The PSP never exploded. The Nintendo 3DS is a letdown. Now it's 2012, and Sony has the chance for a clean start that'll put console-caliber games in your bag. It does—but does a pocketable console really make sense anymore?
Why It Matters
The point of the Game Gear, Game Boy, DS, and everything else that's followed is to give you the same fun you'd have holding a controller in your living room, no matter where you are. Video games on the subway, video games in bed.
But consoles are now simple computers, really. They cruise the internet, they stream your videos, they download songs, and trawl Facebook. They're social points—you've got friend lists and inboxes on your computer. The Vita gets this, and attempts to cram a lot of this app-y functionality into ye olde handheld. Yes, that means apps. The Vita sprints to keep up with smartphone action—if it's a sustainable pace, this means portables can't just be dumbed down consoles anymore. They need be full-fledged devices, just as capable at non-gaming as they are at gaming. Go-to gadgets we pull out of our pouches and purses just as often as anything else. And the competition will look antique.
The Vita looks and feels like any other supremely expensive piece of classic Sony hardware. You've got your expected PlayStationesque controls, with the added nicety of (responsive!) touchscreen action. Overall, a supersturdy, petroleum-shiny hand television.
Gaming is simple: download a title, or pop in a game-on-a-memory-card (another new format from Sony!) and let it install. Everything else—music, videos, Google Maps, the web browser—is an app. Everything. If you've used a phone made within the past half decade, you'll get the gist of the interface pretty quickly. Stick and click—or touch and swipe—your way through menus that are an even mix of generic smartphone and PS3.
As much as the Vita purports to be a device from the future, it all feels very familiar.
The Vita—hefty and gleaming, like the Space Shuttle—is the best and most capable portable gaming system of all time, in that it replicates "the console experience" better than anything else ever has. The graphics it pushes through on its 5-inch screen actually approach what you can see with a PlayStation 3. Approaches, not equals, but still! It's a handheld gaming system—and being able to even see the taillights of a current-gen console is laudable.
The display those crisp, smooth, complex visuals are paired with is an equal star. The 960 x 544 (!) OLED touchscreen is a rich slice of cake. Games and movies pop with traffic light bright color and heavy deep blacks—no details shed. It's not a retina display, fine, but movies are more vivid here than on any iPhone.
Luckily—and crucially—the Vita controls about as well as it looks, too. It'd all be pointless if you held those console-ish graphics in dinky approximation of a console controller. But Sony's built a damn good DualShock controller around the Vita's graphical prowess: the analog sticks and triggers are responsively chewy, and the D-pad and shape buttons are just clicky and firm enough. You'll feel equally confident throwing out flying 2D fighter kicks or rolling around a Katamari. For browsing websites and music albums, skip the pads and just use your fingertips, because Sony made a damn decent touchscreen.
The Vita has graphical flash that bests pretty much any gadget you can carry with you, but the software packed into it reeks of the worst bargain bin phone. It's an obvious diagnosis. The Vita wants to outpace your smartphone. It doesn't. But the mobile envy shows—painfully so.
The appification of every single feature is irritating. Everything requires two clicks. I understand the browser being a separate thing to launch, but settings? And after each app—be it a game or maps—is closed, it's thrown into a strange netherworld of pages, or cards, or something. If this sounds confusing, it's because it is. Your most recent apps can be flipped through, horizontally, if you want to relaunch them. Or you can use a peeling gesture to discard them. It's never really clear what the advantage of this system is. None of it's particularly clear. The Vita, in trying to run beside every smartphone and tablet, trips over its own laces. Sony's newest UI isn't awful, but when it's spread over the marvelous graphics and gorgeous screen, it's so relatively bad as to be onerous. Every step feels like one step too many, every menu an attempt to ape rather than best.
And what's the payoff? Games, aside, nothing great. Nothing takes sufficient advantage of that splendid, hi-res screen. The browser is slow, the music store clumsy, the Maps app incomplete. Sony's GPS-enabled locational social network app, Near, is so confusing as to be useless. The extra software required to transfer media to your Vita? Slow and terrible. The non-gaming basics are fine at first blush, but once you get over the Hey, my handheld has a browser! factor, there's very little veneer to wear through.
Nothing is worth wading through the Vita's interface, even to see it on that divine display.
Should I Buy It?
No, unless you're the the most devout of devout gamers, too impatient to make it back to your dorm or living room. It's a wonderful looking eye-ride clad in great armor, but everything non-essential about the Vita feels so very non-essential. Sony, by jamming in the capacious functionality of a smartphone or tablet, is clearly making a bid for what gets your hands' attention. You can't use your phone and the Vita at the same time, so, hey, pick me, pick me!
But there's just no good reason to once you dispense with the games. You're not paying only for a portable PlayStation—you're playing for smartphone that unfortunately lacks both the phone and the smarts. The Vita is a small gaming machine foremost, but Sony's device ambitions force you to think: do I really want to carry another thing with a browser and shitty camera around? This one doesn't even have email.
With both phones and laptops creeping up on the traditional turf of the computer, the Vita feels uncomfortably without a place that makes sense, falling short of either side—it's not out-phoning your phone or out-consoling your console. It claims portents of the future, but really, the whole notion of the Vita feels strangely antique.
Sony PlayStation Vita
Price: $250 WiFi, $300 3G
Size: 3.289 in x 7.2 in x 0.73 in
CPU: 4 core ARM Cortex-A9
Display: 960 x 544 OLED
Data: WiFi b/g/n, Bluetooth (AT&T 3G optional)
Storage: Internal: None, Memory Cards available
Camera: 1 VGA front, 1 VGA back
If you're looking for a Vita review that fixates on gaming, our pals at Kotaku have put together an outstanding one.
Note: The Vita will have its own Facebook, Foursquare, Skype, Twitter, and Netflix apps, but these were unavailable for our review and their potential does not change our score.