With the launch of the PlayStation Vita, we thought it high time to detail everything you need to know about Sony's next console. While the marketing for the sleek new handheld states "It only does everything, everywhere", we thought that perhaps wasn't specific enough - so let's break it down...
What is it?
The PlayStation Vita is Sony's second portable console, following on from the successful PlayStation Portable. It is similar in form factor to the PlayStation Portable, however there are a number of differences - so many, perhaps, that the similarity in shape to its older brother is about all it has in common with it.
One of the key improvements over the PSP is the veritable host of new input methods game designers can leverage to interface with their titles, so let's take a look at...
What's it got?
The Vita has so many control options, it's easy to get lost in them. To keep things simple, we're going to start with the basic and move on through to the "oh it does that too?" stuff.
Dual Analog Sticks: That's right, for the first time in history, there's a portable console with two analogue sticks. They're quite a bit smaller than those used on a PlayStation 3 controller, but larger than the weird slider thing used on the PSP. That's the only comparison it's fair to do with the PSP's nub, as everything else about the Vita's sticks is far superior. They move and feel much like you're used to using on your console, so you'll have no trouble adapting when you first pick up a Vita.
Directional Pad: Quite a bit smaller than you might find on your home console, the D-Pad on the Vita is otherwise functionally identical. It varies little, in fact, from the one invented by Nintendo's Gunpei Yokoi that first appeared on a handheld LCD game called Donkey Kong (you may have heard of it). It may be a 30 year old concept, but it works.
Face Buttons: It just wouldn't be a PlayStation without Square, Circle, Triangle, and Cross buttons, would it? Like the D-Pad and Thumbsticks, the cross-shaped collection of interaction buttons is smaller than you might expect
Shoulder Buttons: The Vita eschews the PlayStation 3's shoulder button + trigger on each side combo, opting instead for the simpler mix of just a shoulder button on each side. This configuration makes a lot of sense, given the dimensions of the unit. However it will be interesting to see how game designers adapt to having fewer controls to leverage for first and third-person shooter titles.
Utility Buttons: Like the face buttons, no modern PlayStation device would be seen dead without a Home, Start, and Select button. On the Vita, the Home button (which returns you to the system software instantly) sits below the left analogue stick (5a) while the Start and Select buttons cosy up beneath the right analogue stick (5b). Their positioning reflects the frequency with which Sony expect you to use them; which is to say, not often. If you need to rapidly pause something (say, your wife returns to the car with your coffee / dinner / luggage), you're best to use the Power Button, which sits under your left Shoulder Button finger (5c). There are also volume controls, which can be accessed on the fly (although again, they're not designed to be used constantly) with your right shoulder button finger (5d).
Sixaxis: Like the PlayStation 3 controller, the Vita supports motion control by way of the Sixaxis branded sensors within it. Unlike the 3DS, there's no parallax barrier screen for the motion control to conflict with, and - combined with the excellent viewing angle of the OLED screen - this should result in far more satisfactory motion-controlled experiences on the Vita.
Cameras: Sony's new handheld sports not one but two cameras - one facing forward, and one poking out from the back of the device. If you're hoping to replace your camera with a Vita, however, you probably want to hold fire. The sensors in the cameras are just 0.3 megapixels, resulting in a svelte 640x480 maximum resolution
Touch Screen: Catching up with your cellphone and leapfrogging the DS, the PlayStation Vita sports a capacitive touch screen, with multitouch capability. Capacitive technology means that input is literally about touch, compared to the resistive tech used on the DS, where input is actually based on creating pressure between a sandwich of plastic panels
Rear Touch Panel: Sony have added a touch panel to the back of the screen, allowing you to apply touchscreen-like input without blocking the screen with your chubby fingers. It doesn't quite match the dimensions of the screen (it starts a little lower than the top of the screen, and finishes a little higher than the bottom of it), and learning to be accurate with it when you can't direct your fingers by sight results in a bit of a learning curve. But pushing the ground up underneath your characters in Little Deviants results in a thrill we haven't experienced since motion control or the touchscreen itself first debuted.
So what about the rest of the device? What else has it got going on?
Weight: Weight alone provides little information, so let's take a look at the weight of the Vita as it compares to other devices that you might already own or otherwise be familiar with:
PSP Go: 152g
iPhone 4: 137g
Despite being the heavyweight in that list, the Vita actually feels light when you pick it up; overwhelmingly, the number one first impression from people whose hands we've put it in for the first time, was "wow, it's lighter than you'd think".
The Screen: Once people react to the weight of the Vita, the very next thing they notice is the screen. Leveraging Organic Light- Emitting Diode (OLED) technology, instead of the much more commonplace Liquid Crystal Display (LCD), the Vita's screen is incredible looking. Bright, vivid colours, and a viewing angle that has more in common with a magazine than it does a traditional screen, result in something that instantly impresses everyone that sees it.
