Since 1989, Nintendo has been the gold standard when it comes to handhelds. There have been many challengers to the throne -- the Sega Game Gear, Neo Geo Pocket Color and Nokia N-Gage -- all ultimately defeated by Nintendo's seemingly untouchable popularity.
But Sony isn't giving up. As the latest contestant for the handheld superiority, the $199 PS Vita Slim is a svelter take on the original Vita. In addition to the sleeker look, the Slim offers an expanded game library and remote play goodness for your PS4. But does Sony's sequel have what it takes to finally win me (and you) over?
It's not called the Slim for nothing. The new Vita weighs 8.2 ounces and measures 0.4 x 4.1 x 5.3 inches, which is notably smaller and lighter than the original (9.9 ounces, 7.2 x 3.3 x 0.7 inches).
Sony also gave the Slim a number of cosmetic tweaks that make the device look more mature than the original. Instead of the matte gray and chrome accents on the first Vita, the Slim's clear plastic D-pad and face buttons are glossy black, as are the power and volume buttons. Sony kept the pair of clear plastic bumpers, but they're definitely smaller. Other minor changes include making the PlayStation, Select and Start buttons circular instead of oval.
The Slim's 3.5 x 2.2-inch touch panel is surrounded by black matte plastic that wraps elegantly around the sides. It's slightly smaller than the original Vita's touchpad, which measured 4.4 x 1.8 inches. However, the black matte handgrips on the Slim are larger, making for a more comfortable grip.
Sony managed to cram a few more ports along the Slim's bottom, including microUSB, a headphone jack and proprietary slot for Vita memory cards.
Any time a company presents a lighter, slimmer version of a gadget, you can expect a compromise or two. In the case of the Vita Slim, that sacrifice manifests in the display. The handheld still boasts a 5-inch touch panel with a 960 x 544 resolution. Sony, however, has replaced the original's OLED screen with LCD technology.
In a side-by-side comparison, the original Vita delivered brighter colors than the Slim, particularly when it came to reds and blues. When we checked out Borderlands 2's cel-shaded vistas, the colors definitely popped more on the OLED panel. However, details on both systems were about even, as evidenced by the fuzziness of the falling snow and exploding gas tanks.
The Slim offers generous viewing angles, preventing colors from washing out. The panel is also bright enough to allow playing in direct sunlight, but at 205 lux, is somewhat dimmer than its predecessor, which hit 222 lux.
Controllers and Touchpad
Outside of a few decorative changes, the Vita's dual analog sticks haven't changed much, which is both good and bad. When I played Dragon's Crown, the sticks delivered smooth, relatively precise movement. However, it's one thing to play a hack-and-slash game, and quite another to play a first-person shooter.
When I started braving the wilds of Pandora in Borderlands 2, the small sticks became somewhat of a hindrance. Although I was dispatching bullymongs and psychos left and right, I had some difficulty lining up shots. I found myself constantly fighting with the sticks to line up headshots.
We had an even tougher time with the melee button mapped to the rear touch panel. Despite the designated handgrips, I found my fingers continuously landing on the touchpad, causing our Psycho to flail his club wildly. Combined with the imprecise targeting, I wouldn't recommend playing Borderlands or any other multiplayer shooter on the Vita. Unless you're fond of catching facials.
Software and Interface
Not much has changed concerning the software and interface on the Vita Slim, which remains a nice blend of current smartphone touch-screen conventions blended with the PlayStation 3 layout.
Games, apps and utilities are still represented as colorful circular buttons that wiggle when you swipe over them. The icons look slightly cleaner on the Slim than the original, but aside from that, everything else looks and functions the same.
The peel-away panel with the large digital clock still graces the lock screen, while the home-screen features 10 icons including PS Store, Browser and Welcome Park, the Vita tutorial. When you install a new game or app, a new icon is created.
Launching an app takes gamers to LiveArea, which opens to the right of the home screen. You can open six LiveArea screens at a time, which makes the navigation fairly simple. A quick tap of the PS button shows the panels in a cascading view, while holding the button for 2 seconds launches a Settings display.
The small start panel in the center of each LiveArea screen launches the program. A small life preserver icon at the top of every screen still opens the online PS Vita manual in case you need help. Similar to the icons, each LiveArea screen sports its own look, creating visually appealing presentations.
Game Selection and Quality
What a difference two years make. When I reviewed the original Vita, there were only 25 titles available, such as Uncharted: Golden Abyssand Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom. The PS Vita library now hosts more than 1,000 games, comprised of a mix of exclusive Vita titles and games ported from the PlayStation One and PlayStation Portable.
Although Dragon's Crown is my current addiction, you'll also want to check out Street Fighter X Tekken PS Vita, Child of Light or Persona 4 Golden. Original Vita games, such as Uncharted, can also be played on the Slim via digital download or a physical copy.
While the Vita library appears to be growing at a healthy pace, you won't find many AAA titles. Assassin's Creed: Liberation, Persona 4 and Lego Marvel Super Heroes are some of the exceptions. Titles such as Call of Duty, Battlefield and Madden are noticeably absent. However, the Vita is quickly becoming the go-to gadget for indie games such as Doki Doki Universe, Worms Revolution Extreme and MouseCraft, which isn't a bad thing.
Game prices range from $1.99 to $39.99. The Vita also has a growing collection of free-to-play titles, including Zen Pinball 2 PS Vita and Jetpack Joyride.
Like the original, the Vita Slim features Remote Play, which lets you play PS3 or PS4 games on your Vita -- provided everything's connected to the same network. I tested the feature out with great success when my boyfriend wanted to watch the Mets game and I wanted to continue my marathon run of Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag.
