Feb 24, 2012

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PlayStation Vita Review

The Device

The first time I actually got to play and handle a Vita, my initial shock was over how incredibly light the device was, without feeling cheap in any way.  It’s about the size of a DSi XL, maybe just a smidge wider, but it definitely is much lighter.  Even my PSP felt like a piece of lead after a day of playing around with my Vita. It’s also a pretty damn sexy little machine, if I do say so myself – that was my first impression when the Vita was first released, and it definitely lives up to the pictures.

Initially, I was worried about the placement of some of the buttons and ports and so forth, but after using the Vita for a couple days, it’s definitely obvious Sony planned things out, even if it might take some getting used to if you’re coming off a PSP. For example, the volume and power buttons are both on the top of the machine, which I wasn’t too thrilled about initially. However, because of the touch interface, you will often find yourself holding the Vita in a way that would have you constantly hitting the volume and power buttons my mistake were they on the side or bottom of the handheld.

The PS button is definitely ideally placed, and easy to reach regardless of how you’re holding the device, and it will glow or blink in various colors to indicate the power status (charging, sleeping, etc.). The shoulder buttons also feel nice–responsive, but not too springy. I was initially worried about the smaller face buttons/dpad, but their reduced size isn’t an issue, and the analog sticks, while small, are a welcome relief from the PSP’s nub.  The only issue I have is despite the obvious attempt at something slightly more ergonomic (with slightly recessed finger grooves on the back), I’m still not thrilled by how the device feels in hand when playing for extended periods of time.

I was never a big fan of the PSP for this reason, and the Vita, which retains the same basic layout, has some of the same issues as its predecessor. The addition of the two analog sticks also complicate matters, and I don’t foresee the Vita being something that’s comfortable to play for long periods at a time. I also am not thrilled by the placement and recessed nature of the start/select buttons; I found them difficult to find by feel while playing, but perhaps this will be something I’ll get used to.

The speakers are also fairly awkwardly placed; depending on how you hold the system, it’s likely that at least one of your fingers will be covering them while playing, especially if it’s a game that uses traditional controls. Sound from the speakers, even without your fingers blocking them, is rather flat, however, and it’s obvious that Sony intends you to play with headphones. Sound through headphones is surprisingly rich and deep, even with a cheap pair, so if you’re playing a game where sound is important, I suggest plugging in.

Speaking of headphones, the jack is on the bottom of the device, next to the USB port. Sony has abandoned mini-USB for their own proprietary plug, which then connects to the AC adapter for charging purposes, similar to the way iOS devices operate. One downside to this design is you can actually very easily insert the USB cord incorrectly without realizing it, and wonder why your PC or PS3 won’t recognize your Vita or why it isn’t charging (hint: the faint PS logo has to face up). I’m honestly not sure why Sony did this, and it also seems like it might be possible to break or bend the connection since they went with a male port instead of a female–so be careful when plugging and unplugging that cord. A small inconspicuous door on the bottom back of the device is for your memory card, and I’m not incredibly thrilled with the design; it’s obvious Sony doesn’t intend you to do a lot of memory card swapping. Not only is it awkward to insert and remove the card, the door seems a little flimsy and I wouldn’t be surprised if it breaks on a lot of people.

The top of the Vita has the power and volume buttons on opposite sides, with the ports for Vita game cards and accessories. These are shielded by doors that will remind you of the memory card port on the PSP, and makes me wish that the memory card port had been designed similarly on the Vita. I didn’t have any retail games to test the port with, but I imagine it is simple “push” to insert and eject like it is on the PSP’s memory card slot.

The Vita also has two built-in cameras, one in the front, just above the face buttons, and one in the back, above the rear touchpad. The back camera is dead center and shielded somewhat, although it’s inevitable that you’ll get fingerprints on its outer cover. From my experience, though, it didn’t inhibit the camera’s function any. The system also has a built-in mic on the bottom back of the device, and I found it had no problem picking up my voice when held normally.

The camera UI is simple and easy to use. You can’t zoom, but you can switch between the front and back cameras, and with the latest firmware update, take both still photos and videos. The quality isn’t fantastic, as you can see from the sample picture at left (or this other image I took), but it’s likely you won’t be using your Vita as your primary camera/camcorder anyway. If you want an example of what the video quality is like, I took a sample you can view here.

The Vita’s two touch screens are fairly responsive, and will get covered in fingerprints quickly. Cleaning is all you can do right now for the back pad, but you might want to consider investing in a screen protector for the front screen. I went with HORI and was very happy with it. It covers the screen entirely without any added glare or annoying air bubbles, and I find it actually keeps fingerprints at bay. Using the rear touchscreen definitely takes getting used to, but as they stand, the overall screens work well.

The 5″ OLED is pretty impressive, with some apps and games looking incredible while others show their flaws. Again, I think it’s a shame there’s no auto-brightness option, or an easy way to adjust the brightness without having to go through all the menus . Still, this is a minor flaw. I did test the Vita in both ambient lighting, at night (with some light and in total darkness), and outside to see how the screen held up in these different conditions.

I know some people have complained the Vita doesn’t do well in the dark (with white or grey artifacting) or in sunlight. Personally, I found the Vita’s screen worked best in dark- or near darkness, with the screen really popping. I didn’t see any problems even with solid black screens in a pitch-dark room (yes, that picture is of a shot of a black loading screen on the Vita in a pitch-dark room), as some reported (and as was apparently an issue on the original Japanese models). Outside, you will notice glare on the screen and may want to knock the brightness up, but really, you’ll see issues with any backlit device you try to use in bright sunlight.

In general, the Vita is a well designed handheld, but its large size may be a problem with those of you with smaller hands. I actually have fairly large hands for a woman, so other than some issues with the overall ergonomics of the device, I didn’t really have any problems with its size or layout; of course, some games may ask for more awkward tasks that may lead to frustration. Due to its bulk and analog sticks, however, you might find the device isn’t something you just shove in a pocket–making a case or pouch a must. This might be a deal-breaker for some; personally, I slipped mine into a (gasp) Club Nintendo pouch, which I found worked pretty well until a better case comes along.

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About Rebecca Quintana

Currently playing Animal Crossing: New Leaf. I've fallen in love with twitter; follow me if you're interested in some good game-, writing-, or book-related conversation: @rrquinta.