Hands on: A curmudgeon's view of the Playstation Vita

Sony's new handheld gaming system, the Playstation Vita, has arrived! I got mine yesterday and just wanted to share some really early thoughts. Let's be clear: like most of you reading this, I have a day job, so I didn't get my hands on my Vita until after work yesterday. But also like most of you, I had to open my wallet to get it, and I firmly believe you look at things differently when you're spending your own money, as opposed to having new hardware loaned to you.

If you want an in-depth review from a journalist who was given a Vita a week or two ago and so has had time to really put it through its paces, both Kotaku and The Verge have done a great job with their reviews.

First let's talk about the First Edition Bundle, which is the only way to get a Vita before the 22nd. The FEB costs $349.99 and is based on the 3G version of the Vita. On the 22nd there will also be a $299.99 Launch Bundle (also based on the 3G version) and a WiFi-only Vita that sells for $249.99.

In addition to the Vita, the First Edition Bundle includes a 4 GB memory card, a copy of the Little Deviants Vita game, and a case. If you sign up for a month of 3G service from AT&T, you'll get a free game...but only after 30 days of service. That catch was kind of a drag since the free game, Super Stardust Delta, looks pretty good.

The 4 GB memory card is enough to get you started but you'll probably want to buy something larger if you're planning on buying games digitally. If you're the physical media type then 4 GB should be all you ever need for saved games and stuff.

The case is actually pretty nice, with separate compartments for the Vita, game or memory cards and a small section for a USB cord or, if you're really good at packing, maybe the power cord.

Litttle Deviants is $30 at retail but hasn't been getting great reviews. My opinion of it is still very much "To Be Determined."

Bottom line is that if you've held off this long, you should probably wait until next Wednesday and get the launch bundle. You'll get a bigger memory card (8 GB) and the same free game with AT&T service deal, and you can use the $50 you save to buy a case and some accessories or one of the lower priced games.

OK let's move on to what's in the Vita box. My first disappointed was getting power to this thing. The Vita charging cable comes in 3 parts. A very small 'brick' and two cables. One cable goes from the wall socket to the brick, the other cable is USB on one end and proprietary Vita connector on the other. To charge the Vita you plug the USB end into the brick and the other end into the Vita.

That's all well and good but sadly there's no other cable in the box, so when you want to connect the Vita to a PS3 or PC you have to dis-assemble your charging station to do it. Further, if you're anything like me you have a USB cable hanging off your PS3 for charging Sixaxis controllers and connecting your PSP. It would've been really, really nice if you could use that same cable with the Vita, but nope. Sony had to go the proprietary connection route.

I should add I also bought the Sony Vita Cradle for $20 and it does NOT come with a cable; you have to use the one that comes with the Vita. An extra USB cable will cost you $15 and an extra AC adapter (sans USB cable) another $15; you'll need both if you want to leave the cradle set up at home and carry a charger with you on the road. Sony also offers headphones with an integrated microphone for $20; no earbuds are included with the Vita.

Basically Sony is really nickle and diming us when it comes to accessories.

When you open the box the Vita will already be charged; that's the good news. The bad news is that there's an update waiting for you, and it takes 15-20 minutes for it to download and install. Unfortunately the need for this update interrupts the flow of the set-up process; you can't enter you PSN credentials until you apply the update. After the update is applied the Vita will reboot and the set-up process doesn't restart. It's not a huge deal but it means you'll have to find the Settings app or enter the PS Store to get prompted to log in.

Once you get everything set up you'll be staring at the home screen which contains 10 app 'bubbles' on it. A second screen (swipe down) has another 6. "Welcome Park" is designed to teach you to use various functions of the device and you can start there if you really think you need instruction on how to use a touch screen. But hey, you can earn some Trophies from playing it and I have to admit I found myself enjoying the silly little challenges.

All the time you're looking at your home screens there's some 'soothing' music playing. For the sake of your sanity, hit the Settings App, the Sound & Display, and you can toggle off "System Music."

I headed right to the PS Store to download a game (Escape Plan) that I'd purchased the night before. It's not a huge game (843 megs) but downloading it was incredibly slow. It was going to take hours to download over WiFi. Maybe Sony's servers were jammed with new Vita owners or maybe there's something wonky going on with my WiFi. I'm going to need to compare notes with other Vita owners to see if they had the same speed issues. I can't imagine downloading a 'full sized' game like this; it would take days.

I'd actually downloaded the game on my PS3 yesterday, so I canceled the on-board Vita download and took the device into the living room to connect it to the PS3. When the Vita connects, the PS3 essentially 'blanks out' and you do all the data manipulation from the Vita side of things. Moving my downloaded copy of Escape Plan was easy enough to do, but I was disappointed that it literally moved the file, rather than copying it. In other words, as part of the process, the archived version of Escape Plan was deleted from the PS3. I could always download it again if I needed to but why add that hassle?

I moved a PSP game over too, and in that case it didn't delete the file from the PS3.

I'm doing a lot of griping, right? Well, I'm a cranky old gamer, what can I say? And you'll notice (I've been writing this post at the same time I've been exploring the Vita) I still haven't really played any games.

So I stopped dissecting the device and started actually playing games and it didn't take long for a lot of that crankiness to drop away. This first batch of games seems determined to show off the unique control features of the Vita, which I suppose is understandable. For example Escape Plan is all touch-driven and could really be on any tablet or smart phone...right up until you get to the parts where you have to tap both the front and back touch screens to move forward quickly (the prompt is actually to "squeeze" your on-screen character). Did the game really need these controls? Probably a 1-surface gesture could have been devised. But the way it plays now makes it feel uniquely Vita-ish, which is fun when you're a gamer with a new toy.

The Vita is comfortable to hold, but that back touch panel will take a bit of getting used to. The screen of course is lovely. I was using the built-in speakers and they're adequate but for serious play I'd definitely reach for a set of ear buds. I didn't have time to really dig into playing any of the games very deeply but in spite of a long post of gripes and concerns I'm still pretty happy with the system. I think the game that most impressed me (so far) was Mod Nation Racers: Road Trip just because there was really nothing about it that seemed 'mobile,' if you know what I mean. It felt like a full blown console title on a handheld device. You could argue that this is a bad thing and I might have agreed with you a few years ago, but today when people want a 5 minute game fix while waiting for the bus they've got a smart phone. Even though the Vita is a handheld, mobile device I think it needs to deliver big game experiences if it's going to compete with iOS and Android devices.

Some of the features we've heard about in advance, like Netflix and a native Twitter client, aren't out yet. I believe Netflix, at least, will be out before the 'full' launch next week. I did check out some downloaded video and after doing so I'm really looking forward to Netflix on this thing. Also I couldn't do much testing of the social features since so few people have a Vita at this point. I decided to chuck privacy to the wind and allow the world to see everything I'm doing via the "Near" app and I did spot one other Vita user about 5 miles away. I was encouraged that a service called "Near" cast such a wide net. My office is close to a mall, a Best Buy and a Gamestop so we'll see who I encounter when I bring the Vita in to show it off today.

So that was Day 1 of Vita ownership for me. There are certainly still questions and the biggest one is around developer support; no one can yet say how that will play out. But for now we've got a pretty healthy launch library and personally I've got 5 games to play on the Vita already so I know what I'll be doing this weekend. I'll try to do a quick follow-up post, maybe next week on launch day, to let you know how I'm liking the Vita after I've had time to live with it for a few days.

Read more of Peter Smith's TechnoFile blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Peter on Twitter at @pasmith. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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