The Vita arrives in a piano black guise and that glossy finish is pretty hungry for your fingerprints. It's likely to pick up more than its fair share with the double touchscreen setup found here. In our hands, the Vita feels pretty similar to the original launch PSP, although it's impressively light for all the high-end internals. The 3G / WiFi model weights in at 279g (9.8 ounces), matching the first generation Sony handheld, although it remains heavier than the 3000 series, which scraped underneath 190g (6.7 ounces). The 3DS is also slightly lighter, although due to its clam-shell composition, it's a little thicker when in transit. Your eyes will be immediately drawn to the broad 5-inch OLED capacitive touchscreen. The apparently Samsung-manufactured screen makes the most of its 960 x 544 resolution and the OLED technology makes for superb viewing angles, although we'd have appreciated a bit more brightness here for outdoor play. Videos downloaded from the PlayStation Store are optimized for the Vita's not-so common resolution and are sharp and vivid. Games also sparkle, with an occasional frame-rate wobble that we're (optimistically) hoping disappears when developers get to grips with the new hardware.
The touchscreen is paired with another narrower patterned touch panel across the back. We, however, didn't just come here for touchscreen gaming -- let's take a look at the controls. You'll find them evenly distributed on either side of the screen. On the left side you'll find a d-pad slightly smaller than the one found on both its predecessor and the DualShock controller. Underneath it resides the primary analog stick, which is suitably 'sticky 'enough for play, although it seems to give a little easier than the sticks on the PSP and the PS3 controller.
Finally, a PlayStation button anchors you to the UI's home screen whenever it's pressed. Press it in tandem with the start button and you can take a screen grab in both the UI and (some) games. Like the PlayStation button, both the start and select buttons lie flush with the screen, this time joining Sony's trademark button medley and the (increasingly necessary) second analog stick on the right side. The pair of shoulder buttons round out the controls and, like we mentioned in our first hands-on, seem a tad livelier than those found on the PSP. Sound like enough control options? Well, don't forget that there's also the same Sixaxis motion controls found in the PS3 controllers.
Touring the rest of the hardware, there are two slots along the top edge of the Vita, both protected with silvery plastic covers. While the Vita-labeled cover on the left takes the new proprietary game cards, the port discovered under the right hasn't been identified -- not even in the Vita's own literature. Next to the covers, you'll find a design nod to the PSP Go, with some reassuringly sturdy volume controls and the power button. Standby mode is a brief button press away, while you'll need to depress for three seconds for a full shutdown.
A cover on the left edge accepts the SIM card for 3G connectivity, with Sony's new game memory storage slot located at the base.The proprietary connection for power is also here and around the back, the aforementioned capacitive touchpad is flanked by two grip pads to rest the device comfortably in your hands. They'll also raise the Vita slightly off the surface, sidestepping the chances of scuffing the symbol patterned touchpad. The placement here seems better located for petite hands, as we found our fingers typically placed themselves closer to the center. A metallic plastic strip that runs around the circumference of the device extends into two strap loops at the bottom of each corner.
Inside, it's another quad-core beast, an ARM Cortex A9 with an additional SGX54MP4+ GPU AND 512MB of memory and an additional 128MBs of VRAM. When it comes to raw specs, it simply dwarfs the PSP. In fact, it also has double the RAM of the PS3, although that guy strikes back with more dedicated VRAM (256MB versus 128MB for the Vita). Unfortunately, while we expected the built-in apps to jump into action this generally wasn't the case -- the browser, in particular, puts on an especially poor performance. Games, which are understandly quite complex, often take their time to load up, but when they do, they offer us a very visible jump on the scale and detail of what we've come to expect from portable gaming. Sound quality is also also suitably crisp, with rich noises projecting out from the two stereo speakers.
If the Vita had us worried about anything, it was reports of a lightweight battery. Three hours? That's on par with the 3DS, which didn't earn any points in the power department either. Like the PSP Go, there's no removable battery, so how does it cope? Were we going to be forever tethered to the AC socket? We tried several different run-down tests the get to the bottom of this. On an all-out gaming test, it looks like the rumors were right - you're looking at around three hours of playtime. It took us around an hour and a half to recharge from zero to full, during continued use. That aside, you'll be wanting to take some sort of power cable with you. USB recharging is possible, but boy, it's slow.
