world where many devices still have choppy user interfaces, it’s nice to see something like this. That said, Sony could have done better with the graphic design in my opinion. This just doesn’t look as good and polished as iOS or Android 4.0.

As I mentioned earlier, the virtual keyboard works very well and the only criticism that I have about it is that it is a little bit too wide to type comfortably with the thumbs, but overall, it works well and adds so much comfort when compared to the PSP.

In terms of user interface, the only thing that really gets to me is that little background music that starts plays each time one gets to the main menus…

Games (excellent)

ps vita review 16Obviously, the hardware is nice and all, but ultimately the game experience is the most important part here. I’m not going to review all the games that we have around, but I’ll use a few examples to pinpoint interesting aspects of the Playstation Vita. Globally, the average quality of those games is very high. You often hear that smartphones are taking over etc… and that’s probably true in terms of “volume”, but certainly not in terms of overall gaming experience. This is very subjective, obviously.

First of all, many games run at full frame rate with a graphics quality that is superior to the vast majority of smartphones out there. Secondly, there are complex games, some that many gamers would call “real games”. I personally think that we can have fun with casual games too, but it’s clearly very hard to find the equivalent of Uncharted, or Ultimate Marvel vs Capcom on a smartphone. And even if you did, the quality of the controllers is simply unmatched in the “touch” world.

To be fair, it’s not just about the hardware: PS Vita developers are often veterans game developers, and that plays a huge part in how the final product looks. Other than the quality of the first-generation games, I also noticed that most of them aren’t games that you can play for 15mn and be done with it. Often the loading will take a long time, or the game is simply not designed to be played in 10mn segments. Keep that in mind if you plan on using this on your way to school or while waiting in line.

Unit 13: this is a 3rd person shooter in which you play an elite soldier that is tasked with various missions. The controls are classic: left and right analog for body and head motion. Front left+right buttons for aiming and firing. PlayStation buttons for close quarter combat.  The game runs at solid 30FPS or so, and the graphics are decent, but not fantastic.

WipeOut 2048: Wipeout is a classic game that has always been attached to the Playstation brand, since PS1. I can tell you that the gameplay hasn’t changed, but the graphics did: it is a great looking racing game, with detailed textures, interesting lighting, bloom effects etc… It makes Android games like Riptide GP (a WipeOut clone, basically) look a bit old all the sudden. The best part is that WipeOut 2048 runs at a solid 60FPS regardless of what’s on the screen. Very nice!

Marvel vs. Capcom 3: Street fighter fans can rejoice: this is the best mobile version of the polygonal-3D street fighter series. The graphics are fairly impressive, not from a shading perspective, but from an art point of view. The “comic” shading is very well done, and Capcom has had a great vision when they chose to keep the classic 2D gameplay, even after porting the game to modern 3d graphics. The net result is a Street Fighter that anyone who’s familiar with the series can feel at ease with right away. This runs at 60FPS, which is critical for a fighting game as timing is everything.

Ridge Racer: another classic arcade driving game. The game looks nice, and Namco has done a good job with the artwork. It is also one of the few games that use mip-mapping, a technique that reduces jaggies on far-away objects. Ridge Racer runs at constant 30FPS, and driving with the analog stick was pretty awesome. Frankly, after a few years, I still find tilting a device to not work as well, although it may seem like a great thing in theory.

Multimedia

Cross-play (“interesting”): this is a broad term that describes interaction between PS Vita and the PS3. The idea is that Sony users who have both systems get additional features. For example, purchasing a game on one platform may allow you to download a game on the other platform as well. Some games may allow the user to use the PS Vita as a PS3 controller with touch screen capabilities (did you hear that Nintendo?), while others allow you to run the PS3 game remotely over a WIFI connection (think of it as a Remote Desktop app) by streaming the PS3 display to the PS Vita like a movie. Note that in this configuration, video compression does reduce the image quality.

How interesting this feature is, comes down to the game developer and the game itself. At the moment, I have not seen anything that blew my mind, but I think that there is a lot of potential.

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The speakers are very good, but could use louder volume

Speakers (excellent): the size of the console allows Sony to place the speakers in the front of the device, next to the screen. Not only both speakers are directed towards the user, but they are also placed in a way that makes them unlikely to be obstructed by the player’s fingers (try that on an iPad…). In any case, for a mobile device, the sound quality is excellent.

