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A second look at PS Vita

On its first Birthday, we offer a thorough twelve-month analysis of the handheld that would be king

Why isn't PS Vita selling? Why has PlayStation shifted less than 5 million units in the first twelve months despite its predecessor building a market of 70 million customers? Sony, unfortunately, does not have the luxury of a clear answer to that question.

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While some say the merits of the device - and there are many - have not been aggressively communicated enough, others believe it's simply too expensive. Some will (unfairly) suggest that the Vita's games library is short on quality and quantity, while others will (understandably) notice that the device isn't exactly whipping up a frenzy of support from third parities.

And of course, there are many who say that the entire handheld business - something of a boom sector five years ago - has become largely irrelevant in the age of iPhones and Android devices. At a time when gaming has never been more convenient and indeed more affordable than on the smartphone you carry, why pay up for a second device?

Business models may determine many industry trends, but the importance of desirability and creating something fun remains paramount. So those who just want to have a good time playing games won't necessarily need to consider the questions listed above, and should instead focus on another: Should I buy this console?

It's been a year since the PS Vita was shipped to Japanese retailers and first put to the mercy of the public, and in the intervening months CVG has consistently studied and played with every element that the handheld has to offer. Across these pages we have published - quite literally - everything we have learned about PS Vita, in order to give you the most detailed and helpful review of the system that there has ever been.

Whether or not Sony can turn around its fortunes with Vita, it's likely this will be the last ever dedicated handheld produced by PlayStation. Should you be part of this final phase in PlayStation history, or should you watch it from afar? Here's what we think...


Vita is a handheld of unprecedented quality

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Sony has only been in the games business for three console cycles yet the Vita feels like it was crafted by the most experienced hardware designers in the world. This is the PlayStation manufacturer's greatest work yet.

A meticulous balance of soft curves and hard lines makes the handheld appear plush and powerful yet playful and welcoming. It is a rarity to find something that sits so comfortably between the aesthetic principals of toy and high-end gadget.

While the sheer quantity of control inputs would usually make such a handheld look too boyish and intimidating, the Vita's transparent buttons disappear behind its deep black fašade. Nearly every element of the hardware uses curves - even the start/select buttons and D-pad - giving it a more accessible, friendlier profile.

Holding it for the first time is a joy. Vita's flawlessly calibrated weight gives an immediate impression that Sony's engineers have not cut a single corner designing this model.

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Opting for an OLED screen instead of one that requires a backlight is not the cheap option, though it gives Vita games a beautiful and distinct vivacity. The screen itself can sometimes descend into smudge city, but after a year of particularly careless ownership, our model has just a couple of scratches to show.

The control layout is also an improvement over the PS3 pad, with the analogue sticks now living in different neighbourhoods. Traditionalists will argue that the DualShock's additional shoulder and analogue buttons make it the better pad, and it's a fair enough point, but Sony's curved handheld feels more comfortable and complete.

Vita's analogue sticks may appear a little too constrained at first (the journey from left to right is about 15 millimetres), but the reduced dead zone offers them surprising accuracy and impressive agility when gameplay demands.

Although the two low-spec embedded cameras slightly tarnish the overall impression, Vita performs flawlessly where it matters most. The d-pad, face buttons and shoulder inputs in particular are perfectly pronounced, quick and clickable.

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Yet for all its remarkable design discipline, the Vita isn't playing just safety shots. Adding front and rear touch screens is a flash of that old PlayStation bravado which has otherwise faded in more fiscally challenging times.

The gamble has, more or less, paid off. Both capacitive multi-touch screens are as reliable and responsive as any high-end smartphone, though the obscured rear-pad requires too much finger-position guesswork to be considered particularly useful. After a while users will notice it's not uncommon to accidentally press the edges of the rear-pad (which can be very frustrating if it activates an action), and on very rare occasions the front-screen will move by itself (we suspect this only happens when in contact with an electrical or static signal).

But other handhelds, and indeed consoles, would fall apart under this level of scrutiny. The Vita is a harmony of aesthetics, balance and precision. Some will deem it ironic that its standout features make it less pocket friendly, but Sony hasn't designed a Vita to fit snug in your jeans - it has built an elegant and powerful handheld that sings in your hands.


And yet, it's not entirely portable

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By virtue of being commanded by a single thumb, the iPhone has redefined portable gaming. Smartphones allow people to play games in 60 second intervals, opening and closing apps at the touch of a button, allowing for the tiniest bursts of joy while queuing at coffee shops, bus stations and post offices.

To test PS Vita's portability credentials, I elected to play as much of it as possible during a standard commute from work: That's two lines across the London Underground during rush hour, along with one short train journey and three brief waits at interconnecting stops.

The operating system itself is capable for such a challenge. Even the most hardware-dependant games can be accessed, paused, and moved to the background much like an iOS or Android app. Virtually any part of a game (loading screens, video content, menus, gameplay, cut-scenes etc) can be paused and instantly unpaused by pressing the Vita's power button. Essentially, you can stop and start your Vita without any side-effects.

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But the unit itself does not fare so well. Any activity that requires a free arm (such as gripping onto a hand-rail whilst on a packed tube train), meant that the Vita has to be put away. I did try to play whilst standing on the tube, but to be honest you look like a bit of a plank constantly trying to steady yourself whilst gazing into a large games console.

Having spotted a single seat on the train journey home, wedged between two city types and their iPads, I did manage to return to Metal Gear Solid 2 for a fair five minutes. Yet the overriding problem is that the Vita is built for isolated immersion, not perfect portability.

Typical Vita games have core gamer credentials - they demand sharp concentration and comfortable surroundings so the user can make crucial split-second decisions. You can try doing this on a bus, or a park bench, or anywhere that isn't indoors, but the problem is that you won't be completely engaged. The suits either side of me on the train don't need to be fully alert, they're browsing through the Reuters App and boring themselves to death on Sodoku - I'm trying to shoot down a harrier jet.

Incidentally, the beautiful OLED screen is fantastic when playing in the dark, but doesn't stand out particularly well against natural sunlight.

It's the quality of PS Vita games that make it worth playing, but you can only fully appreciate them on long passenger journeys or a place where the spell of escapism isn't so readily under threat.

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Battery life problems are exaggerated

Smartphones have adjusted consumer lifestyles to accommodate regular battery charging (twice daily for some), and so the necessity of replenishing the Vita once or twice a week doesn't come across as such a burden.

A full charge will provide about five hours of gameplay and, if left alone, more than a week of standby time. Five hours of gameplay isn't exactly something to write home about - and you should knock off about 90 minutes if playing online - but what is impressive is how Vita monitors and manages its own power with vigilance.

A week-long work trip, consisting of several thirty-minute bursts of gameplay, is entirely feasible on Vita without any recharge. A fully drained system can be switched back on just five minutes into charging from the mains and, if left alone, a full battery is restored within two hours.

Of particular convenience is how a game can return to the precise moment when the battery died out - without any loading screens - after just a few minutes into recharging. This is due to the state-saving properties of the Vita itself, along with its hidden reserve battery. (Should add, if an emptied Vita isn't recharged within a day or two then the reserve will die out as well and all progress is lost, etc).

The drawback of the Vita being more an indoor portable is balanced by the benefit of it being commonly within reach of so many power sources. A fairly organised gamer won't have much to worry about.

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