How the Sony PS Vita Will Work

Sony's PS Vita is a robust gaming machine, loaded with features. Will it rule the handheld gaming market?
©2011 Sony Computer Entertainment Inc.

In early 2005, Nintendo's follow-up to the enormously successful Game Boy line was just gathering steam. The awkward-looking DS, so named for its dual screens, launched during the 2004 holiday season and was still an unproven entry in the handheld market. Previously, Nintendo's Game Boy had beaten back competing devices from Sega and Atari to reign as the undisputed handheld king. But the DS faced a very different enemy: the Sony PSP, a sleek system with the backing of the wildly successful PlayStation brand. The PSP jumped into the market boasting powerful graphics performance on a luxurious widescreen display and an optical disc format that could hold games akin to the caliber of PlayStation 2 titles. Nintendo, as usual, went with more humble, affordable hardware, with a simple hook: One of its two screens was touch capable.

How did things play out in the duel of the handhelds? Between 2005 and 2011, Sony managed to sell more than 67 million PlayStation Portables [source: Sony] -- not bad for the company's first handheld. Nintendo's "gimmick" sold more than 140 million units over that same time period [source: Nintendo]. Why is all this important? Because a rematch is on the horizon.

The successor to the Nintendo DS, the 3DS, debuted in March 2011 and is the first handheld with 3-D display capability. The follow-up to the PSP, dubbed the PS Vita, retains Sony's tradition of powerful hardware with its quad-core processor, dual analog sticks, touchscreen and rear touchpad. With the PS Vita scheduled for a late 2011 or early 2012 release, the two companies will once again go head-to-head for consumer dollars with a new generation of technology. The PS Vita is brimming with cutting-edge electronics and improvements made to the original PSP design. Will Sony's changes propel this device to new levels of success in the handheld market?

PS Vita Design Overview

The PS Vita has a similar look to its predecessor, the PSP.
The PS Vita has a similar look to its predecessor, the PSP.
©2011 Sony Computer Entertainment Inc.

Anyone who's seen a PlayStation Portable will recognize the PS Vita as Sony's next handheld gaming system immediately. The Vita retains the PSP's horizontal "slab" design, with movement controls -- a directional pad and an analog stick -- on the left side of a 16:9 screen, and the PlayStation's classic action buttons (triangle, square, X and O) situated on the right. Though Sony could tweak the PS Vita's exact dimensions before release, as of July 2011, the portable system measures 7.2 inches by .7 inches by 3.3 inches (1.8 centimeters by 1.9 centimeters by 8.4 centimeters) [source: Tested]. Sony hasn't specified the system's exact weight, but its dimensions are only slightly larger than the PSP's.

The PS Vita increases the PSP's screen size by 0.7 inches (1.8 centimeters), from 4.3 inches (10.9 centimeters) to an even 5 inches (12.7 centimeters), while doubling its resolution from 480 by 272 pixels to 960 by 544 pixels. The PS Vita's fancy OLED screen is even touch-sensitive, like today's smart phones and tablets [source: Tested]. That's just one of the new input methods available with the PS Vita: The PlayStation Portable's single analog nub has been revamped with a new joystick design, and Sony added a second joystick to the right side of the unit in between the action buttons and the Start and Select buttons. The basic button complement is rounded out by a PlayStation button and volume controls.

The PS Vita's top corners are guarded by the familiar L and R shoulder triggers, but around the back is something brand new: a second touchpad gamers can use with the tips of their fingers when gripping the handheld. Cameras have been added to the front and rear of the device, both joysticks are clickable (giving them a secondary button action like the joysticks on the PlayStation controller) and a microphone is built right in.

To fully understand everything Sony's added to the PS Vita, though, we'll have to look past the surface and dive into the PS Vita's hardware.

PS Vita's Powerful Hardware

The PS Vita's rear touchpad could significantly alter the way you play games.
The PS Vita's rear touchpad could significantly alter the way you play games.
©2011 Sony Computer Entertainment Inc.

Compared to the PSP, the PS Vita is an absolutely turbo-charged piece of pocket-sized technology. Of course, with a half decade of research and development in the mobile sector between the two devices' releases, that's no surprise. The PS Vita runs on a quad-core ARM Cortex-A9 processor, with each core capable of a clock speed up to 2GHz. The Cortex-A9 chip is already on the market in several high-end mobile devices, including Apple's iPad 2 and Android smart phones that use the Nvidia Tegra 2 system-on-a-chip [source: Anandtech]. However, those devices are all using dual-core Cortex-A9 processors, so the PS Vita and its four cores is an extremely powerful mobile device. To complement the Cortex-A9, Sony has outfitted the PS Vita with the PowerVR SGX543MP4+ graphics processor, which can push 133 million polygons onto the screen every second at a clock speed of 200MHz [source: Gamespot].

Sony hasn't revealed every minute detail of the PS Vita's hardware specifications. It's still unknown exactly how fast the CPU and GPU will run -- while faster clock speeds enable better performance, they also draw more power. Additionally, the amount of RAM in the handheld is unclear. Judging by the RAM of modern smart phones, the PS Vita will likely house a minimum of 512MB of RAM.

