When you turn on your Vita for the first time you'll need to log into the system with your Sony Entertainment Network account, or create one if this is your first Sony device. Choose carefully, because you can't switch between multiple SEN accounts without formatting the Vita's onboard memory.
Once you've configured your system language and time zone you're presented with the lock screen, a ticking clock atop what appears to be wallpaper; tap and peel the lock screen away to access the Vita home screen. The Vita dispenses with the venerable Sony XrossMediaBar (XMB) interface that graces the PlayStation 3, PSP and select Sony HDTVs in favour of a new touch-based interface.
It pins up to ten application icons to a series of pages that you can scroll between by swiping your finger up or down the screen. Tapping an icon will open that application's LiveArea, a sort of middle ground between the Vita home screen and the actual application where you can accomplish application-related tasks like adjusting settings, reading the digital manual or checking for software updates. You can have up to six LiveAreas running simultaneously, though Sony may increase that limit in a future firmware update.
While you're likely to spend the lion's share of your time with the Vita playing games (which can be either downloaded from the PlayStation Network Store or installed directly from a Vita cart) the device also offers a robust suite of applications. For the full rundown of system software check out our guide to what you need to know about the PlayStation Vita. In brief, there are built-in apps for sharing game activity or chatting with friends, watching movies, playing music and viewing photos, as well as a Content Manager application for transferring files back and forth between the Vita and your PC.
To transfer files you'll need to install the Content Manager Assistant software on your PC. It seems a little silly to require Vita owners to use proprietary content management software instead of just treating the Vita as an external USB drive, but the Content Manager Assistant software is simple to use and may help stem Vita software piracy.
Of course to actually store media on your Vita (which only has 512 MB of onboard RAM for running system software) you'll need to invest in a proprietary PlayStation Vita memory card, which (at the time of this review) are ridiculously expensive. Our Vita review unit came with a 16 GB memory card. If you're strapped for cash you could pay as little as £20 for a 4GB Vita memory card, but if you want enough space to store more than a few songs or saved games (some Vita game cards allow you to save data directly to the card, but not all) you could spend as much as £100 for a 32GB Vita memory card.
These prices are tantamount to highway robbery, especially given that a standard 32 GB SanDisk SDHC memory card costs roughly £30. Sony's decision to design the Vita to use a proprietary format of external memory and then charge inflated prices for Vita memory cards is a blatant bit of profiteering that directly harms the consumer, besmirching an otherwise laudable piece of gaming hardware.
There's also a built-in web browser that functions reasonably well. It uses touch for navigation and onscreen keyboards for text entry, and resembles an oversized Android browser. The Vita browser supports neither HTML5 nor Flash as of this review.
The PlayStation Vita has a pair of front and rear-facing 0.3 MP VGA cameras, and they're both terrible. During testing the Vita regularly captured photos that appeared blurry and dim with poor contrast between light and dark areas. The Vita 1.6 firmware update added a video recording feature to the Camera app, but the quality of video captured using the Vita's cameras is equitably poor. These cameras work well enough for playing the occasional augmented-reality game, but for snapping photographs suitable for sharing you're better off using a dedicated camera, or your smartphone.
The PlayStation Vita packs a quad-core PowerVR Series 5XT SGX543MP4+ GPU that's similar (though superior) to the dual-core SGX543MP2 GPU which powers the Apple iPhone 4S and iPad 2. The Vita's GPU does a fantastic job of rendering movies and games without a hitch; during testing we played several graphically demanding Vita games (including Uncharted: Golden Abyss, Lumines: Electronic Symphony, Super StarDust Delta and Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3) and they all looked fantastic, with nary a dropped frame or graphical glitch to speak of.
The Vita also boasts respectable battery life, and during testing we were able to eke out just under five hours of fun playing games, watching movies and listening to music at maximum brightness and maximum volume before our Vita review unit ran out of juice. Thankfully it only takes about an hour and a half to completely charge the battery via the AC adaptor.
While our Vita review unit included a 3G radio, we were unable to assess the performance of the AT&T 3G on Vita units at the time of review without a compatible 3G SIM card. Once we have thoroughly tested the 3G functionality of the Vita we will update the review accordingly.
The first thing you notice holding the Sony PlayStation Vita is that the hardware is solid and relatively large for a handheld. I have relatively large hands (for reference, I refused to upgrade from the original DS to the Nintendo DSi since the larger body of the original was more comfortable for me to hold) and while using the Vita I needed to stretch my index fingers to tap the shoulder buttons. That isn't to say the Vita is uncomfortable to hold; in fact, it's surprisingly light and ergonomic. However, some design allowances clearly had to be made to make room for the handheld's 5 inch screen, and the device probably won't fit comfortably in your pocket.
One look at the screen will tell you why Sony was willing to build a whole console around it. It's crisp and clear and if the Sony PlayStation Vita feels a little big for a handheld, then the screen seems positively huge. I've never been a big believer in having more screen real estate on handheld devices, but the Vita certainly makes a strong argument for it.
Video playback seemed solid during my time with the device and I could certainly see myself making the Vita my portable video player over even an iPhone or Android device. Between the fantastic screen quality and the graphics of the launch games, the Sony PlayStation Vita often feels more like a scaled-down console than a scaled-up handheld.
But while the hardware gets the big picture right, it stumbles a little in the fine details. The Vita's twin thumb sticks were slightly too small for me to use comfortably during my tests, and I could see that minor annoyance becoming a major one during periods of prolonged play. The sensitivity of the Sony PlayStation Vita's touchscreen also seemed slightly off, requiring just a bit too much of a push and taking a moment too long to respond to really feel natural. This was especially obvious when dealing with the Vita's UI which, while pretty, fails to impress since it feels a little like a slightly sluggish (and more bevelled) version of a typical iOS or Android interface.
However, a lot of those problems fall away when you start actually playing with the Sony PlayStation Vita's games. The graphics in first generation Vita games such as Virtua Tennis 4 and Uncharted: Golden Abyss are amazing for a handheld. The games really do feel at times like playing a console game on your handheld.
Sadly, when the games try and take advantage of the Vita's more unique capabilities the results (for now, at least) feel more gimmicky than anything else. For example, the touchscreen menu interface in Uncharted felt like an obligatory hurdle thrown in to remind you that you aren't playing this game on your PlayStation 3. This is a real shame, especially since the actual game at times does feel like playing Uncharted on the PS3, which is pretty amazing. Unfortunately, the hardware demos for the Vita's camera and location-aware capabilities just feel like a reminder that the Vita has a camera and a GPS unit.
Of course, many of the same criticisms were made of the Nintendo DS touchscreen at launch as developers struggled to figure out how exactly to take advantage of the possibilities of the hardware. We'll have to wait and see if the PlayStation Vita can build a robust games library that takes advantage of it's camera, GPS and touchscreen capabilities.
As with any new gaming platform, the key to success for the PlayStation Vita is the development of sufficient great games, but we like the design and build of the Vita.