Smartphones have replaced lots of types of small devices. iOS and Android have made it easy to build apps that perform all kinds of functions, replacing other standalone devices like media players and GPS. It's been wondered if they would replace handheld gaming devices, and for many people they have. For awhile, I thought they had, at least for my needs. But after trying to play games on touchscreen-only devices for years, I've largely felt unenthused about the deeper and more engaging games that would come from big studios. These games required a higher level of precision control that touchscreens just couldn't deliver.

The PS Vita caught my attention about a month before its launch in the US. It combines a lot of the best features of smartphones with the controls of console games. It has a gorgeous, large, high-resolution touchscreen (and a back panel that is touch-sensitive), as well as a tilt sensor and cameras for augmented reality games. But it also has almost all of the buttons of a typical PS3 controller, including two analog sticks. Sony managed to cram all of this functionality into a device that, while large, is not too big to fit into my pocket, and with long enough battery life for a busy day interspersed with some gaming. The combination of apps and games (which I will describe as just "apps" for the sake of this review) is powerful, and the hardware power and display size make it a compelling device.

Hardware

Put simply, the Vita is a delight to look at. Its black and silver case is easy on the eyes, and falls away while playing games. The device itself is almost entirely plastic, which does make it feel a little bit cheaper than the iPhone, but it's still quite comfortable to hold, if you don't have to use the back touch sensor (more on this below). The physical controls are small, but placed well; I have no difficulty moving my hands between the buttons and the analog sticks for the kind of twitch gaming that hardware buttons excel at.

The display is stunning to look at; at 220 DPI, pixels are almost never noticeable, and the color depth and contrast provide some incredible graphics. The pixel density is not as tight as the newest iPhones or Android phones, but it's just not an issue. The screen itself has a multitouchscreen with amazingly low latency; it feels ever-so-slightly faster to swipe something than the iPhone does (which may be real or not, but it's at least as good). There were some minor issues with the display. It seems prone to banding in a few cases (an issue where a smooth transition between two colors appears as stripes, or bands, on the display). And the graphics, while high-resolution, occasionally showed some slight jagged edges, especially in the OS UI. These issues are tiny, though, and aren't hugely apparent in gameplay.

Spanning the back of the device is a touch sensor which can be used for controlling games, which is as responsive as the front, but is almost too large. There are grips for your fingers, but these grips are too small for my hands. If you need to use them for a game which relies on the back touch sensor, I have to grip the device somewhat awkwardly. It's not uncomfortable, but it does make me worry a bit that I will drop the device due to loose grip (a problem that has never actually happened in use).

There are a number of input ports on the device. Along the top are two trays, one containing an accessory port, and one for inserting the tiny game cartridges. These trays have a plastic cap that I found incredibly difficult and frustrating to open with just my hands, which will probably limit how many physical games I end up buying versus downloading through the store. Along the bottom is a proprietary "multi-use" port similar to Apple's dock connector, a headphone jack, and a memory card slot. The memory card is the only covered port, which is thankfully far easier to open than the ports on top. I have to wonder if this was a conscious decision by Sony to encourage purchasing games over the Internet; make the old-style games hard to replace, but make the memory card (which you can store downloaded games on) easy to replace, and people will tend to buy more online. There's also front and rear cameras; these take terrible photos/videos, and are basically useless for anything other than augmented reality games, which are actually really interesting (more on that in the Games section below). But it's not like you're buying this to replace a camera anyway.

The usual wireless technologies are here. Wi-Fi worked pretty well and generally connected automatically to 802.11b/g/n networks. I paired my Sennheiser MM 100 Bluetooth headphones to the Vita and they sounded great. You can also get a version of the Vita with 3G data. I ran into several issues with these in common use. While I did not get the 3G model, it's limited to 20 MB downloads (so basically no games), and multiplayer games cannot be played over 3G. It's basically useful for messaging and browsing, and that's about it. If you have a smartphone with tethering, it's probably best to just stick with that. And while the Vita had no issue auto-connecting to the Wi-Fi at my home and my office, it didn't seem to want to connect to my iPhone's tethering Wi-Fi until I went into the settings app and turned it on. Similarly, the Vita had no end of trouble automatically connecting, to my Bluetooth headphones, leading to a similar jump through the settings app. Hopefully these are 1.0 issues resolved with software updates, but it limits their use when you only have 10 minutes to play a quick game.