The PS Vita actually takes after smart phones in a number of ways; take away the five-inch screen and analog sticks, and the PS Vita packs some very familiar hardware. Sony has incorporated the same six-axis motion sensing system in the PS Vita that many smartphones have: It consists of a three-axis accelerometer and a three-axis gyroscope. These devices provide motion control capabilities and allow the device to detect its roll, pitch, and yaw. Another sensor, a three-axis electronic compass, gauges the PS Vita's orientation to the ground based on the Earth's magnetic field.

In addition to basic WiFi 802.11b/g/n support, Sony incorporated 3G, Bluetooth and GPS into the PS Vita. In June 2011, Sony announced that AT&T would be the exclusive cellular carrier for the PS Vita. The announcement was met with a less than enthusiastic response from the gaming community. Sony will offer a WiFi-only version of the PS Vita for consumers who aren't interested in a 3G contract with AT&T.

How the PS Vita Hardware Impacts Games

All the technical changes between the PSP and PS Vita mean gaming on the Vita will be significantly different from the PSP experience. Bolstered by its quad-core processor, the PS Vita outputs far more detailed graphics than ever seen before on a handheld. That's just an obvious surface-level change -- the hardware allows developers to cram more polygons into a single frame, which can lead to more exciting games, but ultimately a PS Vita 3-D action game will look quite a bit like a PSP 3-D action game. The extra control methods worked into the PS Vita's design are a more significant step forward.

The PS Vita 's second joystick, touchscreen and rear touchpad allow game developers to create new opportunities for interactivity. For example, first-person shooter games on home consoles rely on two joysticks for simultaneous control of movement and looking around. With the PSP's single joystick, that control layout wouldn't work, but the PS Vita can handle it. The touch controls represent a more radical change and give developers access to input methods typically seen on smart phones and tablets, and with the PS Vita's accelerometer and gyroscope, Sony can encourage phone game makers to bring their downloadable games to the PlayStation Network. Sony has already demonstrated how motion and touch controls can work in PS Vita games: the protagonist of "Uncharted" swings on ropes when the handheld is tilted back and forth and climbs ropes when the back touchpad registers up and down finger motions [source: Joystiq].

Because the PS Vita offers traditional video game controls in the form of joysticks and buttons, many games will still rely on those old standbys rather than reinvent themselves with touch- and motion-based experiences. Nevertheless, Sony now has a carrot to dangle in front of the mobile developers who have been making big money on Apple's iOS platform. Despite its powerful hardware, the PS Vita will play host to a broad range of games: Some development studios will try to match the graphics and gameplay of PlayStation 3 console games, while others will sell casual downloadable apps like "Angry Birds" on the PlayStation Network. Major development studios will have one more hardware change to look forward to with the PS Vita: Sony has ditched the Universal Media Disc (UMD) format it invented for the PSP and replaced it with flash memory, which brings with it improved storage capacity and shorter load times.

PS Vita Media Formats

The PS Vita will no longer use the Universal Media Disc that the PSP used.
The PS Vita will no longer use the Universal Media Disc that the PSP used.
©2011 Sony Computer Entertainment Inc.

When Sony debuted the PSP back in 2004, one of its major selling points was the Universal Media Disc. Years before, when Sony launched the PlayStation, it embraced a technology that had yet to prove itself in the gaming world: the CD. While Nintendo stuck to trusty cartridges, Sony chose CDs for the PlayStation, and the gambit paid off. CDs were cheaper and easier to press, and eventually PlayStation games would span multiple discs to make room for lengthy CG videos.

With the PSP, Sony once again displayed its affinity for optical media, creating a new disc format -- the UMD -- that was stored inside a plastic shell for protection, with a small unguarded window allowing a laser to read the disc. Sony pushed the UMD as a new media platform, and early in the PSP's life movies were released on UMD. But the format never really caught on, and the UMDs presented other problems: battery usage and slow load times [source: Gamespot]. With all that background information, this next sentence should come as no surprise: Sony has done away with the UMD in the PS Vita. That means no backwards compatibility with PSP disc games, but it also means a fresh start for the PS Vita.

Back in the 90s, when Sony chose the CD for the PlayStation, discs were far cheaper and more capacious than cartridges. Since then, flash memory has made remarkable strides in affordability and storage capability. The PS Vita will use a new flash memory cartridge format, dubbed the NVG, that comes in 2GB and 4GB sizes [source: Blog NGP]. Even at 2GB, the NVG flash cards hold more than the maximum capacity of a dual-layer UMD! Best of all, flash memory offers flexibility -- Sony can (and likely will) offer larger cards for more sophisticated games as the platform grows [source: Parfitt]. The PS Vita actually houses two slots for flash media -- one for the NGV, and one for another format, likely the Memory Stick PRO Duo the PSP supports for housing downloadable games and save data [source: Blog NGP].

