Handheld consoles are in a tricky spot, with mobile phones and Apple gadgets stomping all over their portable gaming territory. Sony's not fazed though -- the PlayStation Vita is a brash, massive handheld that packs a frightening amount of hardware into its not-so-slender frame.
Is Sony showing Apple and its new-school friends the way gaming should be done, or is it stuck in the past?
Should I buy the Sony PlayStation Vita?
The Vita is an absolute monster on paper, with a quad-core processor, 5-inch touchscreen and dual analogue controls making it more powerful and hardware-heavy than all its rivals.
But power isn't everything, and the Vita's excessive bulk, strictly average battery life, high price and expensive games mean that unless you're a hardcore fan of the titles headed to this console, Sony's latest effort is tough to recommend.
Those hunting for accessible, on-the-move gaming kicks would do well to consider the iPod touch, with which you can find, purchase, download and play a game in under a minute and for less than a quid.
To look at, Sony's latest effort is essentially an engorged PSP. A massive black oval, it measures 182mm across, 83.5mm tall and 18.6mm thick. It's slathered with buttons and ports but still looks fairly slick. The glossy black chassis doesn't feel too plasticky.
There's no getting away from the size of this beast -- it seriously stretches the definition of a portable console. It'll probably fit in your jeans pocket, but not comfortably, and the resulting bulge could make you look more than a little ridiculous. We also worry about the sticking-out analogue sticks getting damaged if you're dragging the Vita in and out of your pockets.
If you're carrying this around with you, you'll need a bag. A handbag, satchel or rucksack would see you clear. Comparing it to its rivals, it's a lot bulkier than the Nintendo 3DS and more than twice as thick as the iPod touch.
The better news is that the Vita isn't as heavy as it looks. It weighs 279g for the 3G model, and a slightly lighter 260g for the Wi-Fi-only version. We wouldn't call it impressively light, but it won't weigh you down if you're carrying it around all day, and it's not uncomfortably heavy to hold.
Controls and connectivity
The Vita has more ports than Fishing Island, a fictional island we just made up, and it's covered in so many buttons that there's probably one around the back we haven't found yet that turns our toaster on.
To the left of the 5-inch touchscreen there's an analogue stick, a four-way direction pad and a PlayStation button. On the right is a second analogue stick, Start and Select buttons and the four iconic PlayStation face buttons. There's also a front-facing camera nestled here.
Along the top are two shoulder buttons, a power button, volume keys and two plastic covers. One of those conceals the slot where Vita games are inserted, the other is an accessory port.
Along the bottom you'll find the main port, which handles charging and USB connection (though the slot itself is proprietary, not USB, mini or micro-USB), and a memory card slot. There's also a 3.5mm headphone port, and the 3G version sports a SIM card slot tucked into the side of the console.
Along the back, roughly mirroring the touchscreen on the front, is a touch-sensitive trackpad area that you'll use for an extra control option in games. How frequently you'll use this will depend on how many developers make games that take advantage of it, but as it doesn't take up any extra space we don't mind having it on board.
Around the back you'll also find a rear-facing camera, though unfortunately it doesn't boast a very high resolution. The photos it takes came out looking fuzzy, and none too colourful.
This is a console with plenty of kit on board. But what kind of gaming experience do those controls actually get you?
Once you're into a game, we don't have any complaints about how the console actually looks or handles, with the Vita's quad-core processor ably handling graphically demanding titles, even if we did spend a lot of time staring at loading screens.
Based on our experience you can expect a smooth, consistent frame rate, even when loads of polygons are being chucked around on screen. We also didn't notice the Vita getting too hot after long periods of playing.
The controls are comfortable, and the Vita slots into your hands snugly. If you've got big hands you might find your thumbs naturally rest slightly to the left of the four PlayStation face buttons, but we imagine that most folks won't have any problems here.
