Sony PS Vita review: portable gaming's new hope or next flop?

As of today, the PS Vita is officially available in North America and Europe (not just for consumers who bought the First Edition 3G model). Backed with a $50 million advertising campaign — the largest for any PlayStation system — Sony is letting the world know that its still very serious about portable gaming.

On a technical engineering level, the PS Vita is unmatched. As we've said before, the PS Vita's graphical prowess nearly rivals that of the powerful PlayStation 3. But beautiful graphics aren't the only thing that that makes the PS Vita attractive.

The magic all comes together with a gorgeous 5-inch OLED touchscreen, dual-analog sticks, rear touchpad (the first on any gaming device), dual-cameras and library of launch games that cater to everybody, from the casual to the hardcore.

I've been playing with the PS Vita for nearly two weeks. To find out if the PS Vita really is the "best PlayStation ever" or not, read on for my full review.

Before we begin, let me just say that the PS Vita was tricky to review because the mobile space has changed so drastically within the last couple of years. The formula of buying a gaming-only handheld and games that cost an average of $40 has been upturned by smartphones and tablets with the rise of app stores. Just below, is a brief history on what's happened so far in the portable gaming space since the last batch of major portables — Nintendo DS and PlayStation Portable — launched some seven years ago. If you want to dive right into the PS Vita review, just skip down past the immediate section.




The History

Sony's PlayStation Portable (PSP) launched in 2004 with one goal: to destroy Nintendo's DS and become the top dog in the handheld market, just as its original PlayStation and PlayStation 2 managed to do against Nintendo and Microsoft's home consoles.

We all know how that story ended. The Nintendo DS went on to dominate with over 151 million worldwide sales to date, compared to the PSP's 71 million. Even though the PSP is still going strong in Asia, it's all but dead in the West. Plagued by piracy, developers started to give up on the platform years ago. Even a few solid games (God of War: Ghost of Sparta, Patapon, The 3rd Birthday) couldn't save the sinking PSP ship.

The world's changed quite a bit since Sony announced its handheld ambitions seven years ago. Aside from Nintendo, Sony now also has to worry about Apple, Microsoft, Samsung, LG and almost any other mobile producer. The mobile market is populated with millions of powerful smartphones and tablets with large touchscreens and powerful dual and quad-core processors capable of rendering Grand Theft Auto III in full. All-in-one phone/entertainment devices are the norm.

In building the PS Vita, Sony looked at everything that the PSP wasn't and took development from there. The PS Vita is the product that Sony wanted to build in 2004, but was unable to due to limited hardware, wireless capabilities and poor choice of game format (Sony insisted on using its own Universal Media Discs instead of speedy-loading flash cartridges).

Whereas the original PSP was marketed as an all-in-one entertainment device — a game system, a video player, a music player and an Internet browser — the PS Vita returns to the PlayStation's roots and emphasizes gaming first. Sure, it plays videos, music and loads up DVICE without any hair pulling, but its purpose has to be to be the best mobile gaming device ever created. That's what it takes to make it in mobile now.




Where The Vita Excels

The PS Vita's centerpiece is its large, bright and sharp 5-inch OLED touchscreen with a worthy 950x544 resolution. It's not as crisp as the Galaxy Nexus's 1280x720 display or the Galaxy Note's 1280x800 screens, but games look magnificent on the PS Vita. The blacks are really dark and viewing angles are as good as any display that uses IPS technology, such as the Retina Display on the iPhone 4/4S.

A touchscreen is worthless if it's not responsive, though. Thankfully, the PS Vita has a touchscreen that is super sensitive. Really, it's never let me down in my nearly two weeks of daily use, except for when I couldn't reach to certain buttons (like the keys in the middle of its virtual keyboard). That's more of a limitation of my physical hand size rather than a real hardware fault. Similarly, the rear touchpad, which has a lovely pattern of PlayStation symbols, is equally as responsive. Major props to Sony for doing touch input right on the PS Vita.

As far as the buttons go, the main X, O, Square and Triangle buttons are smaller this time around, but they're also clickier and feel like they can stand up to some good button mashing abuse. The D-pad is improved with diagonal presses actually registering more accurately than on the PSP and the shoulder buttons provide just enough depression to not feel flimsy.

The biggest change is, of course, the addition of a second analog. Technically, I should say, two analogs. Whereas the PSP's "nub" was considered an analog, it didn't provide the comfort or full degree of movement that's found on your average console controller. I'm extremely happy to say that the PS Vita's analog sticks are snug and functional. The tips have a slight grip to them and they work as analog sticks should. I did find them to be a little bit stiff at times and the space between the X button and the analog is problematic at times, even for small thumbs, but those are all adjustments that should become more comfy with time.

Playing games such as Uncharted: Golden Abyss, Touch My Katamari and Super Stardust Delta with the second analog is a huge improvement over how the PSP would have compensated by mapping camera buttons to the four action buttons. That said, seriously, why are there no first-person-shooter titles available at launch? I know that Resistance: Burning Skies isn't going to be out until May 29 and Call of Duty won't arrive until this fall, but why none on day one? Dual analogs are built for FPS games and Sony could have owned it by getting a major title out.

