Once again, Sony enters the hand-held arena from the vantage of technological prowess and aesthetic desirability. Powerful and sleek, the PlayStation Vita represents a modern look at where Sony thinks portable gaming is headed.

Their first entry into the handheld gaming sector, the PlayStation Portable, was also a technological powerhouse. But a combination of factors (disc-based media, pricy low-quality movies, battery life, 3rd-party developers abandoning the system in favour of the Nintendo DS) all led to its early abandonment by Sony.

Have Sony learned their lesson, or are they doomed to repeat it? We unboxed the Vita last week but lacked games or a memory card. Those two problems, now solved, lead to this hands-on.

TECHNO-BABBLE

Untz untz untz. It’s got a 12.7cm (5 inche) OLED multi-touch capacitive screen (960 x 544 @ 220ppi), Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, optional 3G, 4-core ARM Cortex-A9 MPCore processor, 4-core SGX543MP4+ graphics processing unit, 512MB RAM, 128MB VRAM, a rear touchpad, Sixaxis motion gimble, three-axis electronic compass, twelve buttons, two analogue sticks, front and back 1.3MP cameras and weighs about 260 grams.

An actual photo taken with the PSVita's camera. Notice the lack of anything resembling quality.

In English: It’s noticeably lighter than the original PSP, has more RAM than the PlayStation 3 (which has a shared 512MB RAM split halfway between system and video), and packs a serious quad-core version of the PowerVR graphics chip powering the iPad 2 (which is running a dual-core version). Why the mind-numbingly cheap 1.3MP  cameras, is anyone’s guess.

However, unless you’re into pointless fanboy wars where the battlefield is comparing technical specifications, none of this really matters. What matters is how the damn thing works, how it feels, how it plays and the kind of software support it can expect. So let’s look at the important bits.

IMPORTANT BITS

Right out of the gate, Sony presents the strongest launch line-up ever seen for a console. Close to 30 launch titles, including high-profile brands like Uncharted, FIFA, Everybody’s Golf, Wipeout and MotorStorm. Not just physical retail copies, but day one digital distribution versions via PlayStation Network as well, for a slightly reduced price. They’re big though, around 1GB per game, sometimes more like Uncharted‘s 3.2GB.

On top of that, most high-profile PSP games from the last eight years are also available for download on PSN. An example Nintendo should really follow, by putting their Nintendo DS catalog on the 3DS eStore.

Welcome Park contains various mini-games (with trophies) that run you through all the special things the Vita can do.

While the system itself doesn’t come pre-loaded with anything entertaining beyond the tutorial-centric “hey look at what features this thing has” Welcome Park and the geographical-social application Near, owners can download a handful of free apps such as Facebook, a very decent Twitter client, foursquare and Flicker. If you’re in the U.S. the obligatory Netflix app is present.

The vital stuff is all there, like a messaging app to chat with PSN friends, a decent-enough web browser (no Flash plugin so no YouTube support), and a Party Chat app for voice-chat (that works over games too, much like Xbox LIVE’s Party system). You can take photos, listen to music or watch movies. Music and movies have to be loaded via the Content Manager system, more on that later. If you start playing music, you can leave it running while playing games and the game will automatically turn off it’s own music track, so just like the Xbox 360. Pretty impressive.

AUGMENTED REALITY

There are three free “augmented reality” games for download: Cliff Diving, Table Soccer and Fireworks. Much like the AR Games pre-loaded on the Nintendo 3DS, these games use special cardboard cards with symbols on them in conjunction with the back camera of the PS Vita to place the game world “in the real”. The camera finds the symbol on the card, and uses it for position and rotation when drawing the scene. Nothing new, but thanks to the PS Vita’s processing power being beefier than the Nintendo 3DS, its AR games are slightly less jittery.

Cliff Diving is the best actual game out of the lot, having you tap button sequences to make your virtual diver dude (with utterly punch-able face) do the right moves as he plummets into the water. You earn cash for each jump, used to unlock more diving spots. There are multiple cliffs to unlock, and you can create your own custom cliff dive using the cards and some books for height.

Table Soccer is the most impressive, having you build your little push-and-slide soccer field using all 6 of the  supplied AR cards, and supports two-player ad-hoc matches. It’s not a real-time soccer game, but rather a kind of turn-based ‘flick to kick’ system with a few innovative ideas. There’s a Tournament mode for increasing challenge, and a 2-player “pass the Vita” mode which benefits the turn-based nature of the game. All the countries are represented as teams, but there isn’t much difference between any of them. You can unlock different visual styles for the spectator stands, scoreboard and soccer ball.

