Sony goes hardcore with new PlayStation Vita

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The first clue that Sony's new PlayStation Vita is something more than kid stuff is the quick- start guide. It's more than two feet long, with detailed instructions printed on both sides.

The Vita has higher ambitions than just keeping Junior occupied in the back seat for an hour or two. He may find himself competing with Dad for use of this gigantic, handheld game player/entertainment viewer/Web-access device.

The PlayStation Vita, which went on sale in the US Wednesday, is the successor to Sony's seven-year-old PlayStation Portable, and faces a vastly changed digital landscape. These days, smartphones and tablets are where the action is in handheld gaming. So the first question a dedicated device has to answer is: "What can you do that my iPhone can't?"

For Nintendo's 3DS last year, it was three-dimensional gaming. Sony's answer is to stuff the Vita with every kind of technology, controller and capability that might conceivably keep you amused. The result is a powerful companion for the hardcore -- and overkill for everyone else.

The Vita, which in the US costs $249 for a Wi-Fi-only model and $299 for one equipped with AT&T 3G data service, isn't designed for the small of hand. It measures about seven inches by three inches, and weighs a little more than nine ounces.

Buttons Galore

Another sign of its mature target audience is the variety and complexity of controls. The Vita features, in addition to the four iconic PlayStation buttons, the following: two joysticks, a directional control pad, left- and right-shoulder buttons, a six-axis motion detection system, front- and rear- facing cameras and a bright five-inch touchscreen.

Oh, and did I mention that the back of the Vita is a touchpad, too? Some games have you moving and tapping the back, which cuts down on the potential fatigue factor of holding the Vita with one hand while using the front touch screen.

Any game-playing device will rise or fall on the quality of the software available to take advantage of its capabilities. Vita games are available both on physical media and as downloads from the online PlayStation Store, and the early titles certainly seem promising.

Mad tilting

I spent time with Sony's "Uncharted: Golden Abyss" ($50) admiring the richly detailed jungle-temple graphics and smooth, fast gameplay even as I was madly tilting the Vita so my alter ego Nathan Drake could take aim and blast away at bad guys.

The small size of the on-screen players in Electronic Arts's "FIFA Soccer" ($40) added to the challenge for these myopic eyes, but I was able to score occasionally, which will astonish anyone who's ever played against me. (The PlayStation Vita is also compatible with the legions of games already available for the PlayStation Portable.)

Games aren't all you can do with the PlayStation Vita. It includes a Web browser, as well as access to thousands of movies and TV episodes through the Sony Entertainment Network. Be aware that the video content is downloaded to and stored on the device, not streamed as with Netflix, so if you're connecting over the air, don't expect to start watching anything quickly. It took 2 1/2 hours to download "Green Lantern" over Wi-Fi.

Pricey memory

Speaking of storage, Sony has opted to use a proprietary memory card for the Vita, and it isn't cheap: $100 for 32 gigabytes. Further adding to the potential expense are the AT&T data plans for the 3G model: $15 a month for 250 megabytes of data, and $30 for three gigabytes.

Luckily for the storage-challenged -- not to mention the impatient -- a Netflix app is promised for the Vita, as are Facebook, Twitter and Skype, though none is available yet.

Battery life will vary significantly depending on what you happen to be doing on the Vita. Intensive gamers may find themselves looking for a power outlet in as little as three hours, though I managed more than five with a combination of tasks, including moderate gaming, a little Web surfing and downloading and watching the movie.

If you're like most people, there are many simpler, cheaper ways to electronically amuse yourself. The PlayStation Vita is for those who think digital fun is serious business.

Rich Jaroslovsky
Rich Jaroslovsky is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

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