OS

The system OS is pretty well thought out in terms of interaction, though it has some rough edges. It's completely controlled by tapping and gestures on the touchscreen; none of the buttons do anything. You can either use your index finger, or the combination of both thumbs, to access every pixel on screen, and all the gestures are usable by just a single thumb. This might be an issue if you have smaller hands, but I have no issues with it. Navigation around the home screen is more fluid than any touch device I've ever used, and animates at very high framerate (probably 60 FPS).

Your apps are listed on the leftmost screen, stored on multiple pages you can access by swiping vertically. You can organize them as you would on a smartphone, and assign different wallpapers to each page. Tapping on any icon opens its LiveArea, which you can use to then launch the game. This is one thing I rather dislike about the Vita OS, as it requires two taps to open anything.

To the right of the app pages, you can find the list of recently running apps. Each shows what Sony calls a "LiveArea", a nearly full-screen page showing information about the game, some meta controls, and recent activity about the game (when you last played, recent Trophies you've gotten, etc.). App developers can place stuff on the LiveArea, such as announcements and links to downloadable content. The system also shows some common controls for apps, like an update button, a button to do a web search for the game name, and on-device instruction manuals for the games. You can close any of the LiveAreas just by swiping from the upper right to the bottom left, with a nice paper effect of throwing the page away.

The graphical style of the OS is not great, but it's livable. App icons are glossy bubbles on the home screen, which looks kind of cheesy. As far as I can tell, the Vita doesn't use anti-aliasing (at least on the home screen), which causes the round bubbles to appear extremely jaggy. If the display were higher resolution, this might work, but it just isn't quite high enough to warrant eliminating anti-aliasing. The LiveAreas look nice, but some of the stock apps use this to excess with bright, conflicting colors that just look under-designed. But it works, and it's intuitive.

The interaction between software and the OS is generally pretty great. When inside an app, the OS disappears except for a few interactions (loading/saving data, for example). Some popups will appear occasionally, such as when you unlock a Trophy or a friend comes online, in the upper right corner. At any time you can press the PlayStation button to suspend the app and return to its LiveArea; you can then switch to a few of the other apps, such as Settings or the Twitter app, do something, and return to the app in the exact same state. Unfortunately you can only have one app open at a time, which can be annoying (specifically for the Browser app). But this doesn't get in the way all too often.

Apps

The Vita comes with a handful of stock apps, none of which are particularly great, but they get the job done. I haven't gotten to play in-depth with all of them, primarily as this is a gaming device first. The Friends app lists your PSN friends and who is online, but has a lot of whitespace, leaving you to see only 6 people onscreen at a time. The Messaging app is handy for chatting with your friends, and has no setup other than your PSN account, which is handy. Maps is pretty capable, using your geolocation to show you places and driving/walking directions, and storing favorites (but has no public transit, which is a dealbreaker for me personally). The Browser is okay, and can view basic pages, but anything taking advantage of newer HTML5 features will probably not render well. Hopefully these are 1.0 issues that will be improved with system updates

As of this writing there are four apps you can download from the PS Store - LiveTweet, Facebook, Flickr, and Netflix. I could not get the Facebook app to work, which just showed a "connecting to Facebook services failed" dialog and a cryptic error code. The Netflix app was slow and not particularly aesthetically pleasing, but it worked and you can stream video on it, pretty fast (and video plays very well). The best app is definitely the Twitter app, LiveTweet, which is a surprisingly full-featured Twitter client, supporting reading your timelines, pull-to-refresh, uploading images to the Twitter image sharing service, and lots of other little nuances in Twitter. It's a pretty great app, though it has some polish issues that will surely be resolved in updates.

