Just what is this shiny new thing? What's it do, anyway?
As part of our coverage of the launch of the PlayStation Vita, we're taking a look at every aspect of the "it only does everything, everywhere" handheld. In this article, we take a good look at the hardware of the machine and detail the bevy of inputs it supports...
With the launch of the PlayStation Vita now just days away, we thought it high time to detail everything you need to know about Sony's next console. While the marketing for the sleek new handheld states "It only does everything, everywhere", we thought that perhaps wasn't specific enough - so let's break it down...
Check out the other parts to this series:
- PlayStation Vita: The Hardware
- PlayStation Vita: The Software, And How You Get It
- PlayStation Vita: The Interface and Apps
- PlayStation Vita: The Games
First up, let’s talk about the basics.
What is it?
The PlayStation Vita is Sony's second portable console, following on from the successful PlayStation Portable. It is similar in form factor to the PlayStation Portable, however there are a number of differences - so many, perhaps, that the similarity in shape to its older brother is about all it has in common with it.
The PSP and Vita, side by side
One of the key improvements over the PSP is the veritable host of new input methods game designers can leverage to interface with their titles, so let's take a look at...
The Vita has so many control options, it's easy to get lost in them. To keep things simple, we're going to start with the basic and move on through to the "oh it does that too?" stuff.
1. Dual Analog Sticks (Thumbsticks)
That's right, for the first time in history, there's a portable console with two analog sticks. First deployed in 1997, the unheralded (and initially, quite off-putting) twin thumbsticks have become the default method of controlling a character in a 3D world, which makes their inclusion here all the more exciting.
The actual sticks are quite a bit smaller than those used on a PlayStation 3 controller, but larger than the weird slider thing used on the PSP. That's the only comparison it's fair to do with the PSP's nub, as everything else about the Vita's sticks is far superior. They move and feel much like you're used to using on your console, so you'll have no trouble adapting when you first pick up a Vita.
2. Directional Pad (D-Pad)
Quite a bit smaller than you might find on your home console, the D-Pad on the Vita is otherwise functionally identical. It varies little, in fact, from the one invented by Nintendo's Gunpei Yokoi that first appeared on a handheld LCD game called Donkey Kong (you may have heard of it). It may be a 30 year old concept, but it works.
3. Face Buttons
It just wouldn't be a PlayStation without Square, Circle, Triangle, and Cross buttons, now would it? Like the D-Pad and Thumbsticks, the cross-shaped collection of interaction buttons is smaller than you might expect.
They're quite a bit smaller than those used on the PSP, which in turn are smaller than those used on the consoles that preceded it. In practice though, this doesn't seem to make a jot of difference.
4. Shoulder Buttons
Like the PSP before it, the Vita eschews the PlayStation 3's shoulder button + trigger on each side combo, opting instead for the simpler mix of just a shoulder button on each side. This configuration makes a lot of sense, given the dimensions of the unit. However it will be interesting to see how game designers adapt to having fewer controls to leverage for first and third-person shooter titles.
The actual buttons are extremely similar to those used on the PSP, however they (like the Vita itself) have a much more gradual curve to them, resulting in a hand-fit that is considerably more comfortable, particularly for extended periods of play.
5. Utility Buttons
Like the face buttons, no modern PlayStation device would be seen dead without a Home, Start, and Select button. On the Vita, the Home button (which returns you to the system software instantly) sits below the left analog stick (5a) while the Start and Select buttons cosy up beneath the right analog stick (5b).
Their positioning reflects the frequency with which Sony expect you to use them; which is to say, not often. If you need to rapidly pause something (say, your wife returns to the car with your coffee / dinner / luggage), you're best to use the Power Button, which sits under your left Shoulder Button finger (5c).
There are also volume controls, which can be accessed on the fly (although again, they're not designed to be used constantly) with your right shoulder button finger (5d).
Like the PlayStation 3 controller, the Vita supports motion control by way of the Sixaxis branded sensors within it. Unlike the 3DS, there's no parallax barrier
screen for the motion control to conflict with, and - combined with the excellent viewing angle of the OLED screen - this should result in far more satisfactory motion-controlled experiences on the Vita.
7. Touch Screen
Catching up with your cellphone and leapfrogging the DS, the PlayStation Vita sports a capacitive touch screen, with multitouch capability. Capacitive technology means that input is literally about touch, compared to the resistive tech used on the DS, where input is actually based on creating pressure between a sandwich of plastic panels.
The PSP had no built in camera, but had a peripheral camera addition that you could buy. However, like most optional peripherals, it wasn't widely supported as developers couldn't guarantee people actually had one. Not so with the Vita! In fact, Sony's new handheld sports not one but two cameras - one facing forward, and one poking out from the back of the device.
If you're hoping to replace your camera with a Vita, however, you probably want to hold fire. The sensors in the cameras are just 0.3 megapixels, resulting in a svelte 640x480 maximum resolution.
9. Rear Touch Panel
Now for something completely different... Sony seem to have realised that an input device that requires you to obscure the screen (i.e. a touchscreen) is probably sub-optimal in the long term, particularly for screens that fit in your pocket. The way they've addressed this is by adding a touch panel to the back of the screen, allowing you to apply touchscreen-like input without blocking the screen with your chubby fingers.
It doesn't quite match the dimensions of the front screen (it starts a little lower than the top of the screen, and finishes a little higher than the bottom of it), and learning to be accurate with it when you can't direct your fingers by sight results in a bit of a learning curve. But pushing the ground up underneath your characters in Little Deviants results in a thrill we haven't experienced since motion control or the touchscreen itself first debuted.
Not only that, but developers can combine front and back inputs in creative ways, like requiring players to "pinch" in order to grab things, etc, which is again something radically new and unique to the Vita.
