PS Vita Review
A glance at the PS Vita’s specifications and software line-up will have most tech and game heads salivating at the prospect of playing handheld games PS Vita-style: a quad-core processor, an OLED screen, super-quick graphics, all the controls you could wish for… and games like Uncharted, WipEout, FIFA and Call Of Duty either out at launch or coming soon.
So on paper it looks good for the PS Vita. But a less than spectacular Japanese launch late last year suggests that PS Vita has yet to capture gamers’ imaginations. Why? A resurgent 3DS (now with Mario and Monster Hunter) and a general move in the market from expensive triple-A games to cheap smartphone game apps could go some way to explain why.
Is this the right time for the PS Vita? Is there room for a high-end, triple-A game playing handheld games console in today’s market?
The PS Vita home screen. XMB has been abandoned for this smartphone-like interface.
PS Vita user interface and OS
We live in a technological world where software is king. It’s a world where everyone has pretty much the same hardware; specifications-wise, there’s not much difference between an iPhone 4S and a Samsung Galaxy S2. The real difference is in the OS – iOS is more competent than Android, therefore the iPhone 4S is a better phone.
But we also live in a world where everyone is suing everyone else for some patent infringement or other so we suspect that a lot of Sony’s design decisions were borne of wanting an UI that’s familiar to smartphone users but not wanting to spend months and millions battling expensive litigation.
Take the PS Vita’s home screen, for example. It apes smartphone app layout but substitutes square icons with bubbles. These bubbles are navigated vertically rather than horizontally; they can be rearranged by holding down on one then dragging and dropping it in the desired location. It’s fine, but lacks the fluidity, polish and folder options of other, more established OS.
All open apps can be displayed and accessed quickly by tapping the PS button.
However, PS Vita’s weakness is through its dependence on its every-function-is-done-through-an-app design. Connect the PS Vita to a PC or PS3 for content transferring – you can transfer photos, videos and PS Vita/PSP games and saves – and the issue really comes to light.
Instead of a simple drag and drop interface, all content management is done through the PS Vita and its Content Management app. If you want to transfer some photos, for example, you select the option and this then opens the Photo app. From here you select your photos, hit the transfer button and it’s done. Now, say, you want to transfer some videos. You have to exit the Photo app, go back into the Content Management app, select the video transfer option, this then opens the Video app and so on.
It’s all very fiddly.
And it gets worse. Say you’ve taken a screenshot of something cool in a game and want to share it with your friends. You click the options on the photo and hit the Group Messaging option. This then opens up the Group Messaging app (yes, laboured) and you (probably want to) select the Twitter or Facebook or even email option. Well, you can’t because there’s no social networking integration in the PS Vita software. The only option you have is to send your image to PlayStation IDs.
Oh, and forget about connecting a PS Vita to a Mac, it just doesn’t have a clue what one of those is.
Scroll the PS Vita’s browser too quickly and you’ll experience a delay while the display catches up.
Maybe we’ve been spoiled by Apple and Google and Microsoft and their sexy, seamless UIs. By comparison Sony’s PS Vita OS is clumsy; it’s hardly what you’d describe as elegant.
There are some good ideas here, though. Selecting an app brings up its start screen. From here you can select a number of handy options related to that game or app – from accessing its web page or page on the Store to seeing your friends’ activity on that particular game.
It’s probably also worth pointing out that all navigation is done via the touch screen. It sounds obvious when you write it down but upon picking up a PS Vita you may expect to be able to navigate with the d-pad and buttons. We certainly did. And it might be worth Sony implementing at a later date, even as a way of keeping the PS Vita’s screen clear of fingerprints. It does get very greasy.
Of course, the good news is that while there are problems with the PS Vita’s software, it’s all probably fixable through firmware updates. And that’s something Sony has plenty of experience of with the PS3.
PS Vita hardware and controls
PS Vita’s real win is with its hardware. It may not be quite cutting edge but you can’t accuse the PS Vita of not having any cool tech inside it.