In more casual use, with a smattering of half-hour gaming sessions, some Twitter, video and music, this stretched out to around five hours, but it's very much dependent on use. Near, the Vita's location-based social network seems to assist in bringing the battery to an early demise. We were unable to get the DoCoMo-connected Japanese variant to connect with our own SIM cards, but we'd imagine 3G use would be even more taxing on the battery. It's hard not to take issue with the Vita's longevity, or lack of. Would it have been too hard for Sony to bulk up the proportions of its latest handheld to offer us a more substantial battery life? It's not going win any prizes for being the thinnest slice of gadget we've seen this year -- to handle it properly, we're pretty glad there's some depth to the Vita. Hopefully Sony -- or some prescient third-party manufacturers -- won't take long to offer up a subtle battery-extending peripheral, but this is something the electronics giant could have seen coming much earlier. Also, we wonder how a life-extending batter grip might piggyback on this handheld without blocking its rear touchpad.
The Vita's UI is smooth and ran mostly untroubled by our multitasking. If you've dealt with any smartphones in the last few years, you'll know exactly how to feel your way around the device. Even if you haven't, navigation remains very intuitive. As we touched on during our UI run-through, we're able to flick through running programs with a horizontal swipe. Closing unwanted apps involves a diagonal motion and a cool page-flipping animation, which lifts it away. The gentle inoffensive backing music and general bubbly design reminds us of the UI found on Nintendo's recent hardware. It's hard to complain when it's this gentle, although some more customization on wallpapers and that muzak would have been nice .
The apparently resource-heavy web browser is locked-down during gameplay, although you'll be able to hop to music, your friends list and Twitter -- presumably to rave about your new favorite console. The browser itself, well... it works. Despite the touchscreen interface, rendering is slow and we suffered plenty of tiling. You'll find it takes an age for pages to load, even on a WiFi connection, and scrolling through a page seems to discard the previous parts of the page you've already seen. The capacitive screen makes this games console a triumph for typing in web addresses and tweeting, however. There are suggested words and even a customizable dictionary all built-in -- we'd love to see some version of Gmail on this 5-inch screen.
Other apps are relatively short on supply -- there's a Twitter client available in the PlayStation Store, and some lightweight Facebook functionality within the PlayStation network. Will third-party devs be willing to port their ware to the Vita, and jump through the PlaySation Store hoops? We guess that'll depend on sales, but for the moment, the app cupboard remains pretty bare. Connectivity with both the PlayStation 3 and PC is (at the moment) the only way to drag content off and onto the PS Vita, and no, there's no native Mac support here. It's worth mentioning that a lack of built-in storage means your media content will have bunk up with any game saves you've got on that proprietary Vita memory card. We also hope that the expanded controls (second analog sticks are a necessity for a lot of Sony's back-catalog) will improve the availability of future PS3 titles that can be remotely played. At the moment, remote play remains an extra option for streaming media from your more capacious "main" console.
The Vita is a beast. The first-string gaming selection really gives us a scale of portable gaming not seen before, while the ability to dip in and out remains effortless. For extended play, the OLED screen is sharp and comfortable on the eyes, although we worry how long it'll last unblemished in the rough-and-tumble of everyday use. The controls, too, soon felt familiar to these gaming paws. The additional analog stick now makes the device a close substitute for the PS3's DualShock. With the upgraded screen resolution, Remote Play is also stepped up -- for the games it does work with.
It's the extra flourishes like the pattern touchpanel on the back and software transitions that make this yet another stylish slab of hardware from Sony. However, there's something here that needs some attention -- we need longer battery life. Like we said in our 3DS review, it's a high price for a handheld device that lasts through just three hours of playtime -- a battery performance that's enough to make even the Thunderbolt smirk. We'd be willing to add some more bulk to the device's svelte frame for the privilege. Likewise, the games also attract a similar premium as Sony attempts to make two new proprietary media cards a success.
The cost will put it at odds with the new casual gamer ethos that's continuing to dominate the likes of Android and iOS. However, there's still nothing on these nascent gaming platforms that can stand up to the sheer scale of Uncharted. Until that happens with a $5 price tag, there certainly remains a space for this kind of premium gaming. Can you resist until Sony does the inevitable and brings out a thinner, less power hungry model? While we're not sure how many new fans the Vita's going to attract (and yes, that battery life will surely be a deal-breaker for many), the sheer spectacle of some of these launch games may have us hooked again on portable gaming. For the gaming faithful, we've found your first gadget buy of 2012.