The PS Store is the app you use to buy stuff and download free apps. It features one of the best LiveAreas in the system, showing popular content that you can find within the store. The Store itself works pretty well, albeit slowly and with some organization problems. You can see featured apps, new releases, and the most popular downloads. There are also a number of categories, such as Vita-specific games, PSP games, games that run on either the Vita or the PS3, and smaller games called "minis". These categories are generally grouped by their title, which is weird for me, as I prefer exploring all the games, not just the ones whose first letter is betweeen E and H. You can also sort games by genre, which is probably my favorite view (but is inexplicably buried at the end of the list). There are a number of genres (including both the "Shooters" genre and the "Shooting" genre) to explore games. Sadly the game pages themselves don't show screenshots, previews, or customer reviews; just an aggregate rating, a description, and the ESRB rating. This should really be fleshed out to show more detail, similar to the App Store or the Android Market.

UI-wise, there are some nice affordances. If you reach the end of a scrollable area, the content will either stretch (in the case of a single piece of content like a web page), or the items in the list will space themselves out (in the case of the Twitter or Messaging apps). Apps can fire off notifications, which appear in any app as a bubble and are collected in a notification space on the home screen, accessible by tapping the bubble in the upper right corner. Text input is generally easy, although there is no selection/cut/copy/paste (though you can tap-hold anywhere to zoom into the text to place the cursor where you like). The keyboard is pretty good, with a fairly intuitive layout and some OK autocorrect features which work similarly to Android's suggestion tray above the keyboard.

Games

There are over a dozen full Vita games available at launch, as well as a huge online catalog of PSP ports and mini games you can download through the PS Store. Of the games available at launch, I've played:

  • FIFA '12 (Vita)
  • Uncharted: Golden Abyss (Vita)
  • Unit 13 (Vita, demo)
  • Fireworks (Vita, a tech demo)
  • Final Fantasy IV (PSP)

So far, my favorites have been FIFA '12 and Final Fantasy IV. FIFA is EA's well-known soccer game, and the extent of the game is pretty huge for a portable device. It's so complete, it feels like it belongs on my TV. Tons of gameplay modes, a huge array of national teams, an extensive Career Mode, and tons of character customization. The touchscreen controls are OK, but can be kind of gimmicky and in practice are only occasionally useful. It often takes too long to move your hand from the buttons to the touchscreen and back to use in action-packed gaming. It's more useful for throw-ins and other less intense moments. The rear touch surface lets you shoot the ball on goal extremely accurately, and this is where the touch controls truly shine in FIFA. And it just looks amazing.

Final Fantasy IV is a remake of the SNES original, one of the greatest Japanese RPGs ever made. Square Enix completely remade the graphics and made a great version for the PSP, and it looks great on the Vita's screen. PSP games have some additional features on the Vita, accessed by tap-holding on the touchscreen, such as changing how the image is upscaled and colored, determining which camera to use, and picking what to control with the right analog stick. If the $29 price tag is off-putting for a 30 year old game, at least you're getting a polished remake with high-quality pixel graphics with cutscenes and video, and a bunch of supplemental material.

Uncharted was a game I was looking forward to, but it has mostly been disappointing. The jagged edge effect is more noticeable here than in any of the other games, simply because there's a lot going on onscreen. The game has so far tended to hold your hand throughout the entire process; walk for 50 feet, then a cutscene telling you exactly where to look and what to do. The combat controls are fairly good, but with one huge exception. If an enemy gets too close to you, it enters "melee mode", which wants you to use the touchscreen to draw gestures on how to attack your opponent. As with FIFA, the switch from physical buttons to touchscreen is not fast, and the whole thing is somewhat jarring. The game uses the touchscreen for some "puzzles", which are so far pretty boring and repetitive tasks like "wipe this thing off" and "spin this object around to look at it". The one good use of the touchscreen is climbing. You can draw a gesture along rock walls to signal to the character where to climb, which is handy and doesn't seem to come during fights.

Unit 13 is a tactical shooter game by Sony, which makes good use of the physical controls of the device. The graphics look pretty good, but not stellar, mostly like a PS2 game. The controls work very well, and I had no problems with moving around or hitting my target. And the game doesn't coddle you - it doesn't point out where enemies are, and it will happily let you die mid-mission if you take a few shots from the enemy. It makes light use of the touchscreen for controls, but it does so when you're supposed to have cleared the room of targets, so you're encouraged to avoid using it while in twitch mode, and to use it when things calm down. That's smart use of the touchscreen, and I hope more game developers will do that. I only have the demo, but will probably pick up the full game soon.