Battery: Unlike the PSP, the Vita's battery is not user-replaceable. It's inside the unit and you cannot access it without dismantling the console, which is not recommended and will likely void your warranty.
Charger: The charger is of the new "USB" variety, meaning that it's actually a mains to USB converter and USB cable combo. This adds a lot of versatility to the power setup, as you can charge it via the USB on your computer, in your car, or on a reasonably well kitted-out aircraft.
External Interface / Power Connector: The part of your Vita that the USB cable connects to is a proprietary new square connector, which means that (for now, at least) only the supplied Sony cable will connect to it. Presumably there will be after-market cables (and maybe even some other devices) down the line, but for now, be sure to keep your charging cable in a safe place.
Another thing of note is that the cable must be connected the right way up, but there's almost nothing about the connector that prevents incorrect insertion. It's not only possible but fairly easy to plug it in the wrong way, so make sure you're paying attention when you connect 'em up.
Memory Cards: Unlike the 3DS, the Vita has no on-board memory. Like the PSP, then, a memory card is all but mandatory; some games will run without one (most won't) but you won't be able to save your progress, will likely miss out on some features, and can make no real use of the PlayStation Store. Simply put, you absolutely must get a memory card if you get a Vita.
There are currently four (proprietary) memory cards available for the Vita, however only three of them are available in New Zealand. The largest, weighing in at 32GB, is not available here for some reason but as it's not locked to any particular region and very small / light, importing is certainly an option worth considering if you absolutely must have one that big.
Otherwise, the cards break were roughly priced between $35 for the 4GB and $80 for the 16GB at a selection of local retailers.
The PlayStation Vita is arguably the first real digital platform. Why? Because, almost all (if not all) of its games are available as digital downloads, while only some are available at retail. Which you prefer is, of course, up to you and may even vary by title. Let's take a look at the differences...
Retail: Games purchased at retail come on a cartridge - a first for Sony, whose previous platforms (aside from the PSP Go, which was download-only) have all contained some form of optical disk. The PlayStation Vita Card, on the left, compared to the proprietary PlayStation Vita Memory Card, on the right. The cartridges are similar in size to an SD card, and plug in to the top of the Vita in a slot directly adjacent to the power button.
Download: The other way to buy your games is via the PlayStation Store, where we're assured all PlayStation Vita retail games will be available for download purchase on the same day and date that they come out in retail stores. Not only that, but you'll also be able to buy download-only games (like Hustle Kings and Escape Plan), minis, and digital versions of a number of PSP titles.
As an example, launch titles range in size from Reality Fighters (674MB) to the large Uncharted: Golden Abyss (3.4GB), while titles like Everybody's Golf, WipeOut 2048 and ModNation Racers sit around the 1.5GB mark.
ModNation Racers - 1.5GB
3G vs Wi-Fi: There are two different versions of the Vita available, with just one difference between them: one of them lets you connect anywhere, by way of a cellphone-like 3G connection, while the other requires a Wi-Fi network to go online. The 3G version will cost you around $100 more than the Wi-Fi only model.
Wi-Fi The Wi-Fi model of the Vita requires a Wi-Fi hotspot in order to access the internet. If you live in a city, chances are pretty good you'll spend most of your life in range of one, with CBD-based network providers (including free providers, in some areas) relatively common place in 2012. Otherwise, you're offline, and restricted to whatever content you have on your device.
3G: The 3G version of the Vita includes everything that the Wi-Fi includes, plus a 3G radio that enables it to get access to the internet while you're out and about. It's not locked to any particular cellphone carrier, however if you opt to signup to Vodafone, they'll send you a complimentary code for Wipeout 2048.
Other vital info
Region Locking: The Vita itself is region-free, meaning that you can import retail game cartridges from anywhere and they'll play on your Vita - wherever you bought it from. The same is true for downloadable software, however...
PlayStation Accounts: You can only have one PSN / SEN account setup on your Vita at a time. If you want to change your account (i.e., sign into an American or Japanese account), you have to format your Vita.
Otherwise, the account you already have (for use on your PS3 or PSP) will work happily without any changes - just log in and you're good to go. You can start earning trophies straight away and trophies earned on Vita versions of games you already own on PS3 will add to your existing score.
Apps: Sony know that you couldn't launch any form of hip electronic device these days without app support, and they didn't try to buck that trend with the Vita. It supports smartphone-like apps and even includes a few cool ones right out of the box.
The Interface: The basic interaction with the system interface is touch; in fact, there's almost nothing you can do with the buttons at all - traversing the system by way of button or stick input simply isn't an option. This tends to catch people out initially, particularly those who are familiar with the PSP, however once you figure it out, like a smartphone it actually makes a lot of sense.
If you've used an Android or iOS device before, while the Vita is different, it is similar enough to be grasped quickly. You have pages of icons (that look and behave kinda like bubbles, wobbling around as you swipe up or down to switch pages) that you can select to launch that particular game or app. Each bubble also has a text name underneath it and, thanks to the (large) size of the icons, a fair amount of text can appear here.