When Sony unveiled the PS Vita's LiveArea UI operating system, I was floored. What happened to the minimal XMB (Cross Media Bar) UI that's been the centerpiece of the PSP and PS3? In its place was an interface with orb-shaped icons for apps and games. It looked like an ugly blend of Android and iOS. My doubts about LiveArea faded after using it. It's simple, easy on the eyes and provides neat little launch pages filled with info and updates for each open app/game. To close open apps, you simply peel back the window's corner, like you would when turning a page of a book. It's quite lovable, except for the bland elevator music that plays non-stop. (Thank heavens you can turn it off.) If you've ever been turned off by the Wii's droning home screen melodies, you won't like the PS Vita's.




Where The Vita Needs Improvement

I wasn't expecting much when news broke out that the PS Vita had crappy battery life. The same sadness that filled my heart then still remains. Roughly speaking, the PS Vita can go for a good three-and-a-half to four hours of gaming, give or take a few brief suspensions. I had no trouble powering through Uncharted: Golden Abyss and its eight-hour campaign in about two and a half sessions. The fact that the battery is sealed in means you won't be able to carry any spare batteries around for long road trips or international flights. You can argue that Sony's releasing a rechargeable external battery this spring that'll add a good 6-10 hours of play time, but that's another $50 to the cost of a PS Vita.

The lack of backwards compatibility with legacy PSP UMD games and no plans to bring the UMD Passport Program over is a bit upsetting. One of the reasons why Nintendo dominates the handheld gaming sector is because it always bakes in support for at least the previous generation of games. Sony's solution to original PSP owners is to tell them to go download missing titles off the Sony Entertainment Network (formerly PlayStation Network). The issue with that approach is that SEN doesn't have many highly regarded PSP games. Where's the critically acclaimed Final Fantasy VII: Crisis Core? Kotaku's Jason Schreir describes the situation perfectly, even pointing out the disparities in pricing of digital versus physical UMDs, which is bananas. That, and you're looking at rebuying games you may already own in digital form.

One of the best features of the PS Vita is its ability to connect to a PS3 seamlessly to act as controller or allow cross-platform multiplayer, as is the case in futuristic racer Wipeout 2048. It's with that connectivity in mind that makes me wonder why the PS Vita doesn't have a method to directly connect to an HDTV via an HDMI cable. Lots of smartphones have mini HDMI ports for plug and play mirroring on an HDTV, so why not the PS Vita?

The original PSP didn't have video out capabilities, but then Sony added it into the the PSP-2000/3000 (slim models). Removing it feels like a step backwards. I'd kill to bring my PS Vita home from a long train ride and hook it up to the big screen when I get home. Of interest is that there is a mystery port hidden under the flap next to the PS Vita game cartridge slot. Sony has been extremely mum on what this port does and there appears to be no official documentation on what it's for, but common sense tells me it's an accessory port of some type.

Those who have been following me on DVICE know that I'm a bit of a camera maniac. I like having decent cameras on my gadgets. I regret to tell you that the PS Vita's cameras are terrible. They're fine for augmented reality tracking (better than the 3DS's three cameras), but photos are of a grainy 640x480 resolution quality.

As I touched upon a little in the section above, the LiveArea OS is great, but it's also fundamentally flawed in terms of multitasking. You can't pause out of a game and jump into the Internet browser without quitting your game. That, to me, feels like a missed opportunity. I frequently check online sites when I'm stuck in a game. Not being able to switch between open apps really blows. I tolerated the lack of multitasking on the PSP, but it's been seven years. Get with the program Sony.

I could also quip about the size of the PS Vita not fitting in my pants pockets and how some games (not all games) still have ridiculous loading times (Sony's Wipeout 2048 has 45 second load times) or how the entire system is literally an oily fingerprint magnet, too, but I think most people are more forgiving.




Who Is The PS Vita For?

Let's cut right down to it: the PS Vita is expensive. The Wi-Fi-only model sells for $250 and the 3G+Wi-Fi model costs $300 (don't forget the monthly data plan). $250 is a lot of money to ask people of people to play shrunken PS3 games (PS Vita games cost between $30 to $50, and smaller games start at $10) with shoehorned touchscreen and rear touchpad controls. Gamers who are interested in console experiences are better off with a home console.

To make matters worse, the PS Vita requires another proprietary Sony memory stick format for game saves and storing downloads. These new memory sticks start at $25 for a 4GB stick and go up to $100 for a 32GB stick. They don't work with non PS Vita devices, either. So, to start, the PS Vita doesn't start at $250, but really at $275, and that's without a game.

With no internal storage and hefty prices for games with experimental touchscreen and touchpad controls to introduce the PS Vita's potential, Sony's newest handheld isn't worth the cash if you already own a powerful smartphone or an iPod Touch.

The PS Vita is only for the most diehard of PlayStation fans — specifically PS3 owners — who might be more interested in cross-platform play and connectivity. The touchscreen and touchpad elements quickly get old, especially when the DS and iPhone have been trumpeting touch controls for years. Otherwise, who else is still going to pay $50 for a tinier version of Uncharted, when a $1 Angry Birds or $7 Infinity Blade 2 is just enough to get one through a long commute?

All photos taken by Raymond Wong for DVICE

For the latest tech stories, follow DVICE on Twitter
at @dvice or find us on Facebook