Sony’s pretty much thrown everything but the kitchen sink at it: a quad-core processor, a graphics chip capable of throwing millions of polygons around, a capacitive touch screen that’s as good as anything else on the market, GPS, a back touch pad, front and back cameras for AR, Sixaxis control (that actually makes sense in this portable guise) and – thankfully – a second analogue stick.
What this basically adds up to is a handheld gaming device with processing power that’s comparable to a 360 or PS3 and all the control methods of a tablet and the 3DS combined. And that’s pretty bloody good in anybody’s book.
The star of the show is the PS Vita’s OLED screen. It may not quite have the resolution or the maximum brightness of the iPhone 4’s Retina but the rich blacks and vivid colours of Sony’s OLED more than make up for it. The quality of the image is especially obvious in games like WipEout 2048 and the 2D graphic-design-heavy Frobisher Says. For video it’s great too; there is no better quality portable screen to watch HD movies on.
On balance, the PS Vita has the best screen out there – on a phone, on a tablet, on an Apple LED-screen laptop – the PS Vita’s screen out does them all with its deep blacks and lush colour.
iPhone 4S’s camera Vs the PS Vita’s. Click on each side to see the image in full resolution.
It’s a shame that the PS Vita’s main camera is so poor – coming in a measly 1.3MP – given Sony’s great heritage in this area and that the PS Vita is such a great device to view images on. Admittedly, the camera’s main function here is to work with augmented reality games but with such a great screen, a better image sensor and lens could have made smartphone-quality photography a great PS Vita feature.
PS Vita is nippy too. Most of the time things happen quickly, and there’s a real sense there’s a powerful chip orchestrating everything. But still, here there are problems and seemingly simple operations, like saving a 1.3MP photo, are accompanied by a ‘please wait’ dialogue. Which is unexpected, given that the PS Vita’s main processor is a quad-core version of the dual-core chip powering Apple’s A5 processing core. Software issues? Maybe an issue with data write speed to the memory card? Either way, it probably shouldn’t happen.
Still, the other functions work very well: the augmented reality stuff is fast and responsive – as demonstrated by Reality Fighters and Super Stardust Delta – and doesn’t require cards like the 3DS’s AR.
Escape Plan reminds us of the better quality iOS/Android games and shows off some of the PS Vita’s new controls functions.
Importantly there are already some great ideas on show (in Frobisher Says, Little Deviants and Escape Plan) of how the back touch pad can be used in games. As a control system, it’s basically as responsive and accurate as the touch screen.
Best of all though are the traditional tactile controls of analogue sticks, buttons and d-pad. The second analogue stick is a revelation (both sticks are topped with a rubberised insert for extra grip), while the d-pad gives great feedback with a subtle click on each pressed direction.
Meanwhile, the PS Vita’s build quality is outstanding. It’s easily on a par with anything from Apple and far, far superior to the plastic-y 3DS.
It’s surprising how light the PS Vita is, especially compared to the first generation PSP. PS Vita is a sizeable piece of kit but can easily slip into a back pocket.
Our only real gripe is with the accessibility of the various ports on the PS Vita. Even with decent nails it can be a struggle to open the slots for the game cartridge and expansion port, and you’re probably going to need the loan of a child’s finger to get the micro memory card out. Or maybe just a fat pen.
PS Vita apps
PS Vita comes with a number of built-in apps, and more are available from the PS Store. The full list is as follows, and their function should be fairly self-explanatory, but we’ll talk about the main apps in more detail below.
- Welcome Park
- PS Store
- Group Messaging
- Remote Play
- Content Manager
Like the PSP’s Remote Play this enables you to stream content from your PS3. You can stream photos, music and videos and, in theory at least, games. Sadly, this feature doesn’t work properly yet. Out of all our PSN games, we were only able to get PixlelJunk Monsters to work, and no PS3 game would work at all.
