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PlayStation Vita Impressions – Hardware

We now stand more or less a week from the international release of the PlayStation Vita via ‘first edition’ programs in the US and other pre-order initiatives in other territories. I’ve had my unit for a few weeks now and feel a few things need to be said before the internet takes a given position on this thing. In this post I’ll be looking at the hardware specifically. For better or worse and despite doing a number of things very exceptionally, I’m disappointed with the Vita overall. As to whether I think it will fail, I’d say no. I am far more convinced though that this will be Sony’s final gaming handheld, at least in a traditional sense.

Everyone who’s been in a position to play with a Vita has been in unanimous agreement that it’s a fantastic piece of technology. A quad-core processor, double the RAM of a PS3, front and rear touch pads, and OLED screen (but not a 720p one) seemed to tick all the boxes while remaining not much larger or any heavier than an original PSP.

In spite of all that it doesn’t strike me with the level of ‘wow’ that Sony consumer products such as the PS2 or PSP did when first releasedw. Maybe the capabilities – not just graphically, mind you – of the smartphones and tablets out there have raised expectations of what can reasonably be delivered. I realise it’s not fair to compare a $250~ Vita with a $500 Galaxy SII, but the fact is the screen on that device is better to look at during any practical application, it’s worlds away smaller and thinner and has a debatable lead in battery life in defiance of it’s small size. This doesn’t take much away from the Vita – the GSII is only a phone with touch controls after all – except to say that it’s ability to impress above and beyond is markedly diminished in light of such competition.

As someone with medium sized hands, not big or small, saying that doing a QCB motion on the d-pad is actually painful is however not a complement. Sure, a lot of people will play things using touch controls or the exceptional (given their size) analogue sticks, but the fact is I bought my Vita with Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 with an intent to not kill myself rocket punching and plasma storming against the left hand side of the screen. Thank goodness there are double fireball motions in the upcoming Street Fighter X Tekken because that would quite frankly be a dealbreaker at this point.

Also overly small are the buttons. They have more in common with the Nintendo DS’  face buttons than those on the PSP or Dual Shock 3. This isn’t a massive issue in most games, but if I’m using the ‘Wipout’ style controls in Wipeout 2048, where X is accelerate, square is use and circle is absorb, all with the right analogue a bit close for comfort, I’m going to have serious problems hitting those things at the right times. The PSP didn’t have these control problems and if I had to pick a major point of regression on the Vita, it’s that it has shrunk everything on the face of the unit to the point of near un-usability.

Something that the mainstream of internet opinion has taken a strong dislike to is the use of yet more proprietary media on the part of Sony. Game cards, unlike the cartridge-based titles of Nintendo’s system, can save game data and DLC onto themselves without the need for additional storage. Not all games opt for this though and many have cried foul at Sony’s refusal to mandate it. It’s all the worse since their second proprietary formal of memory cards are priced into the stratosphere and ultimately necessary to fully using the device as it’s being marketed.

My complaint isn’t so much about these devious decisions so much as their poor implementation. Neither the game nor memory cards can be read by anything but the Vita and so I can’t write anything conclusively about data read & write speeds. Nonetheless I have no problem saying that loading times are pretty garbage across the board. UMVC3 takes at least 10 times longer to load 6 characters and a stage than its Xbox 360 cousin and Wipeout 2048‘s load times are just appalling at 50-60 seconds per event. Both of these anecdotes come from experiences with the game card version, which is, if reports are to be trusted, the faster of the two formats.

It seems even more obvious when you look at the UI and other interfaces of the Vita, but the hardware seems cobbled together from technologies and interests of multiple business units operating largely in silos with little regard for the cohesiveness of the finished product. As far as hardware goes the PS Vita has some serious grunt but is nowhere near as far ahead of the field as the PSP was in its time. And whether that raw horsepower is harnessed by software or not in the long run, the machine is hamstrung by capricious design decisions that let it down at almost every turn. The same is true of the rest of the elements that make up the Vita whole, but I’ll save that for the next few posts.

As a postscript I’d like to disclose that my experience has been with the Wifi only model. For a million reasons and one I don’t consider there to be any reason to buy the 3G version and as far as I know there are no exclusive capabilities unique to that model. Ergo, I didn’t think it was worth the time to say anything at length about it.

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