In just a few days, Sony will make an unusual bet in a world where the appeal of many new devices is their versatility. On Feb. 22, the company will release a dedicated handheld gaming system called the PlayStation Vita into the market — probably the most advanced of its kind.
Into a market, mind you, that is crowded with traditional home consoles and Nintendo’s DSi and 3DS devices, not to mention iPhones, iPads and dozens of iterations of Android smartphones and tablets. All capable gaming platforms in their own right.
Yes, it’s a tough time to be a new gaming handheld, though the Vita has more going for it than just gaming (even if that is the main focus here).
The $249.99 device is stacked in the hardware department. The Vita boasts a beautiful, five-inch organic LED display that is multi-touch capable and relatively high-resolution. I say “relatively” because even though the 960- by 544-pixel display looks tremendous, it’s lower in pixel count than two popular smartphones on the market: Apple’s iPhone 4S, and the Samsung Galaxy Nexus, the flagship Android device. That’s a bit of a surprise given the screen real estate here, and since Sony touts the Vita’s movie-playing ability.
The Vita also packs a speedy processor, cameras on the front and back, Wi-Fi (a 3G-equipped model on AT&T’s network is available for an additional $50) and Bluetooth, and has a slot for memory cards from 4GB to 32GB. Weirdly, there’s no on-board storage — you have to use a proprietary Sony card, and the base model doesn’t include one in the box. That means you’ll have to spend at least another $20 to store any content on the device.
Externally — unlike your smartphone — the Vita is loaded with physical controls. Besides the touch screen, there’s a full directional pad, dual analog sticks, four main game buttons, two shoulder triggers, a “home” button, and select and start buttons. Along the top edge of the system is a power button and volume controls. Oh, and did I mention that the back of the device is a touch panel nearly as large as the screen? It is.
Playing games on the Vita is as close as you’ll get to holding an Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 controller in your hand when you’re out and about. Though controls on the device are excellent, I found the analog sticks to be a bit on the small side, and though the back touch panel is novel, in games like “Uncharted: Golden Abyss,” it’s more annoying than useful.
What isn’t annoying, however, are the system’s graphics. The Vita’s graphics performance is easily the best I’ve seen in any handheld game system. Visuals in the “Uncharted” title are particularly impressive, with beautiful lighting effects, smooth animation and characters that actually seem to emote, thanks to pristine facial details. I found myself getting lost in the game as I would on a home console.
Besides the gaming titles (there will be about 30 available at launch), Sony is making its music and video offerings available on the Vita via its PlayStation Network, as well as head-to-head gaming between both Vita players and PlayStation 3 users.
But Sony knows it has to compete with much more robust devices such as that iPhone in your pocket, so the company is including a Web browser and says that apps such as Twitter, Foursquare and Skype will be available once the handheld launches. You’ll also have access to Google Maps, a friend-finding app called Near and Sony’s group messaging service. Even the Vita’s operating system kind of looks and feels like a smartphone’s — though it’s more childish and far less cohesive.
My biggest question and concern about the Vita is tied to that point. Although the gaming is excellent on the handheld, it is not mind-blowingly better than really killer smartphone gaming experiences, such as Electronic Arts’ “Dead Space” for Android and iOS, or the incredible “Infinity Blade II.” It’s hard to imagine buying and carrying around this big, expensive system when there are very capable gaming experiences to be had in much more more integrated devices (and frankly for less dough).
At the end of the day, the Vita feels very much like an enthusiast device, or maybe something you get your kids — if you’re trying to put off that moment when they ask for a smartphone so they can text their friends. It feels like the last of its kind: a powerful gaming device from an age when the phone you carried with you didn’t do pretty much everything. Including play really good games.
As it stands, the Vita is the best handheld gaming console I’ve ever used, but I still don’t think I’ll be putting it in my bag when I leave the house.
Joshua Topolsky is the founding editor in chief of the Verge (www.theverge.com), a technology news Web site.