Wouldn't it be wonderful to have a tiny set-top box that plays all your Sony PlayStation games? That's probably what you'd think if you saw the new PlayStation TV on the shelf. For just $99, this incredibly tiny box promises the world. Shame it doesn't deliver.
Launched in Japan last November as the PS Vita TV, and arriving in the United States today, the PlayStation TV is basically the guts of a PlayStation Vita handheld game system stuffed into a tiny case. You sacrifice the integrated gamepad, touchscreen, camera, and microphone in exchange for an HDMI port and power jack you need to plug it into a TV, as well as an ethernet socket in case your home Wi-Fi isn't up to spec. There's also Bluetooth so you can connect up to four PS3 and PS4 gamepads to actually control your games. It's pretty cool that you can mix and match, though don't expect the DualShock 4's touchpad or headphone jack to do anything.
On the surface, it seems like an incredible package deal. You can play your PS Vita cartridges, downloaded PS Vita, PS1 and PSP titles, and stream PS3 games from PlayStation Now, all using existing controllers you have lying around. If you've also got a PlayStation 4, you can stream games from it too.
But practically every single one of those things comes with a giant honking asterisk. Consider this your Bat-Signal: trouble is nigh.
First off, if you were imagining that the PlayStation TV might be a Roku or Chromecast alternative, stop right there. Though you can actually download and install the Netflix, Hulu Plus and YouTube apps for the PlayStation TV, none of them actually work. Let me repeat that again: you can download and install the apps, but they've been disabled for some reason.
What gives? Sony didn't have a straight answer for us, providing this statement instead:
"PS TV plays entertainment content, including popular movies and TV shows that can be downloaded from PlayStation Store. At launch, PS TV has video streaming apps Crackle, Crunchyroll and Qello. Stay tuned for additional entertainment content we'll be adding soon to the PS TV lineup."
Hulu is currently working with Sony on the issue, but a Netflix representative told us point-blank: "We have no current support plans for Netflix on PS TV."
And fond as I am of watching anime with Crunchyroll, the PS Vita version requires a paid membership rather than letting you watch ad-supported episodes like I can on any PC, tablet, or phone.
Sure, downloading a video app probably isn't the first thing you'd do with a PlayStation TV. The first thing I did, after a relatively painless 10 minute setup, was pop in a PlayStation Vita game. After setting the time and date, finding my blasted Sony Entertainment Network password, and figuring out that Sony had my expired credit card on file, I decided I didn't want to wait for anything to download before playing a game.
So I popped in my Borderlands 2 game card. The game didn't launch. I was greeted with this screen:
I tried again with the Sly Cooper collection. Same thing.
It turns out that I'd forgotten one important thing which many would-be PlayStation TV buyers probably never learned: The PlayStation TV doesn't actually play every PlayStation Vita game. It only plays the ones on this list. And though Borderlands 2 is in fact included on the list, that meant I was spending my next 20 minutes downloading a patch to make it compatible rather than actually playing.
A small selection of the many things you can install - but not play - on PS TV
As it happens, the list actually includes a sizable number of the best rated games for PlayStation Vita, so it's not like you won't find something to play. Final Fantasy X HD nearly tempted me into a purchase. But many of our favorites like Tearaway, Sound Shapes and Gravity Rush didn't make the cut, and it feels ridiculously arbitrary.
Sound Shapes played just fine on PS3 since the day it was released. Ditto Flower and Guacamelee. And heck, I can actually play the Sly Cooper collection on the PlayStation TV by renting an outrageously priced streaming session from PlayStation Now. So why doesn't my cartridge work, eh Sony?
The answer is that for whatever reason, many games have to be patched to run on the PlayStation TV hardware, and though Sony's had nearly an entire year since the system came out in Japan, progress is slow. Killzone: Mercenary is one example of progress: it didn't work then, and has just recently been fixed. It looks and feels pretty damn good for a transplanted handheld game.
Killzone: Mercenary actually looks pretty good, though less so upscaled to 1080p
But with many other titles, I wasn't so lucky. Velocity X2, a critically-acclaimed top-down shooter, was one of many titles that looked a bit jagged and rough around the edges. That happens when you scale up from the Vita's 5-inch, 720p resolution to a 42-inch 1080p TV. Did I mention that the PS Vita itself doesn't natively output 1080p? It's an issue for games and video content alike. Even a $35 Chromecast played back episodes of The Walking Dead sharper than my new PlayStation.
And Borderlands 2, which is a PC game scaled down for PS Vita and then back up again on my PS TV, looked ridiculously ugly and often suffered from low framerates. This is all to say nothing of how older PSP games look blown up to the big screen.
Borderlands 2. Now imagine it with more jaggies
But you also shouldn't expect streaming PS3 or PS4 games to be much better. Our sister site Kotaku has already weighed in on the insane prices you'll pay to stream games via PlayStation Now, but you may also need to physically plug in a PS3 controller and/or hook up the PS TV with an ethernet cable if you want to avoid an unplayable amount of lag.
Streaming Lord of the Rings hack-n-slash Shadow of Mordor from my PS4 to another room in my house was a bit better — and arguably the coolest feature of the whole system — but it didn't look quite as good or run nearly as smoothly as it did when actually playing on the PS4. I struggled to train my bow on an orc long enough to fire a deadly arrow, and that's with both the benefit of bullet time and a rather expensive Wi-Fi router serving my two-bedroom house. Still, it's pretty cool turning on your living room PS4 from your bedroom and firing up the game.
Nidhogg is legitimately fun on PS TV, and supports two controllers!
This is the point where you're probably expecting me to step back and say the PlayStation TV has loads of potential as soon as the software issues are worked out. And I would definitely like to believe so. The idea of carrying a palmsize game console to a party, whipping out a few controllers and having a blast with local multiplayer games like Nidhogg and Spelunky is hard to resist, and there are folks who might buy it for Minecraft alone. (Nidhogg and Minecraft just came to PS Vita today.)
Minecraft. Again, imagine it with more jaggies if you have a 1080p TV
But realistically, the PS TV is now a niche of a niche, because the PlayStation Vita itself hasn't done insanely well, and if Sony couldn't manage to get some of its greatest hits and its crucial video apps ready in time for launch — a year after the PS TV's debut in Japan — it's hard to trust that they will do so now.
I tried Spelunky, by the way. Right now, it only supports one controller. One player per screen. I hope Sony patches it soon.
My recommendation: if you want to play Vita games, buy a Vita. You can get a nice bundle for $200 — only $60 more than you'll pay for a PS TV and the proprietary Sony memory card you need to download any but the smallest games. Did I mention that's not included for $99?