Sony PlayStation Vita (Wi-Fi)

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Editors' note: This review does not reflect my experience with wireless 3G performance. Sony will be sending me the required SIM card at a later date. When this service is available, I will update the review accordingly.

Originally referred to as the NGP or Next Generation Portable, the Sony PlayStation Vita is the follow-up to the PlayStation Portable (or PSP) that was introduced back in March of 2005. The Vita was officially named and priced at Sony's E3 2011 press conference.

At the time of the announcement, it seemed that Nintendo's 3DS was already in trouble, with its disappointing launch lineup, an audience divided over 3D, and a short battery life atypical of Nintendo handhelds. All this plus a matching $250 price point gave Sony all of the momentum going in to the next-generation battle of portable consoles.

While Sony had teased the Vita's release for the 2011 holiday season, only Japan got to see the Vita for sale before the new year. Subsequently, the Vita missed the highly lucrative U.S. holiday shopping season, getting bumped to February 22, 2012.

I imported a Japanese Vita in December and have had weeks of hands-on time with the device, including playing most of Uncharted: Golden Abyss. The Vita is easily the most impressive portable gaming device that I've ever handled. Its brilliant touch screen is as responsive as an iPad's, and the onboard operating system is smart, logically laid out, and easy to use.

Priced at $250 for the Wi-Fi version, there still remains some hidden costs in owning a Vita (which I'll cover below). But perhaps the Vita's biggest challenge is proving itself as a worthy device, important enough to convince the casual gamer that he or she needs to carry around not just a smartphone, but a portable console as well. How this generation of handheld devices shapes up will say a lot about where portable gaming is headed, and Sony has made what I think is a very impressive effort right out of the gate.

Design, specs, and other features
Available in two versions, the PlayStation Vita retails for $250 (Wi-Fi only) and $300 (Wi-Fi /3G). At a quick glance, it could be confused with the PSP, but upon further inspection you'll find it's wider, taller, and just a few millimeters thicker and few ounces heavier than the PSP-3000. Most noticeable of all, though, has got to be its dazzling 5-inch (960x544-pixel) OLED touch screen, which is nearly an entire inch bigger (diagonally) than the PSP-3000's screen.

The Vita and PSP-3000 side by side.

Even though it weighs in at 9.2 ounces (9.8 ounces for the 3G model), the Vita is still a considerably lightweight device. Its screen is flanked by two analog thumb sticks; above those are the classic PlayStation buttons on the right and a D-pad on the left. Both the buttons and D-pad are smaller than the ones on the PSP. That said, I didn't find that they negatively affect gameplay. If anything, they're more responsive. There are also left and right shoulder buttons, a PlayStation button, and Start and Select buttons. The latter two are quite tiny, tucked away at the bottom-right corner and aren't always very easy to hit, though they aren't used too often. A power toggle is easily accessible on the top-left brim of the unit, while two volume buttons rest on the right side. In between that you've got a Vita game card slot and a proprietary port of some sort that I haven't had any use for yet.

The Vita game card slot can be a pain to pry open, especially if you have short fingernails.

Under the hood the Vita boasts a four-core ARM Cortex-A9 processor and a four-core SGX543MP4+ GPU (graphics chip). Sure, that's not the sexiest-sounding jargon, but it results in the best portable gaming graphics I've ever seen anywhere.

Other Vita features include two 640x480-pixel VGA cameras (rear- and front-facing), a rear touch panel, Sixaxis motion sensing, Bluetooth, 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi , and GPS (only in the 3G version).

Along the bottom of the unit is a headphone jack, microphone sensor, and proprietary USB connection/charging port.

The Vita is surprisingly lightweight.

The Vita feels great to hold and is among the more ergonomically satisfying handhelds out there. I occasionally have to stretch my thumbs to hit the center area on the screen, but it's nothing unfamiliar to someone who's typed on an iPad or smartphone.

I was a little surprised that the Vita lacks any kind of video output, unlike the PSP-2000 and 3000. I think video-out remains an important feature--I use it with my iPad 2 whenever I travel.