Fireworks is the prettiest, but gets old fast as all you do is tap on fireworks at the correct time, and not even on a beat. You can add up to two more cards for more firework-launching houses, and as you progress you unlock more firework patterns. You can pause the game at any time and ‘look around’ the virtual area, examining the pretty at whatever angle you want. Even though it’s quite light for what it is, it gets tiring holding up the PS Vita with one hand and tapping on the fireworks.

FACING THE INTER

An example of a LiveArea, in this case the PlayStation Store.

Gone is the PSP and PS3’s XrossMediaBar that Sony tried so hard to punt as the “next best thing in interfaces”. Instead, we have what I dub the Skittles, a collection of up to 10 rounded icons on a page. You can inset as many pages as you’d like, and drag the Skittles from one to another. A page can have a custom image background, with PNG support for transparency. If you assign an image that has transparent bits, you’ll see the wavy backdrop through it. You can also assign an image to the lock screen. Already, people are making some amazing stuff with it.

When you first put in a game cartridge, it will install a Skittle to the dash, that stays there even if you take the cartridge out. The reason for this is because each game and app has its own LiveArea. When you touch a skittle, it doesn’t  start the game or app directly, but instead loads a LiveArea first. You cannot start games or apps, or select anything, with the buttons/sticks. You have to use the touchscreen.

LIVING LIVEAREA LOCA

The active LiveArea list, complete with advertisements at the bottom, which can't be turned off.

The LiveArea is a panel that contains a big thing to press to launch (or resume) a game, and depending on the game or app, various other buttons for updating, finding downloadable content, or if you’re looking at the LiveArea for the PlayStation Store, ads for the newest movies/music. If you press the PS button while in a game, it will drop back to the LiveArea for that game. You can swipe to the sides to swap between open LiveAreas. To close a game completely, you have to pull the top-right corner of the LiveArea down, as if pulling a sticker off the screen. If you press the PS button while looking at a LiveArea, it will show you a folded list of all open LiveAreas.

Tapping the top-right of the screen drops down the Notification List, which shows active downloads, past Trophies earned, which friends are currently online, and so forth.

INTER-ESTING-FACING

While it may not look all that grand in stills, when swiping pages up or down and flipping between the LiveAreas, the whole thing comes together. The skittles wibble according to which way you flip a page, the LiveAreas switch quickly and fluidly. I would have liked a way to launch apps without needing to press my fingers against the Vita’s super-shiny screen, but that’s me. I have a thing about fingerprints. The Vita really benefits from having extra memory with which to maintain its overlay, and while the LiveArea switching isn’t true multitasking (the app suspends when switched to LiveArea, it’s a quick enough facsimile to maintain a semblance of flow.

You can start a game like Uncharted, take a screenshot using the Vita’s built-in screenshot shortcut (PS button plus Start at the same time), suspend the game to LiveArea, flip to your skittles, launch the Twitter client and write a tweet, attach the screenshot, then flip back to the game and resume, without having to wait for anything to catch up or load.

GAMES

I’ve only got Wipeout 2048 at the moment, so that’s the only gaming experience I can comment on. It’s good. You can read my full review of 2048 in the next (April) issue of NAG. The Vita does not lack the power for some serious gaming; it has all the online functionality you would expect from a contemporary system, and like most systems at launch the current set of games are underclocked. That is, they don’t use the Vitas full potential. When the PSP was launched, games couldn’t run at more than 222MHz. After a year, Sony let developers use the full 300MHz potential of the system, and the difference was immediately apparent. The same goes for the Vita: in a year or so, when Sony lets developers use the full clockspeed, there will be a noticeable jump in visual quality.

There is one caveat to games with online components on the Vita, in that Sony has decided to enforce an Online Pass system. In an effort to quash second-hand sales, all Vita games that have online play, come with an Online Pass code in the box. Or, if you buy the game digitally, the Online Pass is bundled in. If you buy a game second hand and want to play online, you can buy an Online Pass off the PlayStation Store for about $20.

ONE VITA ONE ACCOUNT

A screenshot I took in Wipeout 2048 (using its own built-in screenshot tool), which maintains the awesome post-processing effects of its bigger brothers.

The Online Pass codes that come with games, are region-locked. That’s the caveat. If you, like me, have a PSN account that is not the same region as the region of the game you just bought, you’re out of luck. You’ll either have to buy another Online Pass off the store for your region, or make a new account.