The shoulder buttons are particularly slick because they can be triggered from any point along their length, meaning you won't have to twist your fingers into an uncomfortable position. We played Wipeout, which requires you to hold down the right trigger for long periods (because it's the accelerator, natch), and we didn't experience any discomfort.
As for those dual-analogue sticks, their movement was smooth and responsive. They won't give you the control or precision that you'd get on a full-sized console controller, and because they're small and sensitive you'll have to use very subtle thumb motions in games like Uncharted that ask you to use both sticks at the same time.
Reaching the centre of the touchscreen could prove something of a stretch if you've got small hands, and we also noticed that with our index fingers glued to the trigger buttons, switching to poke at the rear trackpad was a little tricky.
These are niggling points though -- crucially we never found the Vita's controls interfering with our game, or taking us out of the moment. The controls aren't perfect, but everything feels well constructed and every button is pleasingly sensitive.
In terms of control, the Vita compares favourably to the Nintendo 3DS, which is occasionally fiddly to hold because it's a lot smaller. The 3DS Circle Pad analogue stick isn't a patch on the Vita's either, though the trade-off is that because the 3DS stick is flat, it's protected by the folding top screen when you're on the move.
Compared to its touchscreen rivals, the Vita is more comfortable to hold than your average smart phone -- again because it's bigger, and so will fit more comfortably into both your mitts.
The touchscreen is sensitive and accurate, while the 5-inch screen is colourful, crisp and generally looks a treat. We've seen better displays, and those who are fussy about faithful reproduction may find the saturation levels a bit garish, but broadly speaking, we have no complaints. The viewing angle is also respectable, meaning annoying siblings peering over your shoulder will still get a decent view.
The Vita's interface will be familiar to anyone who's used a smart phone before. All your apps are represented by cheerful bouncing badges, spread across several home screens, which you scroll through vertically. Hold down on any app and you can rearrange them, shuffling icons about to your heart's content.
Apps that are already running get tiled to the right, so if you swipe across you can quickly hop between apps you've got running.
That might give the impression of some slick multi-tasking, but in fact the Vita's ability to jump nimbly between apps is disappointing. You can't have more than one game on the go at one time, and if you try and open a second, you'll be asked to close the first down.
The built-in web browser is also apparently too intensive to handle alongside a game, which is a real shame because the ability to pause a game and run a quick Google search before hopping back in would have been great.
The Vita 'freezes' apps while they're not running, presumably in an effort to save battery life. That's not a big deal, but it did mean that our sneaky effort to skip into another app while one game was loading was foiled.
Another annoyance is that you can't use the Vita's physical controls to move around homescreens. Being forced to use the touchscreen is hardly a massive chore, but the option to not remove our digits from the buttons would have been appreciated.
Downloads and apps
Games and apps can be downloaded from the PlayStation Store, though at the point of review, this shop wasn't online yet. We're really hoping that Sony fills it with cheap, retro PlayStation games to download. However, the company has let us down before on that front -- the game selection for the PlayStation-certified Sony Ericsson Xperia Play was dismal.
There will be Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare and Skype apps in place for social butterflies. A pre-installed app called Near provides some location-based jollies, letting you check into locations, find other Vita gamers in your vicinity and leave virtual gifts for others. You'll need the 3G version to make the best use of this app.
The Vita has some neat software for a machine that's built primarily for gaming, but apps are not its strong suit -- you'd find way more software and tools available on an equivalently priced smart phone or iPod touch.
Game cards and downloads
Games will arrive on Sony's own imaginatively-titled PlayStation Vita cards, which are slightly smaller than SD cards. Happily you'll have the option of downloading games instead through the PlayStation Store, which saves you hoofing it to HMV, though the bad news is the games themselves are wallet-combustingly expensive.
Vita games themselves will likely cost around £30, though Uncharted: Golden Abyss is listed on Amazon at a staggering £37.90. That's dismaying, and it feels like Sony's not doing much to try and compete with the host of extremely good sub-£1 games available for other mobile gadgets.
