PlayStation Vita review
I’m sitting in the train, a one-way to Amsterdam just for the sake of traveling. With smartphones, ultra thin laptops and other goodies to entertain us, I realize, travel has gotten a whole lot better over the years. As more passengers emerge themselves in the unclean cabin of sweat and stench, I collect a PlayStation Vita from my pocket and press the power button; I’m ready to play. Before uncharted starts though, I sneak a peek to see what my fellow travelers are up to. A lady next to me shows me her HTC desire, the bloke opposite me flashes a metal band with four black stripes running across the outer edges: the iPhone of course. An old lady in the distance is holding a dark plastic rectangle, well… that can be anything. I give my Vita a long hard stare and ask aloud: is there still a place for you on this train?
In February Sony released the PlayStation Vita for the European and North American markets on the tone of an extensive marketing campaign telling us that the world is in play. Being the successor to the PlayStation portable, this device is poised to become: like a PS3 for outside the living room.
If anything, with the Vita in my hands I did get plenty of stares from fellow passengers, what could they be thinking? Is it the lack of phone, Vita commercial they had seen with the football dad doing his business on the pitch or is it perhaps the sheer good looks of the device itself. The third one can very well be it. Lets be honest here, PlayStation vita is the best looking gaming handheld on the market. The entire device is coated in plastic although the design suggests it’s made from glass. This holds especially true for the front of the machine, made from a single piece of plastic that runs from edge to edge. Other frontal design elements succeed too, the big display and metallic PSVITA branding looks absolutely gorgeous. The analog sticks are padded with a thin layer of rubber coating for added grip, and the PlayStation button lights up blue.
I’d be the first to admit however that the Vita is a lot less minimalistic looking than the iDevices I usually accompany with me on these little trips. The side has one too many stickers for my liking. The top holds not one, but two slots to put a memory card and gaming card in respectively. Then there’s the power connector and headphone jack to finish the somewhat crowded plastic band running across the device.
The back is quite busy too. The touchpad is covered with midget PlayStation icons, there’s another sticker and two little plastic triangular shapes to place the fingers on while in use; a position I never got accustomed to during play.
Obviously I’m nitpicking a little being an Apple enthusiast, but to be honest I only absolutely adore the front of the Vita. I wouldn’t show the back to my friends when I need to make a good score for instance. Still the Vita is a pretty device overall and beats the Nintendo DS by miles, despite the few obvious flaws. A diet, less stickers and more premium materials would’ve given it a perfect score in the look department – better “look” next time.
In terms of power the Vita doesn’t disappoint. Under the hood is a quad core CPU SGX543MP4+ with the GPU on the same die (also quad core). That’s faster than iPad 2 (same chip – only dual core) at a more humble price point. To support this power, Sony is providing each Vita with 512mb of system ram and 128mb of dedicated Video ram, combined that’s more than the PS3 even.
The screen is gorgeous as I mentioned earlier in no small part thanks to the OLED display, or Organic Light Emitting Diode. Basically this is a fancy way saying that every pixel can light and dim individually for theoretical sublime contrast and color production. That’s 960×544 pixels that light up – just short of HD-ready resolution. The technology often comes with a few flaws as well, more particularly an odd halo effect and a tendency to over-saturate colors. The Vita does show signs of these effects, but only when held under eagle eye or if examined by a Nintendo fanboy, or Microsoft fanboy… I think you got the point.
PlayStation Vita lasted for 5 hours in our battery test with little energy preservation. A lot of people consider this a bad score, but I don’t. Fact is the Vita has very powerful hardware and a big screen to power up at all times. If I compare it to the iPhone in similar gameplay scenarios, the Vita actually doesn’t do all badly. And where the smartphone’s battery is completely depleted on the trip back home, this won’t be because unlike a smartphone, Vita isn’t pushing messages and emails to the device 24/7. It takes 2 hours to completely recharge the device back up by the way, so take a walk.
We wouldn’t be talking about the OS if this device had come out several years ago, yet now it’s a critical part of any mobile device. Again I stare towards my fellow passengers. The lady in the distance uses Android Gingerbread on her phone, the predecessor to Honeycomb and Ice cream sandwich more recently. The lad opposite me is using IOS 4 or 5, I couldn’t tell because they all look the same from a distance. These are systems we use on our phones every day and now Vita sweeps in carrying a completely unique OS for us to toy with.
