First Looks// PS Vita Experience: The Portability

Posted 30 Jan 2012 17:40 by
This third and final feature on the PlayStation Vita focuses on a key factor of any handheld device - its portability. You might think that this is a rather obvious point - ?Svend, the whole reason for the existence of a portable console is so you can carry it around with you,? I hear you cry... probably with an added ?Doofus? remark at the end. But there?s more to portability than just holding a device in your hands.

Recall the heady days of Nintendo?s Game Boy, for example - sure, you could play games on the go, but you needed some serious trouser space to fit that bad boy in your pocket. We?ve come a long way since then - Game Boy Advances have shrunk, DS revisions have grown larger, and the iPhone has pretty much smoked the competition in size thanks to its lack of buttons.

Sony has always had a penchant of being a bit of a showoff, and this was evident in the PSP. It was bigger than its rivals, because the company was keen to pack in the nicest, biggest screen possible in a portable device. Nevertheless, it still fit (somewhat) snugly in your pocket. The PlayStation Vita continues the ?flash over form? philosophy with its gorgeous OLED screen, but there was a practical reason for the increase in size too - dual analogue sticks, and a desire to actually make it ergonomically friendly.

As you would expect, portability takes a massive hit because of this. The Vita isn?t so big that it won?t fit in your jeans (although I would never put it in my back pocket - who puts their phones and other electronic devices in their back pocket anyway?), but it is definitely uncomfortable. It?s a sturdy little thing, so you can brave the daily commute without fearing that a bad knock will snap off those analogue sticks or smash the screen. If you do want to carry it in your pocket without any covers or cases, just be wary of having it face your leg - the sticks happily roll around as you walk, making for a quite unpleasant time.

Portability isn?t just about the design and form factor of a device, though. Playing games on the go with the Vita is a rather pleasant experience - much more convenient than it ever was with a PSP. The console can be put to sleep and awakened in an instant (assuming you only get distracted for a split second on the train or bus - if you leave it in sleep mode for a long time, it takes a few more seconds for the Vita to wake up), and once you peel away the lock screen and resume a game you can jump into the action without any loading issues.

That?s something that should be commended, and probably a big reason why you can only keep one Vita game hanging in the background at any time in the LiveArea. Sadly, loading hasn?t been eliminated completely - even though the handheld dumps those ridiculous Universal Media Discs in favour of card-based media, I?m still experiencing some lengthy loading times between menus and gameplay.

When you consider that my Vita review unit is running games that have been downloaded onto the system directly, and I?m still getting loading times, that?s even more of a concern. Some games are taking 20 seconds or so to load - faster than a PSP but still not good enough for games installed on a device where time is a valuable commodity.

Battery life, on the other hand, is quite good despite what you might have read. Yep, you do only get about six hours or so on a single charge, but in real world terms if you?re travelling from place to place and spending time playing games on the train or bus, it can actually last longer than you will expect. The low-power standby mode is impressive as well - I managed to make the Vita last a good day and a half by playing on the train, and leaving it on standby when socialising or sleeping. If you?re playing a game, it does heavily impact the length of time you have left before you need to charge it, however - constant play will last you less than half a day.

Sony has included a software application in the Vita that tracks your location and informs you of downloadable game goodies and nearby players. It?s called Near, and on paper it sounds an awful lot like the Nintendo 3DS StreetPass feature. Unfortunately, while it?s a nice curiosity, it?s a bit clumsy and doesn?t really offer the same level of interaction as Nintendo?s device does.

Which brings me nicely to a rather important point about taking advantage of the full portability functions of the Vita - it seems that Sony built this handheld with 3G connectivity in mind. Not just in terms of convenience - being able to connect to PlayStation Network and check trophies, friends and online games for example - but for most of its interactivity features.

Here?s how it comes back to Near - you can?t use the application without being able to connect to an online service. Once you do, you need to press the ?Near? button in the corner of the app so that your location can be found. You?re then taken to a screen which shows the footsteps you?ve taken today (kind of like the built-in pedometer on the 3DS) and any players that are within a certain radius of your position.

Players who don?t want to be identified using Near can make themselves anonymous, but in doing so you can?t interact or see the identity of any other players, whether they have made their accounts public or not. Which is pretty cool for security purposes. But for those who want to meet new people via their Vitas in public, you?re pretty much stuck unless you want to shell out for the WiFi + 3G version.

For a start, the pedometer tracking in Near is a bit of a useless metric without a constant internet connection. I took my review unit with me on a jaunt from my house in Essex all the way to Central London and back - obviously I wasn?t connected to the internet during this time. When I returned home and reconnected to Near, the app happily told me I had travelled a mere ?one mile? that day. My aching feet knew otherwise!

Near sounds like the perfect application to use in an ad-hoc situation too - if you want to discover nearby Vita owners in an arcade or other social area, you should be able to have the option to invite them to a race on WipEout using said ad-hoc connection. Unfortunately, with an online requirement for Near, you?re limited to those who are connected to PlayStation Network. Half of them don?t want to know you, and the majority of places don?t have free WiFi.

Overall, PlayStation Vita is a handheld that shows a lot of gaming promise - the launch line-up is solid and varied, the technology is top notch and the experience in holding and playing with one is quite a treat. Where it falls down right now is in its networking opportunities. Nintendo has the upper hand when it comes to meeting passers-by and interacting with nearby players, while Sony is resting on an online-only crutch that may prove to be quite the disadvantage.

Let?s hope that future software updates find workarounds that take advantage of ad-hoc, because without it people might not be encouraged to use it in public and on impulse. StreetPass turned out to be an effective and very popular application for Nintendo - Sony should look to this, as it needs to be firing on all cylinders when it comes to convincing consumers that they need a Vita come launch.

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