What's On the Menu?
When you first fire up the PlayStation Vita it's quite apparent that this is a very different beast, at least from a menu standpoint, than its PSP predecessor. Gone is the XMB we've come to expect from PlayStations in recent years, replaced with a more smartphone-like touch screen menu set up. Icons are now represented with bubbles and moving between screens is executed with a simple swipe of your finger. Much like smartphones, all of your menu navigating is done with the touch screen. On the positive side of things, this system makes launching and quitting programs as easy as pressing the PS button and swiping the current program off the screen.
There are a host of programs built into the unit, ranging from the PS Store to the Friends and Group Messaging programs that will allow you to keep in touch with fellow Vita owners. There are also programs to keep track of your photos, music and videos, a Trophies area and even a fully-fledged web browser. All of these programs function very similarly to that of the system's main menu, so be prepared to do all of your navigating on these apps via the touch screen.
As you insert game cartridges or download titles from the PS Store, bubble icons of these titles will be placed on the screen of your Vita. Games that are downloaded to the memory card can be launched simply by touching the game's icon on the screen. If you touch an icon for a game that is a cartridge release, you'll be asked to insert that particular game in order to launch it. It's a very functional system, but will cater more towards gamers that plan to download a lot of their titles from the PS Store, obviously.
Now You're Playing With Power
Battery life is always a concern when it comes to portable electronic devices and as systems become more powerful and power-hungry, battery life has begun to drop significantly in recent years. Sony claims that the Vita system will play on an average of 4-6 hours on a single charge with moderate system settings. While this is fairly accurate based upon our tests, a lot will depend on what functions you have activated and how high you like your screen brightness and volume. With the five games we tested, we were generally getting 4 1/2-5 hours of playing time with 3/4 brightness and 1/2 volume. Thankfully charging the unit only takes about 2 1/2 hours, so at least the downtime isn't significant. We'll be conducting more in-depth battery tests before the system launches, so stay tuned.
What's The Catch?
For all of the power and technology crammed into the PlayStation Vita, there are some annoyances that must be pointed out. For starters, the Vita features no build-in storage, which means you're going to need a memory card if you're going to save on certain games, not to mention store music, downloaded games and other media. It's even worth noting that some games, including Uncharted: Golden Abyss, Hot Shots Golf: World Invitational and Ridge Racer, won't even boot up without a memory card inserted. So not only can you not save, you can't even play some games without a card. To make matters worse, the memory cards used by the Vita are proprietary, meaning you'll absolutely have to buy one: no reusing your PSP's memory. Vita memory ranges from $19.99 for the meagre 4GB card all the way up to a whopping $99.99 for the top-of-the-line 32GB model.
The Verdict Is In
There's a whopping amount of horsepower under the hood and an equal degree of control variety to go along with it. The lack of built-in storage and proprietary memory cards is a bit of a downer and the once touted price doesn't look nearly as tantalizing now that Nintendo has dropped the price of the 3DS system to $169.99. The good news is that the system does feature a strong launch line-up of titles and quite a few marquee titles on the way. In all honesty, there's something quite amazing about enjoying a PlayStation 3-quality experience in the palm of your hands and that's what will likely end up selling the system to PlayStation fans.
There will inevitably be those who ask the question, "why buy a Ferrari when you can get a Honda Accord for a lot less?" but those who've driven a Ferrari already know the answer.