Part 1 of SPOnG’s PlayStation Vita Experience took a look at the technological capabilities of Sony’s new handheld device. And it made a positive impression - especially when it came to the Vita’s iPhone-sized multi-touch OLED screen. It’s just as well too, because the handheld’s user interface heavily relies on your fingers to launch and interact with software.
Now, here’s where things get serious - the perceived value of a technology device comes down to more than just the parts it is made out of. Apple changed the game when it married accessibility with sophistication in iOS, and that integration of services and software is now considered crucial in any competing handheld. For Sony’s part, it is making a brave step away from its award-winning Xross Media Bar as well. It’s time to see if it’s any good.
Instead of the XMB’s method of sectioning off everything in vertical lists, the Vita’s Home screen takes a few lessons from the iPhone’s interface. Applications, games and various options for PlayStation Network are identified by big, bright, colourful buttons that wobble about as you swipe up and down the screen.
You can fit up to 10 apps on a page, and holding your finger down on a button will allow you to re-arrange them on a somewhat rounded grid, delete individual apps and change the background theme of each page. Individual files are contained within specific apps (mp3s in Music and pictures in Photos for example) which certainly simplifies matters. All your PlayStation Network notifications are recorded too, with a shortlist available every time you press the bubble in the top right corner.
Press on any of the icons to ‘launch it’ onto the LiveArea. This is essentially your Vita’s Task Manager - up to six applications can be on the LiveArea at the same time, allowing you to exit, switch between and resume your progress at will. You can kick open a game of Uncharted: Golden Abyss
, play for an hour or so, then exit (by pressing the PS button) to read a website or two in the Web Browser before continuing Drake’s handheld quest at the exact moment you left it.
There are some limitations. You can only have progress in one game stored in the LiveArea. If you try to open a second game, you’ll be prompted to close the first one which will lose all unsaved progress. I understand why technical limitations might prevent more than one game from being suspended, but there are some system apps (like Videos) which can’t run while a game has been paused in this way either.
When an application hits the LiveArea, you don’t just jump straight into the program like you would with an iPhone. You’ll need to press the ‘Start’ icon on the panel that appears to actually launch it. It seems like a pointless extra step to take - especially when you want to head right into the Settings ‘app’ - but the panel has enough space to offer various app-specific shortcuts.
, for example, has buttons that lead to the PlayStation Store for DLC, the game’s official website and a button that puts you right into the game’s Daily International Tournament mode. For Photos, you can either press ‘Start’ to go straight into the camera, or if you’re more of a visual person you can press the actual camera icon for the same function. Alternatively, you can press on the photo album icon on the Photos LiveArea panel to head into your saved snaps instead.
And when you’re done with an application in the LiveArea, you can simply tug at the tab in the corner of the screen and peel it off. Satisfying. The same action is used to wake the Vita from sleep too.
None of the features in the Vita’s system software requires - or even allows - the use of traditional buttons. Everything is performed using your finger and the touchscreen. Couple this with the big, bright appearance of the Home screen and you may wince at the loss of the classy, elegant XMB.
But after a few days of use, you’re unlikely to be asking for your PSP’s navigation features back. Applications are responsive to your touch, the Home screen is easier to sweep through and the way apps transition to the LiveArea and then back again is very logical.
Setting up your PlayStation Network account to work with the Vita is quite a straightforward process. Heading into the Settings screen, you’ll be prompted to re-enter your credit card’s expiry date and security code, if you happen to have one on file. When it comes to signing in, you can select who gets to see your activity and friends list. In a Facebook-style affair, you select either 'Anyone', 'Friends of Friends', 'Friends' or 'Nobody'.
In tweaking your Account Information, you’ll notice that there’s a new customisation option called ‘Panel.’ This is a rectangular background that is attached to your PSN profile when viewed specifically from a Vita, and there’s an absolutely massive number of different images and patterns you can set - from Wild Arms to Ape Escape, Patapon and EchoChrome to even Afrika if you really want.