Fireworks is a free tech demo published by Sony that uses the augmented reality feature of the Vita very nicely. The system comes with six AR "cards", which are about as big as the Vita, with QR-like shapes printed on them. The idea is that you set one of these down on a table, point the Vita at it, and the camera will recognize the card and project graphics on top of it. In the case of Fireworks, it showed a small house which was shooting off fireworks, and you tap the round to make it explode. I've played AR games and apps on iPhone, and found it to be lacking; if you moved the device, it was too slow to respond, leading to a disconnect between the real world and the augmented world. Not so on the Vita. The camera, display, and accelerometer work extremely well together, and it really feels like you're projecting onto the real world. If you move the device, the lag it takes to see the game update is nearly imperceptible. I can't really explain this one, you just have to see it in action. I hope to see more games (and apps) take advantage of this.

In general, games and demos look great, and the physical controls are quite snappy. This truly was built to be a gaming system first, and it shows. Touchscreen input is OK for instances where you don't have to make a lightning fast reaction, or don't need accuracy beyond a tap or a swipe, but you're not going to want to do it often. It sucks for all the reasons intense games suck on touchscreen-only devices. I'd love to see more use of the rear touch surface, though, which is handy because your hands are already there. And the augmented reality stuff could open up some really awesome possibilities, if everyone manages to keep from losing their AR cards.

Future

Sony is propositioning this as another long-life console, like they are with the PS3. It very well could be; it certainly has the raw horsepower, a great (if maybe too large for the average person) form factor, and a wonderful blend of console mainstays and fresher smartphone ideas. It's pretty clear that the smartphone manufacturers aren't terribly interested in making the input side of gaming much better. And Nintendo's 3DS is gaining some traction, but is certainly not as big a success as they'd hoped. The big question remains, can a gaming device remain a standalone product and gain enough traction to warrant being a separate device?

I, for one, hope so. The Vita is extremely capable and, with some updates to the stock OS/apps and some additional software, could be (and this is probably a stretch) a competitor to the iPod touch. It makes sense to me that, as people want to use technology in ever-more-mobile spaces, they'd want to bring powerful games along with them, and smartphones just can't provide that beyond flinging birds and other simple games. The Vita shines because of its ability to provide the immersive experience, and it does that very well. I can't remember ever seeing three hours disappear playing an iPhone game; I did that this weekend on the Vita.

One way they can definitely attract consumers is by expanding the available apps to include all kinds of content, as well as indie games. The mobile software industry is exploding right now on all platforms that offer everyone the ability to tinker, from massive companies to hobby hackers to teenagers. A Vita that ignores that opportunity is leaving money on the table, both from lost sales of software to unpurchased devices. Sony has announced that they're bringing an SDK for developers, called the PlayStation Suite, but it's unclear if this will be a less restricted approach like on iOS and Android, or a locked down and tightly controlled approval process that has been the status quo in the gaming industry since its inception.

If Sony can keep game makers interested in bringing massive new titles to the Vita, we are probably looking at some of the best days for mobile gaming ahead. Hopefully customers will notice, and be willing to fork over the premium for a better gaming experience. But it will be a tougher sell in a world of mobile computers crammed into smartphones.

Conclusion

Five days in, I love my Vita. I've been spending at least an hour or two on it every day, and that's only been going up. The games are pretty great for first-gen titles. This truly feels like a console experience merged with the best ideas the smartphone world has been building for years. There are some 1.0 issues, and some hardware quirks that are metaphorical rough edges, but the overall experience is solid and thought out. If you are a fan of gaming, or are disappointed in the state of gaming on cell phones, a Vita will be a great asset to you. Hopefully Sony can sell a bunch of these things and keep game developers interested over the long run. And hopefully they open it up to indies and app developers to add that much more value as a great Internet communication device.

Edit 2/27/2012: As Kevin Ballard pointed out, I incorrectly called the LiveArea feature "LiveTile", which is actually a feature of Windows Phone 7. The Vita's feature is called LiveArea.