Last week, something rather extraordinary occurred at Sony.
Not only did incoming CEO Kazuo Hirai admit that the electronics behemoth could potentially be in serious financial danger, he all but blamed an attitude of complacency for its latest NZ$2.5 billion quarterly loss.
This surprisingly frank concession is all the more remarkable given that Hirai hails from the PlayStation side of the business, Sony's most successful division, but one that can hardly be lauded as hanging five atop a wave of innovation.
Hirai is, after all, the man who signed off on the PSPGo – an entirely redesigned PlayStation Portable that lacked UMD, cost more than the PSP-3000, sold poorly and yet has, according to Hirai, "done well for [PlayStation]".
Given this, it probably shouldn't have come as any great surprise to see Vita sales waning in Japan almost as soon as it launched in December last year. Questions hang over the viability of the device in a handheld market under siege from smartphones, while Sony continues to miss price points and fails to back up new hardware with strong game titles at launch. Is that the kind of complacency Hirai seems to have finally identified, having presumably located the memo underneath a recently vanished pile of cash?
On February 23rd, it's the turn of PAL territories to measure market demand for a device that belongs to a time-honoured yet increasingly niche hardware category – the dedicated portable gaming device.
Form over function?
OLED is a fantastic initialism. Not only does it sound like a cheerful Nordic greeting, it conjures up images of super-thin, super-sharp and blindingly bright digital displays at the cutting edge of technological advancement.
Just as well then, that the first real impression the Vita presents is that of the massive 5" (127mm) 960x544 touchscreen OLED display, the front-and-centre statement Sony has crafted to clearly remind competitors that the handheld market is just as susceptible to the type of Freudian logic leveraged when it comes time to purchase a new TV.
The next obvious feature is the relative lightness of the unit. Despite its massive physical proportions, the non-3G unit is a scant 260 grams, which is marginally lighter than the first-generation PSP (280 grams) and the first Nintendo DS (275 grams). At 182mm x 84mm, the Vita is considerably larger than both. Clearly, the lack of an optical drive and various moving parts associated with such outdated technology has contributed to weight savings, and generational advances in electronics technology has ensured the Vita is many times more powerful than any other handheld on the market today.
In a surprising decision no doubt related to the sheer size of the display, the Vita's face buttons and D-pad have been pushed to the very outside of the device on either side, and shrunk in size compared to the PSP that preceded it. The buttons are 7mm in diameter compared with the PSP's 9mm, and occupy a completely flat plain as opposed to a gentle slope. It's a curious outcome given that prolonged usage tends to cause discomfort, particularly in games that require buttons to be depressed for long periods of time.
The shoulder buttons are a marked improvement over the PSP, blending as they do entirely into the natural curve at the top of the device. Both have a great feel, and can be activated easily from almost any finger position.
Given that the lack of analogue sticks on the PSP is a serious shortcoming, it's little surprise the Vita has two. These are low-profile and well made, providing a wide range of movement with a pleasing amount of resistance. It would have been a supreme coup to equip these sticks with button functionality as well, but adding such a gesture to the too-hard bin is entirely forgiveable. A word of warning however – those blessed (or cursed, as the case may be) with large thumbs may find that being able to cover the right analogue stick and the entire collection of face buttons under one thumbprint isn't particularly advantageous during the heat of battle.
Indeed, hand and digit placement becomes even more crucial when the much-hyped rear touchpad is taken into consideration. In order to get the most functionality out of this input, users are encourage to grip the Vita in a kind of half-closed-fist method by placing their fingers in two channels on the back of the unit. By doing this, the thumbs are supposedly free to work the sticks, buttons and D-pad, the index fingers can operate the shoulder buttons, and whatever remaining fingers available can manipulate the touchpad.
The reality is that it's practically impossible to use the locational channels and the touchpad at the same time, meaning the Vita becomes perched between two open palms whenever all available button inputs are called upon. The device is simply too wide to allow the centre of the touchpad to be reached unless the channels are abandoned entirely. Sony has obviously attempted to come up with a solution to a problem that hasn't appeared in any other device to date, and much will rely on game developers to ensure users aren't flummoxed when attempting to utilise every available input simultaneously.
Another sub-par inclusion comes in the form of the 640x480 front and rear-facing digital cameras. They must be optimised for game use, as it's hard to imagine anyone seriously relying on them to take digital photos for any other purpose. Vita gamers wanting to capture an important public event will likely be overshadowed by anyone with a mobile phone made after 2008.
Despite these concerns, at least the Vita can be used for a relatively decent gaming session thanks to the four-or-so hour battery endurance. This will need to be followed by an hour and a half of charging to get it back up to full health again, which can be done either through the mains charger or by using the included USB adaptor. Bizarrely, the mains power charger can't be used to recharge any other USB device. It seems unlikely that Sony's dogged persistence to stick to proprietary plugs, sockets and slots will win them any favours in a world only too keen to embrace open standards.