As with the PSP, there will be downloadable games available from the PlayStation Network that don't see a full retail release. But this time, Sony's making sure it comes at both physical and digital distribution with a solid plan, which is why every game available on store shelves will be offered as a download, too [source: Parfitt].

Wireless Capabilities

The action adventure title "Uncharted: Golden Abyss" is one of the first games available for the PS Vita.
The action adventure title "Uncharted: Golden Abyss" is one of the first games available for the PS Vita.
©2011 Sony Computer Entertainment Inc.

The PlayStation Network represents a crucial part of Sony's video game strategy. The online store offers downloads ranging from full release games and demos to smaller, cheaper download-only titles. PSP users can even download original PlayStation games -- dubbed PSOne Classics -- and play 90s games once designed for the TV on a portable system. Sony plans to expand its PSN strategy with the PS Vita: One of its initiatives is called the PlayStation Suite, a new online storefront built for the PS Vita and Android devices alike [source: Engadget]. The rise of iOS and Android has dramatically shifted the downloadable game market towards cheap, bite-size experiences like "Angry Birds," which surpassed 100 million downloads in March 2011 [source: Joystiq].

Sony has obviously taken another concept from smart phones: 3G connectivity. 3G provides a data connection anywhere there's cellular coverage. This connection option makes online multiplayer gaming more accessible while providing constant access to the PlayStation Network. The catch, of course, is that 3G connectivity typically requires a data plan with a cellular carrier. Sony will likely ship the PS Vita in a WiFi only configuration, but a partnership with AT&T or Verizon could be in the cards for the PS Vita.

The PS Vita's last two wireless features, GPS and Bluetooth, will offer the functionalities both protocols are known for. Bluetooth primarily connects one mobile device to another, and gamers will able to sync their PS Vita to a pair of wireless headphones or another device to stream music. With GPS service, Sony could offer a GPS navigation app on the PS Vita or tie geolocation into a multiplayer gaming or chat service. GPS and 3G, like the quad-core processor powering the PS Vita, represent Sony's philosophy with its next handheld: Load the system with all the features of a modern multipurpose mobile device to make it the most powerful thing on the market.

Is that the right strategy to take on the Nintendo 3DS?

PS Vita versus 3DS

For the handheld gamers of 2011 and beyond, this is the big question: PS Vita or 3DS? The DS triumphed over the PSP in 2005 with far more units sold and a more expansive software library, but Sony managed to stay in the game with respectable sales numbers. Compared to bygone systems like the Atari Lynx, Sega Game Gear and Nokia N-Gage, all felled by the mighty Game Boy, the PSP was a resounding success.

The PS Vita and the 3DS are set to lock horns just like their predecessors did, with each company sticking to basically the same strategy they used in 2005. The PS Vita boasts more power with its quad-core processor, 3G connection capability, two touch inputs, GPS and a higher resolution display. The 3DS, like the DS before it, has a new feature that sets it apart: glasses-free 3-D on its top display. Once again, the bottom screen accepts touch inputs. With the DS, Nintendo did a poor job of incorporating online gaming and e-commerce. Compared to the PlayStation Network Store, Nintendo's DSiWare shop was a weak online portal for games. It launched years after the DS first hit the market and presented strict file size restrictions [source: NintendoLife]. Nintendo plans to rectify that problem with its eShop, a revamped portal for downloads. Once the PS Vita and 3DS spend a few months on the market at the same time, the quality of the superior online marketplace should shine through.

Simply judging by the control inputs offered by both systems, the PS Vita has the potential to deliver a wider variety of gaming experiences. Both systems have an analog stick, face and shoulder buttons, a touch screen, and accelerometer and gryroscope sensor packages. But the PS Vita offers a second analog stick and a second touchpad on the back of the device. Once again, only time will tell just how useful those extra inputs are to the handheld gaming consumer. Despite having less power-packed hardware than the PSP, the original DS received superior software support and had the backing of Nintendo's first party games like Nintendogs and Mario Kart. Either Sony will triumph with superior hardware, or history will repeat itself with a very familiar PS Vita versus Nintendo 3DS battle.

Release Date and Price

Sony is betting that the many features of the PS Vita will entice handheld gaming enthusiasts to choose it over the Nintendo 3DS.
Sony is betting that the many features of the PS Vita will entice handheld gaming enthusiasts to choose it over the Nintendo 3DS.
©2011 Sony Computer Entertainment Inc.

As of mid 2011, Sony has yet to announce every detail about the PS Vita. The handheld has a quad-core processor, but the exact clock speed remains a mystery. The PS Vita's price has been announced at $249 for the WiFi only model, and $299 for a version that supports WiFi and 3G.

An April 2011 report in the Wall Street Journal claimed Sony may have to delay the launch of the PS Vita due to the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, but Sony has stated that the natural disasters have had no effect on its launch plans [source: Joystiq]. So when will the system be available? The PS Vita will see a worldwide release by the end of 2011, according to Sony -- just in time for the holidays.

Play through to the next page for a PS Vita information power-up.

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