Livin’ La Vita Loca: Playstation Vita Impressions

With less than a week away, the official launch of the Playstation Vita in the US and UK is almost upon us. I say the “official” launch, because if you’re crazy (like myself), you can go out and buy yourself a First Edition Bundle right now. While that’s technically a good deal – an extra $50 for a case, Little Deviants, and 4 gb memory card – you’re locked into the 3G version of the system, which, for most people, probably isn’t worth the extra $50 over the WiFi version.

Also, if you want the 3G version, it would probably be a lot smarter to wait for the 3G Launch Bundle, which comes with an 8 gb memory card, but not the game or the case – which you can probably do without. Apparently, it also comes with a free Session Pass of AT&T DataConnect (after you pay for a month,), which is odd that the First Edition Bundle didn’t come with that. It also mentions a free PSN game for the Launch Bundle, which when I signed up for my Session Pass, I was told I would get as well. That is, we’ll get that free game 30 days after activation, which even the Launch Bundle has a little disclaimer for. I hope they don’t just give me a voucher for Super Stardust Delta; that’s the first thing I bought for the system, and I’m glad I didn’t wait on that.

I would bet after reading that, you might be a little confused. Don’t fret, this hardware launch is one of the most confusing I’ve ever dealt with in history. That’s the main reason I wanted to write a post up: to try and clear up the fog while getting some good old information out there. So let’s get into the launch bundles themselves, and afterwards we’ll  dive into the meat and potatoes of the hardware.

To unlock your Vita, you peel the page down. (Screenshots are scaled down)

As mentioned above, if you’re itching to get a Vita right now, you can go out and get a First Edition Bundle for $349.99, which comes with a 3G Vita, a pretty nice (but BIG) carrying case, Little Deviants and a 4 gb memory card – which is near useless if you plan to download games. The carrying case is pretty nice, though it doesn’t look as good as what else is available out there. It’s also 100% not pocket-friendly, measuring about 2 inches thick and 6 inches long. Little Deviants seems like a simple mini-game collection that uses most, if not all of the features of the Vita. I haven’t played nearly enough of it to pass judgment, but so far it doesn’t seem like something anyone must have.

Onward to the 22nd, you can get the 3G Launch bundle for $299.99, which comes with a 3G Vita, an 8 gb memory card – much better than the 4 gb one, and some would say almost doubly so – and your free Session Pass (which I think is a month) of AT&T DataConnect. The 8 gb card might not sound like too much, but if you’re buying retail games, it will go far. I bought a 32 gb card (which has 29 gb free when you put it in) with 4 full downloaded Vita games, 1 downloadable-only game and 6 PSP games on the system with 20 gb left free. Uncharted: Golden Abyss sits at 3.2 gb (glad I bought that one retail) and BlazBlue: Continuum Shift EXTEND is the largest memory hog, clocking in at  3.33 gb. Besides those two, most games I’ve seen are around the 1.5gb mark when you download them.

As far as the 3G itself goes, I still haven’t had a chance to use it enough to know if it’s worth the price. You certainly won’t be downloading games or playing any serious multiplayer over 3G, but instead you’ll be playing asynchronous multiplayer (Hot Shots Golf ) or using the “near” functionality with it. The cheapest plan in the States is 250 mb for $14.99, and I have absolutely no indication yet as you how far that will get me. After a few days of actual on-the-go use, I’ll have some decent information to share with the usefulness of the 3G.

"Near" finds Vita players near you to show stats and share rewards.

If you don’t want the 3G version, you can pick up the WiFi Vita on the 22nd for $249.99. That’s it. No bundle, no memory card. Nothing. I’m completely surprised that Sony didn’t throw in at least the 4 gb memory card with the WiFi version, as you’re going to need a memory card to play just about every game on the market. So you have to buy at least a 4 gb card, which is $19.99. The next one up is the 8 gb for $29.99. If you want to download games, you’re going to want at least the 16 gb card, which will set you back $59.99. Finally, if you’re insane like myself, there’s the 32 gb card for a whopping $99.99.

While we’re on the topic of accessories, there is a tiny thing I’d like to mention: I went ahead and bought myself the cradle for the Vita, which is basically a little dock that you plug the AC adapter in, then you can charge your Vita on that. Why? Because I was already spending $450 without any games, so I figured I might as well get a few accessories. The cradle itself is great, and I’d recommend it to anyone who’s interested. Here’s where it gets weird, though. The cradle doesn’t come with its own power supply, so you have to use the one included in the Vita’s box. Knowing this, I ordered myself another AC adapter from Amazon so I could have the cradle plugged in at all times and an extra AC adapter to do whatever with. To my surprise when I opened the box, there is no USB cable in there. So when you spend $15 on the AC adapter, it doesn’t come with any way to physically connect your Vita to the adapter. You have to spend another $15 on a Vita USB cable. That’s insanity! I mean, it’s not the end of the world or anything, but it just seems so out of left field.  I was stunned when I found out. Just a fair warning to anyone in a similar situation.

