Vita's Breath Of Life For The Handheld Console

The Nintendo 3DS put 3D gaming in consumers' hands last year without the need for special glasses. Now Sony is launching its own take on next-generation portable gaming in the form of the PlayStation Vita, with its superior motion and touch controls, social networking features and cameras.

The notion of a dedicated handheld games console seems almost quaint in the age of the iPad and smartphone gaming. An extra nail in the coffin of such devices appeared to be hammered in a year ago, when Sony unveiled the Xperia Play, an Android phone with slide-out controllers that are very similar to those on a PlayStation 3 or PSP (PlayStation Portable).

But now, Sony is back with the PlayStation Vita. It is a big advance on the PSP – but will it give dedicated handhelds a new lease of life, or prove to be a last hurrah?

While there is nothing retro about the Vita right now, it may well be viewed by gamers in the future like a classic car, since Sony has thrown in all the pads, buttons, paddles and joysticks that gamers cherish "the equivalent of tail fins and chrome ex­hausts – while crossing over into the age of motion and touch controls that have the ease of a car's power-steering and automatic transmission.

Although not quite the true hardcore gamer, I took an instant liking to the Vita as soon as I handled it. Although it has a solid, quality feel, it is not too heavy and has comfortable hollowed grips at the rear. In fact, its array of buttons and rockers make it so tactile that I found myself tapping away even when it was not on, as if it were some kind of executive-toy stress-reliever.

The centre of the Vita is a sumptuous 5in OLED screen that is excellent for watching videos or for enjoying the high level of detail in the new games developed for it.

While the many controls look intimidating at first, I found it far easier to use and to navigate than the PSP and even Nintendo's 3DS. That was largely down to the very responsive touchscreen and its intuitive functionality, as it is easy to swipe through and switch options, games and features, and dismiss them in a page-turning action or touch them to play. The now-familiar pinch-and-zoom gesture also works to make web pages more legible when using the built-in browser.

Uniquely, the back of the console is also touch-sensitive, although this capability has yet to be fully exploited in Vita games. Nevertheless, in Electronic Arts' Fifa Soccer, where the idea is to think of the back as the frame of the goal and press on an area to produce a target spot, I was unerringly able to direct my shot.

When I tried the motion-sensing capabilities in the Wipeout racing game, I was able to steer my vehicle more steadily by tilting the Vita than when using one of the joysticks.

Sony is promising social networking features at launch through downloadable apps from the PlayStation Store. So expect to be able to tweet, update your Facebook status and hold Skype conversations with the built-in microphone and cameras. Its Music Unlimited service will also launch on the Vita.

But there are a few less than satisfying aspects to the Vita. Its speakers are a bit tinny, the battery life is only four to five hours and it uses overpriced proprietary memory cards. Games can cost $50, which is pricey compared with Apple's App Store, where many games for the iPad and iPod touch are free.

The front and rear cameras are no more than adequate for taking pictures, but they can be used for augmented-reality games using special cards included with the console.

Already available in Japan and due for release in North America, Europe and Australia next week, the Vita costs $250 (€249, £210 in the UK) in a WiFi version and $300 (€299, £260) with added 3G connectivity.

Vita's name means "life" but comes from a dead language, Latin, and it does pose the question of whether this category faces life or death. I would choose life "the Vita is a high-quality, signature Sony product, but its pricing, game selection and the public's response will be the final arbiters.

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