The idea is very simple. Each application is a little balloon that has its own dedicated launching screen. By pressing on the balloon you get to see the launch screen, which sometimes contains valuable extra information such as manuals, or additional gameplay options. Upon hitting start, the game screen flies to become a tab that serves as an active application. A simple push of the PlayStation button will send you back to the home screen with the possibility to launch more apps.
Sony claims to have built a functional multitasking OS, but that doesn’t hold completely true. Vita can multitask on curtain apps only, such as Playstation store and trophies, but pausing a game to browse the web results in the awkward pop-up message explaining it will close the game. The multitasking is barely more functional than the PS3′s system and therefore is too poor to be of good use.
In general I think the operating system is just a notch better than the XMB. It appears very modern but technically fails to make an impression. Hopefully firmware updates will cure the deficit over time, Sony’s track record leaves us feeling ambiguous.
Where gaming consoles in the past would only be rated based on its ability to render videogames, now its ability to display photos, videos and play music is just as important. Vita relies on content manager to get the content across to the Vita and display the goods. Content Manager is a poor substitute to a simple storage disk solution or more sophisticated system like iTunes. Once accomplished though, the drag system that is Content Manager can be left outside the door – till it’s time to switch things up again.
Listening to music on the Vita works like a treat. Album art is displayed where added and the music control screen is clean cut with all the buttons I personally use and nothing more. You can listen to music while browsing the web, at least showing some signs of multitasking capabilities. The music tab offers easy access to next/previous song and pause, or you can simply hold the PlayStation button while doing something else.
Video playback on that large OLED display would’ve worked extremely well but unfortunately very few formats are actually supported by the OS – only MP4 in fact. The need to convert pretty much anything you want to play on it, plus the cost of a large capacity memory card, makes this a no go.
We approach Utrecht, where Bram Hengeveld lives, and I begin to realize I haven’t even begun playing yet. First though I need to know what my arrival date in Amsterdam will be, which of course means opening the web browser. The right side of the screen is dedicated to traditional web buttons such as bookmarks and tabs. The top bar is the URL line with no search bar option sadly.
I walk up to the lady in the distance, pretty cute but that’s a different story, if we could perform a sprint race to success (browser speed comparison). She says no because she’s wearing heels. I explain: “No I’m only interested in the phone.” She left, so I approached the iPhone lad to do a little browser test instead.
Both of the devices were on Wi-Fi and ran the test with history, cookies and cache all cleaned up. The test ran 5 times with the average score added up, finalizing the score found below. The single slowest time for each website wasn’t calculated into the average to prevent unique circumstances from influencing the overall score.
As you can see the PlayStation Vita loses despite its supposedly better hardware, clearly a case of software here. The experience isn’t very smooth pickings either so these results aren’t just paper worth. Vita also failed to display HTML5 movies and flash content, making it a balky experience overall. Luckily it’s a gaming device so these numbers aren’t going to break too many hearts, right?
Sony implemented a front and back facing camera in the Vita, which appears to be a perfect addition to its arsenal of mechanisms. Because besides the obvious function of the camera, the eye can also be used to combine real with virtual on-screen or add new gameplay elements like in Uncharted Golden Abyss where you need to keep the device near a light to unlock a puzzle. Unfortunately the specifications are quite heart breaking with 0.3 megapixels for both front and back camera. The poor resolution shows.
In reality fighters, the desired effect of projecting virtual fighters into the living room doesn’t hold up. Rather it looks like the background is a snowy vague image of your living room, clearly breaking the impression of a “living gaming space”.
The bad performance also shows in perfect conditions where the Vita was unable to maintain smaller details or keep shadows from disappearing into the void. Also troublesome were the results under motion, where the camera completely failed to stabilize the picture and keep details save from movement. Besides the optics deficit, the software isn’t helping either with 4:3 recording. In a time where even the cheap smartphones rock +2 megapixels, this feels like a cost cut that could’ve been avoided.
There’re plenty of applications preinstalled and to be found in the Sony Entertainment Store. Let’s discuss the more popular one just quickly. Remember that Sony has announced that you can purchase all games in the online store as well for on average of 10% less than the retailed copy. At the moment this doesn’t hold true and we expect the street price to fluctuate enough for this plan to never work, but for gamers cozy in the digital-age, this is a praiseworthy initiative.