Proprietary media
The Vita's games operate off of proprietary Sony flash media that most resemble SD cards. There is no support for the PSP's UMD disc, but the Vita is backward compatible with PSP games that are available via the PlayStation Store.

Vita game boxes and cards.

Anything downloaded and installed on the Vita must be done with the use of a Vita Memory Card, as the Vita has an undisclosed--but seemingly small--amount of onboard storage. Vita Memory Cards are even smaller than the game cards, mostly resembling Sony M2 and microSD cards. Vita Memory Cards have become a particularly controversial subject with the Vita, as it's also required to play almost all Vita games and media apps. Even more disheartening is the fact that a Vita Memory Card isn't included in the box.

When I contacted Sony about this issue back in December, the company first pointed to the Vita First Edition Bundle (which includes a Vita case, Little Deviants, and a 4GB card) that goes for $350. A Sony rep then explained to me that the other U.S. Vita SKUs would not include a card in the box, until it was announced in late January that initial 3G versions of the Vita would in fact include an 8GB card (and a free yet-to-be-named PSN game) in the box for the same $300 price. As of this writing, it's unknown how long this promotion will last.

Nevertheless, Sony continues to play the proprietary game with the Vita, forcing customers to shell out more cash on accessories from the get-go. That aside, these tactics are nothing new, and we've seen it from plenty of other companies, such as Apple. When I asked Sony PlayStation Director of Hardware Marketing John Koller about the card at CES 2012, he cited that piracy was one of the major contributing factors in making it a proprietary format. It's no secret that the PSP suffered from widespread piracy and a determined hacking scene, though a lot of that resulted in homebrew applications and emulation software.

Any way you slice it, it's a hidden cost that gets passed on to the consumer. While the starting price is $250, in order to play, say, Uncharted, you'll need to spend at a minimum of $320. That's $250 (Vita) + $50 (Uncharted) + $20 (cheapest Memory Card). Sony has made somewhat of an effort to improve awareness about the Memory Card requirement since the Japanese release, adding signage on the Vita retail box and on the cover of Vita games.

The Vita Memory Cards also seem overpriced. Starting at $20 for a 4GB card, Vita owners can spend up to $100 for 32GB. It's an expensive pricing model you won't find anywhere else. Just to make a quick comparison, a 4GB SD card goes for around $4 online, and you can find a 32GB SD card for around $35.

The Vita Memory Card slot.

I've outlined the pricing for all the Vita cards and accessories here.

Interface and apps
The Vita's operating system is fantastic. It's very easy to use and navigate through because it just makes sense. The best way to describe its behavior is a cross between WebOS and Android. The OS borrows the "card" multitasking concept found in WebOS by allowing apps and games to be frozen or paused, then flicked away to close. It's also extremely responsive and quick, similar to the experience of using iOS. Animations are smooth, and there are plenty of visual indicators to help you learn your way around.

An example of the "card" aesthetic in the Vita's operating system.

The OS allows for a decent amount of customization, too. You can change background colors, move apps around, and create or delete pages. The first time you play a game on the Vita, it installs an icon to launch the game. It stays there even when the game card isn't inserted into the system.

Preinstalled in the Vita's OS are a series of apps, though the social ones, like Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare, and Skype, will be available at launch, as will a Netflix portal. In addition to the self-explanatory items, (Friends, Group Messaging, and Trophies) there a few new items. Here they are with short descriptions:

Party: Players can create a party, chat, and play games with friends over the PlayStation Network.

PS Store: See the Online section below for more on the PlayStation Store.

Near: Near is the Vita's response to the 3DS' Street Pass technology. Near allows players to connect and monitor their friends' gaming activities as well--taking geographical location into consideration. I don't know too many people with Vitas just yet, so I'll update this section once it's released to the public.

Photos: The Vita's photo app works fast and takes photos from either the front- or rear-facing cameras. Here you can view all of your images as well as screenshots. The Vita can take a screenshot any time by pressing the PlayStation and Start button together. Also new to the Photo app is the ability to record video. Overall quality of the camera isn't great, and it's nowhere near smartphone resolution or crispness, but it's noticeably better than what the 3DS can do. Of course, though, the Vita can't shoot 3D photos like the 3DS can.

A sample photo using the front-facing camera.