Hands on: PlayStation Vita

By Pat Pilcher

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2011 has been nothing short of a golden year for portable gaming. Not only has the number and quality of games on smartphone platforms such as Android improved out of sight, but Nintendo has also launched the 3DS. Now it's Sony's turn in the sun with its latest piece of portable gaming awesomeness, the Sony PlayStation Vita which will supplant the PSP.

Look & feel

After a brief hands on with the device, I came away impressed with it overall, but with several questions that need to be answered. Perhaps the most noticeable thing about the Vita is its size.

The Vita isn't exactly small, and my first thought upon seeing it was that you'd likely hear the sound of tearing fabric if attempting to pocket it.

After picking it up and handling it however, this proved to be a non issue as the Vita felt so light that I had to check that its battery was installed (it was). This said the Vita isn't small, at 182 by 84 by 19 mm; it's slim but is definitely going to be a pocketful. The good news is that its super-sized form factor also means that you also get a generous dollop lot of touch sensitive on-screen real estate.

Controls, controls and more controls

The other welcome addition I also noticed with the Vita was the addition of an extra analogue stick controller (which, for anyone used to getting their daily dose of vitamin G via a dual shock controller will be a huge improvement over the PSP). Nicest of all for this gamer geek was the fact that an extra analogue controller also allowed me to strafe in my favourite first-person shooter, Resistance Fall of Man.

If the Vita's controller options stopped there I'd die a happy gamer, but from there things just kept getting better. With an integrated touchpad on its rump that's roughly the size of the Vita's display; many new gaming options are potentially opened up.

In use the touchpad works a lot like a laptop trackpad. So you can let your fingers do the walking for additional control while gaming. Rounding things out, the Vita is also crammed chocka block full with both accelerometers and other sensors including a compass. In practice this meant I was able to tilt the Vita to add velocity to in-game jumps and swing it about to pan around in-game landscapes in real time. The potential for innovation of all these new features is huge and should see some nifty new wrinkles added to gaming on the go.

Most impressive however was the Vitas eye-popping OLED display. Essentially a 5" OLED touch-screen it a sported a resolution of 960x544 and was sufficiently sharp, bright and vivid that it could easily do double duty as a portable tanning studio. Gaming with an OLED screen is truly something to behold, and to this end the Vita literally shone. I do however wonder just how much of a penalty there will be on battery life because of the gorgeous OLED screen is likely to be somewhat power hungry.

Augmented Reality gaming

Stunning screen aside, the Vita also packs both front and rear cameras which can deliver augmented-reality gaming. In one example game title I tested animated 3D aliens buzzed around the room, avoiding objects as I tilted and panned the Vita to blast them into extinction. Merging a digital world to the real world adds a whole new level of play to games, and I can't wait to see what Sony manages to cook up to take advantage of this.

Under the hood

All these features require some serious processing horse-power and the Vita doesn't disappoint thanks to some high-spec hardware. For starters, the Vita is powered by a quad-core ARM Cortex-A9 processor and a dedicated SGX543MP4+ graphics processor, making it incredibly responsive and yet battery friendly. While I was unable to obtain much in the way of specs on its battery, indications are that the Vita should deliver anything up to a respectable four hours of gaming before wailing for some quality wall socket time.

Media support

As much as the Vita saw me salivating, my biggest question with it however is around game media. I have a teetering pile of UMD titles for my much-loved (and worn out) PSP at home and was keen to see if the games I had stumped up cash for on my PSP over the years would play nice with a shiny new Vita once it launches in February.

To this end, it is still early days and the answers to this burning issue remain quite vague. Sony has killed off UMD discs and the Vita now supports games sold on solid state memory cards that look very similar to SD cards. This is good news, as solid state media is likely to be significantly more robust than fragile UMD disks, and better still, pulling data off solid state media should also use a significantly smaller amount of power as no traditional optical disc reading mechanism is required. Hopefully Sony will operate a system where historical UMD purchases are able to be recognised at a PlayStation Network account level and be re-downloaded for free (or at a reasonable charge) to the Vita.

Verdict

In use the Vita really impressed. Several times while using it or watching it in use I found myself scooping my mandible off the shagpile as wowsome graphics, nifty controls and augmented reality gaming blew me away.

The Vita feels very much like the pocket-friendlier cousin of a PlayStation 3, however issues such as support for titles previously purchased on UMD could play a big role in its appeal to existing PSP owners. That said, Sony has confirmed that the Vita will have an impressive 80 titles available at launch time in February, so this may not be a huge issue.

The good
Two analogue sticks
Accelerometer & compass combos
Stunning 5" touch sensitive OLED display
Integrated Cameras
Rear touchpad area on the rear

The not-so-good
It isn't small
No UMD support


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