The Rest of the Hardware
So what about the rest of the device? What else has it got going on? Let's take a look...
Weight alone provides little information, so let's take a look at the weight of the Vita as it compares to other devices that you might already own or otherwise be familiar with:
| ||Vita||3DS||PSP-2000||PSP Go||iPhone 4|
Despite being the heavyweight in that list, the Vita actually feels light when you pick it up; overwhelmingly, the number one first impression from people whose hands we've put it in for the first time, was "wow, it's lighter than you'd think". This is likely related to the fact that it's also the largest device on the list.
Without actually holding one, it's hard to know how well it will fit into your pocket / bag / life. Again, we'll provide the requisite measurements, alongside some familiar comparisons in order that you might get a better appreciation for the dimensions of the device.
For comedy value, we'll also compare it to an Atari Lynx, which was also once state of the art - even if it's more similar in size to a surfboard, than a pocket.
| ||iPhone 4||PSP Go||3DS||PSP||Vita||Atari Lynx|
Now that we have all of the dimensions, we can calculate the volume of each of the devices; literally how much of your pocket contents that each will displace. It should be noted that these measurements are approximate and don't take into account things like curves and indented areas.
| ||iPhone 4||PSP Go||3DS||PSP||Vita||Atari Lynx|
The interesting thing to note there, aside from the continuously comical contribution from the Lynx, is the fact that, although it seems much larger than the PSP, the Vita is actually lower in volume (thanks to the relative thinness of the device).
Once people react to the weight of the Vita, the very next thing they notice is the screen. Leveraging Organic Light-Emitting Diode (OLED) technology, instead of the much more commonplace Liquid Crystal Display (LCD), the Vita's screen is incredible
looking. Bright, vivid colours, and a viewing angle that has more in common with a magazine than it does a traditional screen, result in something that instantly impresses everyone that sees it.
As mentioned, the screen is much higher resolution than any other dedicated handheld console. At 960x544, the 5-inch screen has an effective pixel density
of 220 pixels per inch (ppi). This measurement, if you're not familiar with it, results in a much finer image than almost any other device on the planet. In our comparison device family, only the iPhone 4 has a greater pixel density at 326ppi. For comparison, your typical 24" computer monitor achieves just 108ppi while a 1080P 46" television manages a measly 48ppi.
At 5", the size also impacts on those that see it - particularly people who are used to the 3DS or iPhone, whose screens top out at 3.5". While 1.5" might not seem like a lot, in the widescreen aspect ratio this results in more than twice the actual screen space (8.25 square inches vs. 3.91 square inches).
One thing of note, though, is that the entirety of the Vita - including the parts that cover the screen - are plastic. This material has no real scratch resistance, unlike the gorilla-glass of the iPhone 4. You must not just chuck this in your bag with your keys, if you care about scratches. A case would be a smart investment.
Unlike the PSP, the Vita's battery is not user-replaceable. It's inside the unit and you cannot access it without dismantling the console, which is not recommended and will likely void your warranty.
Despite the impressive specs, bevy of input / connectivity options, and massive screen, the battery performance is actually pretty good - resulting in around 3-5 hours of play time in normal operating conditions. In our experience, these (Sony-advised) numbers are actually pesimistic - the console seems to last longer than even those (already reasonable) figures might suggest.
The charger is of the new "USB" variety, meaning that it's actually a mains to USB converter and USB cable combo. This adds a lot of versatility to the power setup, as you can charge it via the USB on your computer, in your car, or on a reasonably well kitted-out aircraft.
Actually charging the Vita, even from flat, is reasonably quick; we haven't timed it but it doesn't take a particularly long time. While it's charging, the PlayStation Home button will pulse softly blue, so it's probably not something you want to have in your bedroom while you're trying to sleep (blue light is the colour most likely to cause you sleep problems, don't ya know).
External Interface / Power Connector
The part of your Vita that the USB cable connects to is a proprietary new square connector, which means that (for now, at least) only the supplied Sony cable will connect to it. Presumably there will be after-market cables (and maybe even some other devices) down the line, but for now, be sure to keep your charging cable in a safe place.
Another thing of note is that the cable must be connected the right way up, but there's almost nothing about the connector that prevents incorrect insertion. It's not only possible but fairly easy to plug it in the wrong way, so make sure you're paying attention when you connect 'em up.
The cable connects to the bottom of the device, as you hold it in your hand, below the screen. This position, combined with the relatively short cable length, means that playing while charging is rarely achievable - except while on a plane, perhaps, where the cable will probably connect to the seat in front of you.
Unlike the 3DS, the Vita has no on-board memory. Like the PSP, then, a memory card is all but mandatory; some games will run without one (most won't) but you won't be able to save your progress, will likely miss out on some features, and can make no real use of the PlayStation Store. Simply put, you absolutely must get a memory card if you get a Vita.
The actual memory cards used with the Vita are, typically for Sony, proprietary and unique to the system. This also makes them fairly expensive, in comparison to more mature formats (like SDHC), so you should definitely consider how you plan to use the console before making a purchase. If you're not sure, grab the cheapest one (4GB) and reassess once you have been using it for a while and have a better idea of what you need.
There are currently four memory card sizes for the Vita, however only three of them are available in New Zealand. The largest, weighing in at 32GB, is not available here for some reason but as it's not locked to any particular region and very small / light, importing is certainly an option worth considering if you absolutely must have one that big.
Otherwise, the cards break down as follows:
|4GB||$34.99||$29.99 - Noel Leeming|
|8GB||$59.99||$58.00 - EB Games, JB Hi-Fi|
|16GB||$84.99||$79.99 - Noel Leeming|
In part two of our four-part series on the Vita, we'll also detail the difference between the Wi-Fi and 3G versions of the handheld; look out for that shortly!