It has to be said -- this is one of the most in-depth reviews I've seen in the history of reader reviews. BlueMaxima has already talked about the PS Vita itself, this time he's discussing the software itself -- how everything handles, the user interface, etc. If you're thinking about picking up a PS Vita, this is a great resource. Nicely done Mr Maxima!
PlayStation Vita Software
So you’ve heard my opinion on the Vita’s sleek black soul sucker of a shell; now it’s time to hear about that lovely touch-friendly side, the software. Does it gleam and zoom like a Formula 1 car or does it beep its horn as it drives by as a Volkswagen Beetle?
UI Usability: While the Vita's LiveArea interface looks like something a 7 year old would whip up, I'll lose multiple bets if the thing isn't usable. The screen is an absolute dream to whisk your finger across, multiple screens of apps can be scrolled through in a breeze, multitasking is easy and other actions in general are crystal clear and natural.
Media Playback: Photos look amazing on the screen of the Vita. Music can be played in the background of almost any game, something that we've been doing on our mobiles for years. And 360p videos downloaded from YouTube and upscaled on the Vita's screen look better than DVDs. The video player can even handle 720p video without choking up. It's just amazing what the Vita can perform.
PlayStation Network: The friends list is simple and approachable, Group Messaging is easy to get your head around, it's incredibly easy to check your trophies and compare them to another player's, and there's plenty of fun to be had in Parties. Individual games have lists of activities so you can see what your friends have been doing in that game, from setting highscores and finding loot to getting trophies. And most of this performs surprisingly well over a Vita's 3G connection.
PSP Games: Over half the PSP library on the PSN works on the Vita, and with impressive results. Graphics look better and games run faster on the Vita, the ability to use the right analog stick as a replacement for the face buttons or D-Pad is a godsend, and battery life is surprisingly longer when playing a PSP game. Now if only they'd get around to fixing up PS1 classics...
PS Store: The Vita has its own form of the PlayStation Store and it's easy to navigate, purchase and download content. It's slick and easy to use, and strips it down to the bare basics - you're given the option to browse by category, new releases or most popular downloads, everything is sorted simply and easily, and downloads (at least on Wi-Fi) are generally a lot faster than the PSP ever was.
Welcome Park: As the initial "game" that comes with the Vita Welcome Park does a good job in showing off the system. Simple but enjoyable graphics, easy to understand tutorials, covering every set of controls (except for the buttons) and collectible trophies to introduce new players to the concept are all included, and combined correctly in a way that makes this one of the best introductions Sony could have made for the Vita in general.
Near's Non-Proximity Features: While the main purpose of Near falls flat on its face (see Hated) there are parts of it that work genuinely well based off your PSN friends list. You can see how many people are playing what (I had 19 people playing the Unit 13 demo and 8 playing Lumines, for example) and they / you can add differing emoticons describing their experience, and you’ll see it in a little pie chart. You’ll even get the opportunity to share “Game Goods” with your friends, which are little goodies that you can download for your games (for example, parts for Modnation Racers, ghosts to challenge in Rayman Origins, extra costumes for Marvel vs Capcom, etc.) Kinda sucks that they expire after a few days.
Near’s Proximity Functions: Let's get one thing clear - I am a fan of what Near tried to do. But, it failed in its execution. Very badly.
To explain why the main idea of Near fails, especially for Australians, I am required to explain a few things. Near is advertised as a form of social network where you can not only hook up with your friends, but with people near you who own a Vita. However, for this to work on WiFi-only models, the Vita uses a system called Skyhook, where nearby wireless LAN hotspots are used to calculate your position.
While there may be wireless hotspots in the big capital cities that are registered on Skyhook, in a backwater country town like mine there are pretty much no hotspots to speak of for this to actually work. You can "register" your own hotspot as part of the Skyhook network...but this takes weeks. So your only option is to go outside on an extremely sunny day and hold your 3G Vita to the sky similar to that famous scene of the Lion King, and pray that it picks up the GPS signal, at which point you can’t see the screen due to lots of glare. The days it did pick up a GPS signal, it put me several streets away from where I actually was.
Doesn't matter though; there were no people with Vitas around there anyway. (foreveralone?)
So I eventually just had to default to my friends list; there were a lot more people I could test it with over the internet…which kind of defeats the purpose of the proximity functions, doesn’t it? I mean, the main idea of Near was that you could hook up with local gamers, but I eventually just dropped down to net friends. I have no words to describe this. This probably works perfectly in Japan and somewhat well in the US, but Australians, as always, get shafted. I’d like to point out that turning on the auto-update function may have been responsible for my Vita crashing a couple of times as well. Just saying.
Content Manager: Sigh, long gone have the days where it's possible to just plug a PSP in and move MP3s and photos to the memory stick willy-nilly. But no, I have to go and download software on PC just to get some movies onto my Vita.
I’d also like to point out that not only does your Vita need to be the latest firmware to use the software, you have to be on the internet at the time to actually transfer content on said PC, so it can confirm this. Surprisingly I can back up savegames and such on the memory card to my hard drive - I thought Sony would be a little more paranoid about this - but it still doesn't beat the PSP's USB connection mode.
Browser: In an age where my phone's browser can get a browser test score equal to my PC's web browser; surely a more powerful device than my phone would be able to at least somewhat match the performance. But no, loading is slow, scrolling is sluggish and it fails to support even basic HTML5 and Flash functions making it unable to do something like browse YouTube. Sony really should fix this right away. Either that or offer me a dedicated YouTube app. I want my videos!
Remote Play: Attempting to hook this up to my PlayStation 3 was quite easy; however the performance and quality of the experience was not even close to what I would expect. None of my PS3 games would work, nor would my PSN games. The only game that I got to work was the PSX classic Syphon Filter, and it was cropped to an annoyingly small window with obvious quality degradation comparable to 360p streaming video, and a lot of input lag. The distance between my Vita and my PS3 was about (unobstructed) four feet. Unacceptable.
With the unfortunate mis-step of having Near’s main idea tripping over our little island and some other slightly crippled areas of functionality, the Vita’s strengths AND weaknesses seems to want to focus us on the portable gaming and not using this as a global media device. I can’t say I have too much of a problem with this - this is supposed to be a portable console after all - but while there are issues that do need to be sorted out, everything else on the Vita glides along without a hitch, and using this software for gaming and purely gaming can’t really get more of a recommendation from me.