In response to Nintendo, Vita contains its very own equivalent of Nintendo’s StreetPass called Near, a social network for system users. Nearby SEN users are displayed on a map and can leave little gifts or initiate a trade. Some trophies rely on these social initiatives as well. Because we were rocking a Wi-Fi only model, Near couldn’t be tested in the train. But the user interface looks slick and especially for 3G users, this may help lift the system’s social skills beyond being the handicapped smartphone.
Twitter app can be found in the Sony store under the social category. Using twitter is a blast and the layout is very easy to use. It’s about as limited as the iPhone version, so no option to send out delayed tweets or do anything overly exciting, nice addition overall.
Sony had to remove this app for a while but now it’s back… for good? Within minutes I was started and posting updates on my wall. The layout appears similar to the Facebook website, with a blue bar running across the tab featuring the same icons. Events, wall, profile and personal messages are clearly presented in familiar icons on the right hand side. While it’s good, it’s not as easy to use as the iOS or Android version.
Messenger is similar to the PS3′s message system. Thanks to the on-screen keyboard, sending images and typing is more user friendly on this portable machine. Game screenshots are cleanly organized by title and can be send to friends as well, in short messenger is simply the best way of sharing your tense moments with anyone. The same can be achieved with Party. As the name suggest a few Vita owners come together to chat and share photographs, it’s fun if you’re the kind of gamer with a lot of active friends.
Suddenly a man pulls on my sleeve, it’s an older fellow, the kind who has seen it all and now spends his retirement years riding trains and spying on people, which he subs “just browsing”. He asks me: “I’ve been watching you for almost an hour now but you haven’t even played a game on it yet.” Bob explains he is looking to buy his grandson a present for his 13th birthday and that he has been eying the Vita. For the occasion I decide to pop in some games and let him know.
To test the machine’s capabilities I tried all the Sony launch titles and F1 2011, review here. As expected, Uncharted offers by far the greatest mileage in the launch line-up. In Uncharted you play as Nathan Drake, a witty treasure hunter in search for an invaluable Spanish treasure. Unfortunately a retired General is also after the treasure and that same general just happens to have an army, yikes. The graphics exceed all the games on mobile phones and Golden Abyss plays like a dream. The second analog stick immediately proves its worth and within mere minutes I was able to string headshots and earn myself many trophies in the process. It truly feels like having a PS3 in the palm of the hand, which is not a bad thing. The many control mechanisms add a nice twist to the traditional shooters gameplay, although they’re slightly overused at times.
Reality Fighters is another great example of what the Vita is capable of. Using the built-in compass, the Vita becomes a window into a world of Kung Fu. I made a character of myself and battled it out against relentless enemies left, right and center. Unique features include the ability to take a snapshot of your very own face or to have the characters fight in any location you point the back facing camera at. Downside: the camera is pretty bad, sometimes damaging the effect.
Modnation: Road Trip looks and feels very similar to the PS3 version of the sandbox karting game. Making tracks and racing on them works extremely well. The back touchpad is excellently implemented to built mountains or dig an infinite abyss. Though, long loading times and a dodgy menu hurt its potential.
I tell Bob that gaming on the Vita is nothing like playing on a Galaxy S or iPad. On a mobile phone you play to pass the time, while on Vita you play to entertain yourself – and it shows. I feel more relaxed playing on a Vita than I do playing on an iOS device. This is mostly thanks to the physical buttons and the Vita’s ecosystem, which doesn’t bother you while gaming like a phone does. The only concerns then are whether game developers will support the device and use all of its capabilities.
During gameplay one final concern emerges concerning the hardware: speakers. The volume is surprisingly low even on maximum volume, it goes to the point that you may actually have trouble hearing the dialogue when one or two family members are sitting next to you. The volume output is low on headphones as well, adding to the belief that the internals may mute the sound along the way. A software upgrade may be of help here.
I tell Bob this exact story and we share our goodbyes as he walks off towards the local gadget store. I had convinced him to buy a Vita, or the device had sold itself. To this day I still don’t know what exactly drove Bob to buy the Vita for his grandson that morning. Maybe he liked the unique and industry leading look of the device. Perhaps he fell in love with the display, which looks great even from an angle. Or it may in fact have been my little speech about gaming on the go. Because despite lacking software and some weak branches in the hardware, nothing can match Vita when playing games on a portable device is concerned. So at least at the time of writing, Vita has outrun the active beast that is the mobile market. Whatever happens, that’s quite the achievement they can never take away from Sony. Well done to Vita!
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