Marketing copy for Sony's new PlayStation Vita promises to let you "game at the speed of your mobile lifestyle." But mobile life is moving so fast these days that the Vita has trouble keeping up.
Sony's new handheld console, a sequel to the hit PlayStation Portable, arrived in the United States this week sporting top-notch hardware and industrial design that puts most mobile devices to shame. Its gleaming 5-inch screen causes passers-by to stop and stare. At its best, the Vita delivers on its promise of putting a console-quality experience in the palm of your hands.
But the real test of gaming hardware is in everyday use. And it's there that Vita falters, thanks to painfully slow load times that will frustrate the hard-core gamers Sony hopes will buy it.
For a device whose tagline is "Never stop playing," the Vita can take an awfully long time to start.
There are no two words you will encounter more than "Please wait." The phrase pops up every time you open a game or app, in an ugly black box, and often disappears only to reemerge a half-second later. When it's done with that, the Vita will ask you to wait while it contacts the PlayStation Network, an apparent antipiracy gesture.
The waiting continues once the games are running.
Launch "Wipeout 2048" and you'll sit through several loading screens each time, including a stern warning about epileptic seizures. When that's over, individual levels within the game can take a full minute to load. From the moment you tap the "Wipeout" app to the time you're starting to race, more than two minutes elapse - an eternity in today's world.
Especially going up against the comparatively speedy play on iOS and Android devices, where you can start playing most games in just a few seconds. Sure, the games are less sophisticated than the ones you'll find on the Vita. But they're often just as addictive, on hardware you probably already own, at a fraction of the price.
And make no mistake - gaming on the Vita can get expensive in a hurry. The device starts at $249 for a Wi-Fi-only version, and rises to $299 for a version that can access AT&T's 3G network (for an additional monthly fee). A proprietary 32-GB memory card will set you back another $100, in an era where SanDisk is selling similar cards for $38 on Amazon.com.
Games will cost almost as much on Vita as they do on the console: $50 for the best game on the platform, "Uncharted: Golden Abyss," and $40 for "Wipeout 2048." With a big memory card and a couple games, a fully stocked Vita can cost almost as much as an iPad 2.
Sony responds that Vita can do things no other mobile device can do, and they're right - having twin analog sticks and a full complement of buttons makes for richer game play than you'll find on a smart phone much of the time.
Some games are enabled with what Sony calls "cross play," which lets players save a game on a console and pick it up on their Vita. Cross play is limited to a few games, and annoyingly, some titles require you to buy the game for each platform to make it work. But it's a promising idea, and one that could make Vita a more attractive purchase to the 60 million owners of PlayStation 3.
Vita can also run Netflix streaming content, play movies rented or purchased from Sony's online store, and has dedicated apps for Facebook and Twitter. It comes with a serviceable browser for surfing the Web, and front and rear cameras for taking decent-enough pictures.
But other mobile devices do those things too, and in many cases do them better than the Vita. This device will succeed or fail based on the strength of its gaming - and for better or worse, our phones and tablets have taught us to expect games that are fast and cheap.
Hard-core gamers may want to play top-notch games when they're on the go, but at these prices they're more likely to settle for the good-enough games they can buy for their smart phones.
That's the real speed of our mobile lifestyle. If Sony wants the Vita to succeed, it will need to move faster.