Thanks to Apple and other companies, paying console prices for a mobile game is no longer necessary, and would-be buyers should be sure to factor the high price of games into the overall cost of the Vita. We won't know for sure until the Store goes online, but we'd be amazed if downloading games turns out to be cheaper than buying them in the box.
The Vita has no internal storage, so you'll need to buy a memory card for most gameplay, along with photos and videos. Memory cards are similarly proprietary in nature and look a lot like microSD cards. They come in a variety of sizes, but the smallest is 4GB and costs £15 on Amazon.
Needing a memory card for basic functions like playing games and taking photos is galling. We hope that Vita consoles will come with a memory card in the box, but be sure to check before throwing down your cash.
Expensive games and memory cards mean that acquiring a Vita with a couple of games will likely set you back upwards of £300, for which you could buy an Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3. Stacking it once more against its rivals, the Vita is looking pricier than the Nintendo 3DS (£120 on Amazon though the games are about £20-£30 each) and the iPod touch (just over £150 on Amazon).
The Vita's battery life is not very impressive, something we suspected might be the case when we first saw its massive screen and heard about the quad-core processor chugging away inside.
The console's ability to survive away from the mains will vary depending on what exactly you're doing with the Vita. But our tests suggest that you'll get between three and four hours of game time.
Downloading, cruising the web and having the brightness turned up will all negatively affect battery life, and there are steps you can take to squeeze as much juice as possible out of the Vita. But we reckon a long flight will be beyond its capabilities.
As with almost all gadgets today, the Vita has a sealed-off battery, meaning carrying a spare is out of the question -- you'll need to recharge it.
If you're not planning on playing the Vita for prolonged stretches of time, the unimpressive battery life may not trouble you, but chances are at some point you'll find yourself caught short with no juice.
Another battery quirk is that when it's completely drained, the Vita takes a few minutes to turn back on once you've plugged the charger in. Not a huge issue, but annoying if the battery dies and you want to get back into the action quickly. One the plus side, the Vita seems to remember what you were doing before the battery died, so if you were mid-game, you might not lose any save data.
As for the Vita's rivals, the Nintendo 3DS also produced a 'meh' noise when we tested its battery, yielding similar results. A smart phone or iPod touch will also chew through battery if you're indulging in graphically demanding games. So while the Vita is rubbish away from the mains, we're not convinced the competition fares any better. We'll be keeping an eye on the Vita's battery performance, and if we notice anything else, we'll update this review to let you know.
Once you're playing a game, there's every chance you'll find the Vita an absorbing and entertaining console. But to get to that point you'll need a lot of money, and a deal of space in your carry-on luggage. Its online capabilities are impressive but they pale in comparison to even a mid-range Android smart phone or the iPod touch. Throw in iffy battery life and we have to wonder what the Vita offers over rival portable kit.
The answer is game selection. Not in terms of volume -- you'll never see it get within spitting distance of the iPod touch's library, which is tens of thousands of games strong. But there are certain big-hitters that you'll only get to play on the Vita. Launch title Uncharted: Golden Abyss is a good example, as is Wipeout 2048 or Call of Duty. That's what the Vita offers when you get down to it, and it's what Sony's banking on.
The Vita does a good job of replicating a proper console gaming experience on a handheld. And while that sounds great, prospective buyers should be aware that you'll be buying into a lot of the things that are annoying about full console games. They're expensive, with long loading times and will be packed with cut-scenes that look beautiful but crucially don't involve you playing much.
There's every chance that by the time you've fired up a game, loaded your save and actually started playing, your bus ride will be over and it'll be time to stuff the Vita back in your rucksack. Long car rides or family holidays could present a better opportunity, but of course then you've got battery life to think about.
Taken in isolation, the Vita is a powerful, capable gaming machine with impressive hardware. But it doesn't exist in isolation. We think you'll have significantly cheaper, more convenient on-the-go fun with an iPod touch.