The PlayStation Vita is back for an encore.
The original Vita, a successor the Sony's popular PSP, was released in early 2012, but the new model -- known alternately as the Vita PCH-2000, Vita 2000, or simply "the Vita Slim" -- is has been available in Japan for months, and just hit the UK on 7 February. It's lighter and thinner than the original model, but the 5-inch touch-screen is now LCD rather than OLED.
When the Vita Slim hits US shores in the spring, it will arrive bundled with Borderlands 2 (with credits for six downloadable add-on packs) and an 8GB memory card for $200.
We'll do a fresh, hands-on review of US bundle when it arrives later this year. But don't expect it to vary much from the review that follows, which was conducted with the UK version of the Slim.
Take a quick glance at the new Vita and you might not notice much difference from the existing model. It has the same basic shape -- a 5-inch display sits in the middle and is flanked by the same layout of buttons and analogue sticks on either side. Once you go in for a closer look, however, you'll notice the improvements.
Crucially, the new Vita is about 3mm slimmer than the previous model. That might not seem like a big difference, but it's surprisingly noticeable when you actually hold both models. Grabbing hold of it to play, the new model feels noticeably slimmer and rather more dainty.
Whether that's a good thing depends on the size of your hands. Personally, I found the slimmer model slightly more awkward to hold than the older, fatter model. By comparison, the old Vita feels rather more substantial when you're grabbing it in both hands, eagerly trying to cast Firaga in Final Fantasy 8. If you have smaller hands though, then perhaps the new size will suit. The rear ergonomic dents have been made marginally bigger which does help a little when it comes to getting a firm grip.
More welcome is the weight reduction. The new Vita weighs in 220g, a whole 42g lighter than its predecessor. While you probably won't notice much difference when it's banging about your rucksack, it certainly makes long gaming sessions a bit more comfortable for your wrists. I was able to slide the Vita Slim into an inside jacket pocket, and quickly forget it was there.
Another key change is the charging socket on the bottom. Gone is the proprietary charger port, replaced instead with the much more common micro USB port. Having gadget-specific chargers is always awkward as you need to make sure you take the dedicated charger with you when you trot off on holiday. With a Micro-USB socket on board however, you may find you already own several Vita Slim-compatible charging cables. Amazon's Kindle devices also charge over Micro-USB, as do most Android smart phones and tablets.
The action buttons on the right and D-pad on the left remain unchanged, as do the transparent shoulder buttons. The buttons are easy to press and comfortably spaced. The analogue sticks are the same small size and, crucially, haven't changed their position, so you won't need to get used to a new control layout. The touch-enabled back panel is still in place, although it's been shrunk slightly so you will need to stretch your fingers out more to swipe at it.
Compare the Vita Slim to the original model, and you'll see that a port that used to sit next to the games cartridge slot on the top has been removed. Don't worry that key features have been stripped away though -- this port has been the subject of various forum discussions as nobody really knew why it was there. It was called the "Accessory port" in Sony's manual, and Sony told me that it was installed to provide support for accessories that were never actually made. Sony claims the loss of this port contributed in making the Slim's body slightly thinner.
The Vita Slim retains the 5-inch screen, but Sony has swapped the old Vita's OLED panel, in favour of an LCD one. Initially that raised alarm bells, as OLED panels typically provide stunningly rich colours. Hearing that it had been removed didn't sound like good news.
My fears were quickly allayed however, as the new LCD panel is actually rather good. It doesn't have quite the same deep saturation as its OLED cousin, but I found it to have a slightly warmer, more natural colour tone. I certainly won't say the new Vita's screen looks better -- but it's no worse, just different. The colour tone on the new panel is different, sure, but I had to look at test images and settings menus on both screens at once to tell the difference. When you're in the middle of a game, I almost guarantee you won't find the new Vita's screen lacking in any way.
Both screens share the same 960x544-pixel resolution, which is sufficient to make small text in games or when browsing the Web look sharp and clearly readable. Whacking in a Full HD display of the kind you'd get on Sony's recent Xperia Z1 smart phone might make things look more crisp, but it would also be much more demanding of both the processor and the battery. As it stands, the screen is more than adequate, and is a good compromise for overall performance.
The original Vita managed 3 to 5 hours of gameplay on a single charge. Sony promised between 4-6 hours of gameplay for the Slim model, and our testing suggests that indeed, the improvement is relatively minor -- playing Killzone: Mercenary non-stop with the brightness turned to full, we took the Vita Slim from a full charge to zero power in just under four hours and 50 minutes.
We should note that Killzone: Mercenary is a very demanding game in terms of visuals. With lighter use, e.g., playing a less graphically demanding title, or only using basic apps, there's every chance you could eke out a little extra life from the Vita Slim. Gaming aside, Sony says you'll be able to play seven hours of video before the Vita Slim kicks the bucket, up from five hours on the previous version.
Storage and proprietary memory cards
The Vita has access to a wide array of games downloadable from the PlayStation Network, but these do take up quite a bit of space. Unlike the previous model, the new Vita comes with a built in 1GB of flash storage, which is appreciated, but isn't going to go far when individual titles like Killzone: Mercenary take up 3GB of space alone.
That onboard storage could, however, provide room for save files of games you've physically purchased, rather than installed. It still won't last long though, as some save-game files can take up over 70MB of space. Add on downloaded apps as well and you'll quickly find you've run out of room. When this happens you'll need to expand the storage -- and that will require you to splash out quite a bit more cash.
Unfortunately, the Vita Slim still only lets you expand its memory using proprietary Vita memory cards, which aren't cheap. A 32GB Vita memory card will set you back £65 on Amazon ($88 in the US). Compared with a standard 32GB microSD card (the storage medium accepted by Android phones and tablets), which can cost as little as £15 ($18), Sony's storage feels overpriced, and a real kick in the teeth when you've already forked out for the console itself.
Sony does offer a 4GB Vita card for £10 (about $12 in the US), but like the 1GB of on-board storage, that won't last you long once you download a game or two.
Vita Slim vs. Nintendo 3DS and 3DS XL
The Vita Slim doesn't exist in a vacuum -- there are plenty of other gaming gadgets competing for your cash. So how does Sony's system fare against the competition?