Sony PS Vita - its a handful

Posted by Ted Pollak on March 3rd 2012 | Discuss
Categories: Hardware Review
Tags: market gaming

Sony and Nintendo have launched their handheld gaming devices into a market where some of the most casual gamers, who previously bought handhelds, are now opting for their smartphones and tablets. Where does that leave the potential market? It leaves the market in the hands of core gamers and causal gamers who have found the gaming experience on phones and tablets to be underwhelming. These people number in the hundreds of millions.

 

VITA vs. Smartphone? No contest for serious gaming. (Source: JPR)

A big question that affects the gaming handheld market is: how good is a smartphone for gaming? They are good for short play sessions and casual games, but for a core or casual gamer intent on any deep and prolonged mobile play, smartphones pretty much suck. One of the simplest reasons is that gaming will decimate the battery and the phone is usually more important as a communication and data device. Other key elements are ergonomics and control dynamics. Holding a smartphone and attempting to use the screen as a virtual joystick is awful; with the gamer losing tactile feedback and also covering and smudging up the screen with their fingers. Tablets have many of the same issues and are not quite as portable.

I’ve been running the VITA previously codenamed "Next Generation Portable" (NGP), through its paces and am already a big fan. I am also a fan of the Nintendo 3DS which just hit global sales of 15 million units since its launch, September 29, 2010. To put DS sales into perspective, the Samsung Galaxy S II just hit 20 million units in sales and is considered a big success. As of now, the VITA has sold 1.2 million units globally since its launch in December 17, 2011.

The PS Vita is very well designed and utilizes some unique elements not seen in handheld gaming before, the biggest of which is the capacitive touchpad on the back of the device. The primary display, a 5 inch capacitive touch screen 960x544 OLED capable of 16 million colors is brilliant and bright. That said, when I took it outside in full sunlight, the display did not perform very well, washing out a bit and reflecting the environment, which was surprising for an OLED. This is not an issue for me as I don’t play video games outside, but could be an issue for a commuter who gets beams of direct sunlight through the train or bus window. To be fair, I have not seen many displays that do perform well in direct sunlight except for the e-ink monochrome Kindle type screens.

Unique Rear Touchpad (Source: Sony)

The processing speed of VITA is snappy and the graphics performance is impressive. The Sony VITA utilizes an ARM Cortex A9 quad core CPU and a PowerVR SGX543MP4+ quad core GPU. It carries 512mb of system RAM and 128mb of video RAM. This is enough horsepower to drive a casual large screen experience and is perhaps why Sony did not integrate video out (as in the PSP) as such a feature could potentially cannibalize PS3 sales.
Also integrated into the device are a front and back cameras that have face detection, head detection, and head tracking capabilities, stereo speakers, a microphone, a three axis gyroscope, three axis accelerometer, three axis digital compass, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and in the more expensive model, a 3G radio and GPS receiver.

The battery gives three to five hours of play and is not removable. The games are delivered either digitally or on proprietary memory cards which have replaced the UMD discs. The internal storage of the device is also a proprietary memory card, which range in size from 4 to 32GB.

The launch suite of titles is solid. This is in contrast to the 3DS when it launched, for which Nintendo was highly criticized. FIFA, a soccer game, is already one of the top selling titles and together with Uncharted account for 50% of VITA software sales. FIFA utilizes the rear touchpad well, allowing the gamer to tap it for precise shot on goal placement. The VITA’s digital store was working immediately at launch and has a few apps like Flickr (which is very well designed), Netflix, Google Maps, and Facebook (which has been pulled for maintenance).  The device interacts with the Playstation 3 allowing a gamer to pause a game on one device and continue on the other.

My only criticism for the device is that the front and rear cameras (used for video chat, creating personalized avatars, and augmented reality gaming) are only 640x480. I don’t think people would expect the VITA to be a digital camera replacement, but seems they could have squeezed a bit more resolution into the design.

Sony really needs a win and I think the VITA is a win from a design perspective. Sales cannot be judged quickly, and like the 3DS, the device had a slower launch in Japan. This is partially due to the discounted 3DS which launched into the most challenging market for handhelds I’ve seen, as people were acquiring and experimenting with heir first powerful smartphones. However the gee-whiz factor has worn off and I believe the Japanese and global market will make the VITA profitable for Sony over the course of a year.

The PS Vita comes in two versions, a Wi-Fi only for $249.96 (in the US) and a 3G/Wi-Fi version with an 8GB memory card for $299.96 (in the US). Games are typically $39.96 with the popular Uncharted Territory selling for $49.96

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