Alright, so you know about the Vita bundles, and you have some information about the accessories. What about the hardware itself? Did Sony make good on developing a mobile device after what happened to the PSP? The short answer: yes. Compared to the PSP and even the 3DS, the Vita itself is an amazing piece of hardware with some really cool ideas (and some head-scratchers).

The first thing you’ll notice on the device is the screen — and rightfully so. Even paying attention to all the pre-release coverage and knowing all the specs, I wasn’t prepared for the size of the screen.  If you have an iPhone 4 or 4S, the screen is roughly the size of the entire phone, and it looks gorgeous. Also, if you’re a modern smartphone user, you’ll feel right at home with the capacitive touch screen.

The Vita dashboard is snappy and responsive with touch controls.

Speaking of touchscreens, there’s of course the touch-sensitive back of the device, which I have to admit doesn’t seem to work as well as the front screen and just in general feels like a weird addition. It works well enough, but it won’t work at all if another part of your hands is touching it, which is a problem because that’s how you hold the device. I can tell how they want you to hold it, and it feels comfortable enough, but my hands always seem to end up in a position where I’m touching the wrong part of the back, and then when I go to use the back touch for whatever action is required, I have to change my grip around and reorient myself. It’s a minor gripe, but I do feel that it would have been better to leave the back touch out in favor of either a price cut or another feature like force feedback.

The Vita also features both front- and back-facing cameras, which completely confuses me. It makes marginally more sense on the 3DS because that can take 3D pictures, but even that is a gimmick that gets old not long after taking your first picture. From what I can tell, the Vita’s cameras have no such gimmicks and are just poor cameras. The system does come with AR cards to play some Augmented Reality games, but as of writing this I haven’t been able to find them on the Playstation Store, and honestly, I wouldn’t have looked if I weren’t writing this. I mean, there’s the possibility that one of those games is amazing and comparable to today’s games, but really, what are the chances?

Finally, no mobile device in 2012 is complete without some sort of motion sensing. Sigh. The Vita features a gyroscope, an accelerometer and a digital compass. These work perfectly fine, and it’s not the presence of them that annoys more than it is the implementation. There are a lot of games out there that prove motion-based mobile gaming can work really well, but there are a lot more out there that make a good case for banning it from all devices in the future. On the Vita in particular, there’s a second analog stick, so there is absolutely no reason why I would want to move the device around to aim my weapon or camera. That seems silly. Luckily, the games I’ve played let you turn it off, though Uncharted still wants you to use the motion to balance in quicktime event-like moments, but we’ll get into that another time.

Tilt your device or Drake dies.

The hardware controls on the Vita feel great. At first impression, the analog sticks feel weird compared to an Xbox 360 or Playstation 3 controller, but after playing some Super Stardust: Delta for a little bit, they felt perfectly natural to me. You may notice that the face buttons are tiny, and that was one of my initial worries. However, it hasn’t been an issue for me yet, though I imagine people with larger hands might see some problems. The triggers feel a little foreign when shooting a weapon in Uncharted but otherwise feel great. My only gripe so far with the hardware controls so far would be the Start and Select buttons, which are tiny and indented into the system. making them strangely tough to hit. They’re nowhere near as bad as the 3DS’ Start and Select buttons, and I imagine will become easier to hit when I need to as I become more familiar with the device.

Now we move onto the UI, where Sony has made some great decisions and some weird choices. First and foremost, the entire dashboard of the device is controlled by touch alone. Don’t get me wrong, the touch works great and feels awesome, but it’s still a little weird to have these analog sticks and buttons that do absolutely nothing. I’m going to go ahead and make a bold prediction that 99% of all video game players who buy a Vita will try using the physical controls at the initial start-up screen, and at least one more time after setting up the system. Even after reading this. It took me a while to train myself to use the touchscreen, as it’s just something I’m not used to on a gaming device like this. That said, the UI feels great. Everything is fast and snappy, and while some people may not like the way things are organized and displayed, I haven’t had any problems. Though I can see a need for more organization options coming in the future when more games are added to my dashboard.

There are also some weird instances that just make you shake your head but aren’t really that important. For instance, when setting up the device, I was asked to link my Playstation account to the device. Of course, I said yes and typed in my information. Then a little popup told me that I needed to update my device before logging in and kicked me back to the login screen. Just note that at this point, I was never given the chance to update. It’s odd, and not important at all, but the UI is filled with little quirks that remind you this is a system made by Sony.