In my case, my PSN account was European (South Africa). Now that I live in the United States, and since my copy of Wipeout 2048 was bought here, the Online Pass was invalid. I decided to bite the bullet and make a new PSN account for the Vita, which means I had to redo my friends list, and I had no trophies. You can only have one PSN account on the Vita.

Anything you buy on PSN either via the PS3 or the Vita, is locked to the account you bought it with. So all the PSP games and Minis I bought using my ZA PSN account, I cannot use on my Vita which has my US account. I’d have to repurchase all the content if I wanted to use it. I reached out to Sony for comment, and their reply was “sorry, can’t help you, it’s your problem if you move to a new country, not ours.” Granted, that’s pretty much how Microsoft and Nintendo handle it too.

So be warned: If you travel or move to a new country and buy a game from a different region than that of your PSN account region, the Online Pass code will not work.

Also, this ends the free-for-all the PSP enjoyed for most of its life, in that a PS3 owner could buy a PSP game off the PlayStation Store, and load it up on to at least five PSPs. So no more free candy for your four friends, you cheapskate you. The Vita does have a two-unit license system, but since you can only associate your PSN account with a single Vita, I’m not sure what the two-unit license really represents.

EVERYTHING ELSE

It’s still early days for the Vita. How much support Sony plans to expend in the long term, how appealing the system is for 3rd party developers, remains to be seen. The Vita isn’t doing too hot in Japan right now, but one can attribute that to a lack of Eastern-centric software, and the super-saturation of the Nintendo 3DS in the Japanese market. If there are to be rough times ahead for the Vita, it won’t be due to a technological lack from the system itself.

CONTENT MANAGER

The Vita comes with a USB cable that plugs into the bottom of the system (special connector). The USB end of the cable plugs into the Adaptor for charging, which connects to a standard power socket. You cannot charge the Vita over USB, unfortunately.

If you want to transfer music, photos or movies to or from the device, you have to use Content Manager. The first time you plug the Vita into your PC via the USB cable, it will start downloading the Content Manager software automatically. Once installed, you tap the Content Manager skittle on the dash, and you’ll get a bunch of options for moving files to or from the Vita. Basically, you can’t access the Vita’s internal memory or its memory card, as if it were a USB drive. Everything has to go through Content Manager, which sanctions the transfers presumably to make sure you’re not doing anything illegal, but we’ve not come across anything it dislikes.

One can assume that if you were to try and copy off a copyprotected film downloaded via the PlayStation Network, it might take offense.

OLED YIDDLY-DEE-DEE

The OLED screen on the Vita is bright, vibrant and free of the “black ghosting” that you get on low-end LCD screens. There is practically nothing wrong with the screen, but if you hear someone complain about the “mura defect” tell them to go jump into a lake or something. The Mura Defect is, in technical terms, the “luminance non-uniformity of a display device”. To see the Mura Defect of the Vita’s screen, you’d have to be in a pitch-black room, with a uniform grey on the screen, looking at it at just the right angle, to notice barely perceptible “splotches” around the edges of the screen. LCD screens have the Mura Defect too, but it’s only with OLED that it’s really become noticeable to any degree. If someone complains about it “ruining their experience” they’re just being nitpicky bastards, like those audiophiles that insist only vacuum-tube playback of studio master recordings are in any way to be considered “music”.

BATTERY LIFE

About six hours at best, but usually three to five hours. Depends on if you leave Bluetooth on, or use the Wi-Fi or 3G, what screen brightness you set it to, and so on. Same as the Nintendo 3DS. And just like the 3DS, if you remember to charge it when you can, you should be okay. There will be external battery options on sale at some point, for people who need it.

What Near looks like if you have the 3G model. All interesting and stuff, with little footprints, and signs of life.

NEAR (FAR, WHEREVER YOU ARE)

One of the much-touted Vita apps is Near, a kind of location-based social network system. One might confuse it with the Nintendo 3DS’s StreetPass functionality, but they’re actually not that alike.

If you have the 3G model of the Vita (which I do not), Near functions as advertised, I’d assume. Using the 3G Vitas GPS module, the Near app shows your location relative to other Vita users, who have opted to share their location through Near. Unless you tell Near to auto-update your location every set interval, Near isn’t a passive experience. You have to open it up, press the ‘Locate’ button, and wait for it to figure things out. Once it’s done that, you can see yourself on a map, other Vita players, what they’re playing, and any ‘gifts’ people have left around you. Gifts vary depending on the game, like Wipeout 2048 can drop time-trial ghosts, Lumines can drop song unlock packages, Uncharted has a kind of black-market thing…

You can see which games are popular around you, vote via smiley faces (representing things like ‘Cool’ or ‘Engrossing’) on what you think a game is like, and see the charts on what’s played the most in your area and by how many players.

