PlayStation Vita: The Pre-Launch Guide

Curious as to what's humming along under the hood? Well pull up a seat, buddy or buddette, and we'll tell you all we know...
Author: Sam Bishop
Published: February 6, 2012
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By the time the PlayStation Vita (ne้ Next Generation Portable) hits store shelves here in North America, its predecessor, the venerable PSP, will be just a month and change shy of blowing out seven birthday candles. In its waning last few years (well, save for Japan where the system was a Monster Hunter-fueled sales juggernaut), the first portable to go toe-to-toe with Nintendo and not be completely obliterated had a kind of quiet and unceremonious exit from the West.

There's no discounting the sheer hardware sales numbers: well over 70 million PSPs have been sold so far, and while software sales haven't been quite so bullish, it would be an understatement to call the PSP anything but a rousing success. Nintendo, in their inimitable way, saw the writing on the wall with a touch-based interface, and thanks to killer third-party support and evergreen first-party efforts, the DS will likely go down in history as the best-selling system of all time -- it's only a few million shy of besting the The Console That Would Not Die (known to most of us as the PlayStation 2).

[The Outside]

No surprise, then, that the Vita embraces touch in a big way. Both a massive five inch organic light-emitting diode screen and an innovative back pad with the same dimensions as the front screen feature multitouch support for almost as many digits as you can wrap around the system. The shape, familiar to PSP owners, has been coaxed outward to accommodate the bigger screen, though for the most part it looks and feels like the PSP's bigger brother.

Bigger, it should be noted, and unquestionably better when it comes to physical controls. Gone is the accursed analog nub with its overly-springy, rough contact surface. In its place are two honest-to-goodness analog sticks, complete with a decent (though not especially wide) area of travel. The familiar PlayStation dpad is still broken along the four cardinal directions, but the former island-style nubs have melded into something that ends up looking and feeling more connected. The glassy shape buttons on the right have shrunk, and are perched rather close to the right analog nub. Around back, the Vita sports a couple ovular concaved recesses for fingers not in use on the back touchpad. Again, it's like the PSP, but bigger and more ergonomic.

Hidden behind flaps tethered with little springy plastic strips not unlike later PSPs' Memory Stick cover are recesses for the new proprietary Memory Card (sorry, no internal storage here. At all) and the new game cartridges every retail Vita game ships on. In a nod to the increasingly digital nature of game releases, every retail Vita game will see release on the PlayStation Store -- sometimes at a discount if downloaded instead of purchased physically. A flap for a SIM card on the AT&T-locked 3G model hides another port on the top of the unit, next to circular physical volume and power buttons.

On the bottom sits a standard-sized headphone jack and a new proprietary connector used, at least right now, just for charging (either via the included charger or, with an adaptor, a USB cable). The sides are left mercifully clear of anything that might either dimple the skin over long play sessions or trigger accidental sleep states like the PSP, and other than a fairly ominous camera sitting dead center on the back above the touch pad and another on the right above the shape buttons on the front (both a mere 640x480 resolution but optimized for extremely fast framerates and low-light sight), there's little else to disturb the clean lines of the system. Even the oval PlayStation (read: home, which can light up), Start and Select buttons sit flush with the surface.

It's monolithic in its simplicity -- the sort of industrial design that Sony has been so good at for years, but more recently has ceded to Apple's elegant hardware. This is, in no uncertain terms, an attempt to blend the form factor of the PSP with the striking looks of an Expensive Luxury Sony product.

Oh, and it's $249.99 for the Wi-Fi-only model or $299.99 for the 3G/Wi-Fi version. Not half bad for something so sexy, but the real beauty lies below the surface.
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