Edit your dashboard by holding anywhere on the screen.

I think that about covers just about everything besides a few tidbits. The Vita does feature a web browser that’s functional but not terribly good. I will say that the touchscreen keyboard is one of the best I’ve ever used, and it makes entering text over something like the 3DS and especially the PSP much better. “Near” is a neat idea that gives you rewards based on people around you, but the system isn’t officially out yet, and I live in a rural area, so I haven’t gotten much out of it. There are apps called Group Messaging and Party that I have no idea how they work, as I have no PSN friends as of right now (add me: animathias), which I hope will change soon. The 3G version of the device has GPS capabilities, which is exactly what it sounds like and works exactly like it should. Besides Near, I’m not sure of the uses of it as I’m never going to use this for navigation.

Downloading games and apps works as you’d expect and can be done in the background. There’s no need to manually install them this time around, though if you’re playing a game when a game finishes downloading, it will only install when you go back to the dashboard (or I imagine putting the device in sleep mode, though I’m not sure.) Some games disable the network features, though I’m not sure why. I had to wait to play Uncharted until all of my downloads were finished because, for some reason, it would turn off all network features whenever I played it. That’s a strange decision for a single-player game. I also hear Michael Jackson: The Experience HD disables the network features for performance reasons, which makes sense for a rhythm game.

All the media features you would expect are here: photos, music, and movies. I haven’t watched any movies on the Vita yet, but I bet they would look pretty good, though movies at a decent resolution would take up a good bit of space. I’m also not sure what all file types are usable here. That said, the Playstation experience is here and it looks like there are plenty of TV shows and movies available to buy or rent on the PlayStation Store. I’ve also heard that Sony’s music streaming service is available on the Vita, though that’s something I know nothing about personally. It could be something awesome if you’re invested in the Sony ecosystem, though.

The App part of the Store is lacking apps but not potential.

There is a place in the Playstation Store for app downloads, though as of writing this, all that’s in there is Vita Protection Plans. Apparently there will be actual apps suck as Flickr and Twitter in there in the future, and that could make for some interesting additions to the device. It would seem weird to check my Twitter feed on a gaming device, but with the large touchscreen, it wouldn’t be completely odd. I’m very interested to see what apps hit that section of the store in the future. Being a Sony product, I bet Netflix or Pandora are out of the question, but those would be awesome additions.

The last thing I wanted to touch on: battery life. I’ve gone through a couple of cycles now, and it looks like I can get anywhere from 3 to 4 hours of gaming in before having to charge. If you’re not playing games during that entire time, you’ll probably squeeze upwards of 4.5 hours out of it. That’s certainly not great, but not absolutely horrible either. I can see that understandably being a deal-breaker for some, but it’s not unexpected for a device like this. There are also things you can do to extend the battery life such as turning down the brightness, disabling WiFi / 3G and turning off Bluetooth (should you need to).

Bring up this handy guy by holding the PS button.

That will do it. I hope you found this informative, and I hope it helped you make a purchasing decision. As a final note, I will say that I am really enjoying my time with the Vita, and I’m glad I bought one, though I probably wouldn’t have bought the First Edition Bundle. However, if this post helps even one person make a decision, then I’ll consider it worth it to get it early. If you have any questions, feel free to leave it in the comment thread, and I’ll try to answer as best I can.

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  1. Thanks for giving such an informative review of it. I have one ordered already but it’s nice to get some quality information about it now while I still have to wait a week for mine! (so freaking excited) I’m looking forward to seeing some reviews for the games on here

  2. Diarmuid

    Very good review. Have a Wifi model pre-ordered. Is it true the WiFi model will not have GPS?

    • Thank you. That is true. The WiFi model will be without GPS. I’m not sure if it’s missing the Maps app or not, and even though I skimmed over it, it’s actually a decent app on par with the iPhone.

  3. D Bark

    Matthew J, I’m a little confused. The “First Edition” bundle w/ 4gb (2/15/12) did not come with a dataconnect plan for free or it did and the (2/22/12) 3g bundle w/ 8gb has a dataconnect plan offerring that I first have to pay $15 to AT&T for the first 30 days before the FREE 250mb plan kick in?

    • As far as I can tell, the First Edition (4 gb, 2/15) bundle does not come with a free “Session” (as they keep calling it, which is weird) of the DataConnect. I may be surprised at the end of my first month and be treated to a free month, but nowhere in the packaging or sign up process was a free session mentioned.
      For the Launch Bundle (8 gb, 2/22) a lot of the marketing and product descriptions mention a complimentary session. From what I’ve gathered, there will be a coupon code in the packaging that you enter during the sign up process, though you’re right that the free 250 mb plan activates after your first paid session expires.

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