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The music player is basic... too basic

Movies/Music: The PS Vita has the hardware capability to play music and movies just as well (or better) than most high-end smartphones or tablets. I find the music player to be a little basic, and I don’t think that there is a text search option, which is a down if you have a lot of tracks. If you already have media files, here are the officially supported file formats:

Music: MP3 MPEG-1/2 Audio Layer 3, MP4 (MPEG-4 AAC), and WAVE (Linear PCM).
Videos: MPEG-4 (Simple Profile Level 3, Maximum 320×240 pixels, AAC), H.264/MPEG-4 (AVC Baseline/Main/High Profile Level 3.1, Maximum 720p, AAC)

The user interface for movies looks pretty much the same than the music one, but I suspect that you will have much less movies, so a simple list and a couple of categories should be good enough. In terms of video quality, the video files that were pre-loaded look great and take full advantage of the OLED display. If you couple that with the quality of the speakers, you end up with a very good pocketable video setup.

As for managing multimedia files, there is unfortunately not a way to mount the PS Vita as a USB Mass Storage device. It’s unfortunate because this is dead simple and I have yet to see someone who hates that option. Instead, you will have to install Sony’s file manager on your computer (it’s called Content Manager Assistant). With it,  copying files involves turning the PS Vita on, launching the content management app, selecting the type of files, then selecting the files themselves, before copying them. Honestly, this is clumsy. Sony, please add a USB Mass Storage option in a future update.

Web browsing (below-average): the web browser does provide a very decent page rendering, but the page load time, and the management of the page scrolling is unfortunately (way) below-average when compared to smartphones, including the free ones. The responsiveness of the browser is slow (2 seconds) for things like “double-taps”, which zooms onto a specific block of content. Just like the maps, the web browser could really use some help. Hopefully, Sony will allow 3rd party developers to help there by introducing new browser or maps applications.

ps vita mapsGoogle Maps (slow): because it has a 3G broadband access and a GPS, the PS Vita is capable of displaying maps , and the maps look good. However, the tile download is noticeably slower with the PSP than it is with a modern smartphone, especially over WiFi. I’m not sure why that is, but I suspect that the software implementation of Google Maps could be optimized further. In the meantime, it can be useful on a pinch, or for people/kids who don’t have a smartphone.

Cameras (below-average)

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This photo was taken with a PS Vita, that's the full-size image...

imaging-wise, I place the Playstation Vita fairly low, next to the iPad 2. The photos that it takes may be good enough for the occasional web updates (to what?), but they won’t impress with their quality. The video quality is similar, although low-resolution tends to be more forgiving for movies. Still, if you compare that to what can be found in smartphones, this is pretty low-end.

Obviously, the manufacturing price difference between a smartphone and the PS may explain the quality difference. That’s fair, but I want to make sure that you don’t assume that the camera quality can rival the Galaxy S2 or something like that. Here are the official file formats supported by the PS Vita image player: JPEG (Exif 2.2.1), TIFF, BMP, GIF, and PNG

Battery life (within expectations)

In terms of battery life, your mileage will vary, but for one, I found the standby depletion to be very decent for a 3G device. As for gaming, it mainly comes down to how “heavy” the game is in terms of polygonal 3D, and how bright the screen is. Overall, you should expect the official 3hrs to 5hrs to hold. In you’re doing light tasks like video (which is hardware-accelerated by a small dedicated unit), it can go a little bit longer than while rendering polygonal graphics.

Conclusion (great! but only for gaming)

ps vita review 14The PS Vita is a excellent mobile gaming machine, not because its hardware is very fast, not because it has a great screen, but because it can provide a gaming experience that no other device on the market can. Interestingly, there has been a lot of noise around how good its hardware is, and how it compares to smartphones, either in terms of brute power, or in terms of value for the price. In my view, it does not matter because in the end, the question is: are you willing to pay for this gaming experience?

There is no doubt that many of you already have a smartphone, and if you are content with the gaming experience on Android, Windows Phone or iOS, it’s great, and maybe there’s no reason for you to get the PS Vita at all. In fact, if you’re wondering why the PS Vita is for you, it’s a good hint sign that it is not. However, none of those other platforms provides the gaming experience of Uncharted or Marvel vs. Capcom, especially at the level that the Vita does.

By its very nature, the PS Vita is more ergonomic for hardcore gaming, but at the same time it is less pocketable and bulkier. It is really up to you. Take a good look at the games, and decide for yourself if this gaming experience is worth buying the Playstation Vita. It is not a smartphone or tablet replacement, but for mobile gaming, it’s awesome.

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