If you do not have the 3G version of the Vita, then the Near app is a big blank of nothing. It’s supposed to divine your location via the wireless network you’re connected to, but it doesn’t work for me. Apparently it can be very ISP dependant. If your ISP isn’t reporting its geographical location by default, then Near will throw up the “Cannot find your location” error and you’ll be left forever alone. You can add your location and MAC address of your router to a service called Skyhook, which will then be used by Near to set your position, but apparently it takes “weeks” to process. We did that. It’s not been “weeks” yet, so Near continues to be stubbornly useless.

The Vita gamecart (top left) next to a 3DS cart, and the 16GB Vita memory cart (bottom left) next to an 8GB MicroSD. (Photo Credit: http://www.pcmag.com)

IM-PROPRIETARY MEMORY CARDS

Make no mistake, Sony fell on their sword to get the Vita out at the price it is. There is way more tech in the Vita than what’s being charged for it, Sony taking a huge hit on every system sold just so they could compete with the Nintendo 3DS’s new lower pricepoint. Part of that deal with the devil on Sony’s part, unfortunately comes out of our own pockets, and rather unfairly. The Vita comes with no user-usable internal memory. So, unless you buy one of the proprietary Vita memory cards, which come in 4GB, 8GB, 16GB and 32GB, you cannot play any games or even use the camera. So be warned: if you buy a Vita and any games, like Wipeout or Uncharted, but no memory card, you will not be able to play.

So what are the damages on buying some Vita memory cards? Because this is Sony, and because they love having their own special formats and not allowing us to use either SD cards, or the damn overpriced Memory Stick Duo cards we bought for the PSP, the damage is pretty ridiculous. In recent years, solid-state flash memory like SD cards, have come down in price like a rock. The special Vita memory cards are apparently made from magical unicorn poop that doesn’t follow reality’s pricing scheme. The Vita memory cards aren’t special or that different from high-quality SD cards, so the price markup is literally just Sony trying to get back some of that money they’re losing on Vita sales.

As an example, the markup on the 32GB Vita memory card ($99), compared to the Class 10 32GB microSD card from SanDisk ($40), is 150%.

There’s no reason for that, other than it saying Sony on the card. That’s what happens when you have a monopoly on a necessity.

CROSS-PLAY

Certain games allow Cross-Play between the Vita  and the PlayStation 3, like Wipeout 2048 and MotorStorm: RC. In the case of Wipeout 2048, this allows you to play online multiplayer games with PS3 owners of Wipeout HD on select tracks. We didn’t test this out yet.

POINTLESS HANDS-ON VERDICT

Sony lifestyle photos (above image) are always amusing. The actors they hire to pose for these shots always look like they’re so damn happy with that thing they’re holding, and yet, as if they have no idea what it is. So, will you be happy with a Vita?

It’s a pretty awesome device. It’s kind-of expensive, especially if you want a larger memory card, which you’ll need if you’re going to download demos or full games. It’s super-sexy, but that’s Sony for you. The back touchpad is pointless, Sony threw it on just to have another feature they can flaunt, but I doubt it’ll amount to much (like the SIXAXIS on the PS3 controller, rimshot). If you have the 3G model, you get access to the GPS functionality and, in the U.S. at least, a capped-at-20MB-a-month pay-as-you-go with AT&T’s Mobile Broadband Network. So the 3G isn’t useful for playing games, just for checking in with Near and messaging friends.

The Vita is modern, in many cases cutting-edge (except the cameras), not just in hardware but in software paradigms. Sony’s got a good thing going with the ‘buy on one play on both’ thing that Motorstorm:RC and Hustle Kings use, where if you buy those games for either the PS3 or Vita, you can download and play it on the other system for free, and both support Cross-Play. If they focus on this, it would be a huge draw to the system, but Sony haven’t confirmed how expansive they plan to be with it. The massive PSP library for sale for the Vita, makes it a great choice for someone who never had a PSP but always wanted one.

Is it worth the bucks? If you have the bucks to spare, and there are games that interest you, and you want a portable system, yes. But that’s a no-brainer, and if that’s the case you probably already have one. If you’re on the fence about the Vita, perhaps wait for the first price drop.