Setup takes about 5 minutes on either console once all the settings have been adjusted on the handheld and console. From there, it's just a simple matter of launching the PS3 Remote Play App (PlayStation 3) or the PS4 Link app (PlayStation 4) and waiting 3-4 seconds for the systems to find each other.
Once I launched the app and the Vita Slim and my PS4 were synced, I continued looting ships and slaying Templars. Sure, it's a smaller display, but at least I didn't have to stop gaming. (The Mets lost, by the way.)
While Remote Play comes in handy when it's time to share the TV, be aware that not all games are compatible with Remote Play. And even if they are, some only work on PS3.
Gamers who own both a PS4 and a Vita Slim can use the handheld's Second Screen ability. The feature essentially uses the Vita's display as a companion app, providing gamers with additional content. If it's not being used for gaming, Second Screen doubles as a remote for your PS4, allowing you to navigate between apps using the touch screen.
In terms of gaming, there aren't many options. I used Second Screen with Playroom, the cute robot-themed demo. In this scenario, the Vita lets players create toys for the little robots to play with.
I'd love to see Second Screen support such titles as Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag and Infamous: Second Son. However, it's difficult to persuade developers to create this functionality for the Vita when it's easier to make apps for Android and iOS that will ultimately reach more people. Case in point: Ubisoft created a companion app for Assassin's Creed IV that transforms your smartphone into an interactive world map, allowing players to send their fleet on missions, set waypoints and view treasure maps.
Just like the interface, Sony left the Vita's pre-installed apps and programs untouched. In addition to the Welcome Park, PS Store and the Browser, the social-minded Friends, Party and Near apps make a return. Friends lets you keep tabs on which of your friends are online in the PlayStation Universe. Party lets you start a group voice chat with up to eight people no matter what game you're playing.
Near is Sony's take on Nintendo's StreetPass, combining geo-location, social networking and gaming. The software allows gamers to check into locations and see what other PS Vita gamers are playing at the moment. The Friends feature taps into the Friends app, while the Out & About feature helped me find a gamer walking around Union Square Park who was also playing Borderlands 2.
Sony's Music app lets you stream tunes from a PlayStation 3 or PC or access the music downloaded to the Vita Slim's memory card using the Content Manager app. Streaming music from my PC took some work, including installing the Content Manager Assistant app on the PC and putting both devices on the same network. It took about 15 seconds to sync up with my Lenovo Y50, but overall it was a relatively painless process. I recommend using this method instead of taking up precious gaming space on Sony's expensive, proprietary memory card.
Just in case you get lost tracking down your fellow PlayStation Petsplayers, Google Maps has been added to get back on track. Just like the original Vita, this version offers Map and Satellite views along with Directions.
Other apps include Settings, Parental Controls, Email and PS3 Remote Play. A recent update added the PS4 Link app, which enables gamers to set up remote play on their PlayStation 4s or use the Vita Slim as a second screen.
In addition to games, the PlayStation store also features such entertainment apps as Netflix, Hulu, Redbox Instant by Verizon, Crackle, Skype and YouTube.
The PlayStation Vita Slim has the same quad-core ARM Cortex-A9 MP Core processor as its predecessor, but double the RAM at 1GB. I found myself zipping through apps and screens. Most apps took less than a second to launch, while games took 2 seconds on average.
The Slim's SGX543MP4+ GPUdid a marvelous job rendering Dragon's Crown.It felt like I was playing in a masterfully painted storybook. My scantily clad Amazon and her band of heroes smoothly hacked and slashed their way through legions of orcs, skeletons and other things that go bump in the night.
If only things were that seamless on Borderlands 2.As I made my way through the harsh, unforgiving world of Pandora, there were a few instances of stuttering that took away from the overall experience. It's bad enough having to incorporate the rear touch panel for such a dedicated shooter. But watching the game struggle to render can be maddening. Textures on the cel-shaded title were muddier than playing the game on my PC and PlayStation 3.
In addition to shelling out money for games and apps, gamers should also put aside a few dollars for a memory card. In some sort of nefarious plot, Sony chose not to add any onboard memory to the handheld, so shoppers are forced to purchase one of Vita's proprietary memory cards.
Those who purchase the Borderlands 2bundle will get an 8GB memory card with the game. Otherwise, gamers can expect to pay from $14.99 for a 4GB memory card to $79.99 for a 32GB card. Amazon also sells 64GB cards for a whopping $94.99. The cards are pricey, but definitely necessary. The Vita version of Dragon's Crownis a manageable 980MB but Borderlands 2 will take up decent chunk of space at 4.9GB.
Camera and Camcorder
The Vita Slim sports the same 1.3 megapixel front- and rear-facing cameras as the original, and both capture images and video in 640 x 480. In addition to the fairly low resolution, many of my test shots lacked vibrancy. The deep rich reds, bold purples and radiant yellows in bouquets of flowers were reduced to pale, ashen shadows of themselves.
When I snapped a few selfies, I noticed that both my skin tone and my turquoise shirt looked washed out. Details, such as the flower petals on my shirt and my curled locks were very grainy.
The lackluster color and detail carried over to the video I captured of passing New York City traffic. Normally golden taxis looked dusty.
If switching from OLED to LCD has no other advantage, it helps extend the battery life. When I played Borderlands 2on the original Vita at full brightness, I got a little over 3 hours of gameplay. On the Vita Slim, that time jumped to 4 hours and 27 minutes.
Sony hasn't given up on the PlayStation Vita, and with good reason. For $199, this is the most powerful gaming handheld on the market. Smaller dimensions, longer battery life and a steadily growing catalog of games makes a compelling case to add the Vita to your tech arsenal. Gamers who already own a PS3 or PS4 get the added bonus of Remote Play, Second Screen and a host of other features. However, the dearth of AAA titles is a problem that Sony will need to solve if it wants its handheld to be perceived as more than a console accessory.