Not that this is a great feature in any case. The video quality is so poor that, while it’s a great idea that you can play Uncharted 3 or Killzone 3 on the PS Vita’s screen, the video is so low quality it’s not with the effort.
Welcome Park introduces some of the PS Vita’s functionality through a series of mini games. Here the camera combines with the touch screen to create a neat picture puzzle.
This is a terrific little app that introduces the PS Vita’s main controls and functions through the use of cute mini games.
With Welcome Park you use the augmented reality and camera functions to create tile puzzles, voice control to make music, the tilt control and motion sensor to control a skateboarder and the touch screen to play various number puzzles.
Welcome Park a neat introduction to PS Vita but we would have loved to have a bit more to it.
near is essentially Sony’s take on the 3DS’s StreetPass. Using near you can see any active PS Vita’s in your immediate area, see what those people are playing and what they think of those games. It tracks your movement through the day and you can even use it to unlock game bonuses, although we were unable to test this feature at the time of writing.
near is probably only really practical – or useful – if you’re using the PS Vita’s 3G model or are moving from Wi-Fi hotspot to Wi-Fi hotspot through your day. Or unless you’re using your smartphone as a mobile hotspot.
Still, it’s nice to know there are other PS Vita players out there.
This will be the Trophy-lovers favourite app. You can track all your and your friends’ Trophies and compare. Trophies are displayed as either an accumulated total (PS3 and PS Vita combined) or as Trophies only earned on the PS Vita.
Full descriptions can be found here.
Judge it purely as a games console the PS Vita is a winner. The hardware is excellent, and the software at launch is varied and of a very high quality. There’s a good mix of established brands and new IP and most of the games show off the PS Vita’s control tech in imaginative ways. Even at £230 it’s probably worth the money, and you can see the potential for some innovative and unique games and unique takes on established games.
At around four hours of game play time, even the battery life is passable and compares favourably to the 3DS and iPhone 4S, if not quite up the game play time afforded by the iPad.
PS Vita is designed for gaming and should judged as such.
But it would be wrong to frame the PS Vita as a direct competitor to the iPad – or even the iPhone – playing with one for five minutes is enough time to see that PS Vita isn’t an ‘either or’ purchase, it’s an additional one.
The physical controls of the PS Vita make a huge difference to its gaming capabilities. Aside from the inherent accuracy of a d-pad, analogue sticks and real buttons, there’s a real sense of being able to play ‘proper’ games on it and that’s something that no tablet or phone could ever emulate. Until they invent some kind of poly-morphing touchscreen technology.
However, put the PS Vita up against tablets and smartphones and its multimedia capabilities and user interface are found wanting.
The UI is clumsy, transferring files is labourious and Sony’s missed a trick by not incorporating things like Skype, Facebook and Twitter into the OS. And we would have loved the camera to be just a little bit better. Even an extra megapixel here or there would have made a big difference.
Sadly, connectivity with the PS3 is little more than an afterthought presently and, again, this could pay dividends (in terms of gaming) if ideas Sony has been talking about (Wii U-style control and PS3/PS Vita game bundles) are developed properly and can genuinely improve the gaming experience.
Sony has created the greatest – or at least the smartest – handheld gaming console in history, then somehow managed to dress it in lead boots, tied its hands behind its back and sent it off into the world to compete with the toyish 3DS and an app market that dominated by good but cheap, throwaway games.
Our hope is that the software failings can be fixed a la the PS3 and then the games can shine. After all, Sony’s PS Vita is primarily a device for playing games on and it’ll live or die on the quality of its gaming software. It already offers something better than tablet gaming, now can it offer something better and different to the 3DS?
PS Vita: More Info
- PS Vita tech specs and UK launch details
- PS Vita Vs 3DS Vs iPhone 4S specs comparision table
- PS Vita: 5 Reasons Why It Will Succeed, 5 Reasons Why It Will Fail
- How PS Vita’s tech could improve 2012 best games