Katherine Boehret

Two Joysticks to Beat Smartphones at Games

Portable gaming devices have plenty of reason to sulk in the corner. The job they once dominated—rescuing people from boredom while on the go—is now done by smartphones and devices like the iPod Touch. Smartphones offer casual games like “Angry Birds” and “Words with Friends” that cost little or nothing to download, and also make phone calls, and send email and text messages.

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Sony’s PS Vita is the first portable game to come with two joysticks; on the screen, apps are represented by playful bubblelike icons.

This week I tested the newest gaming device that tries to do many of the things a smartphone does, short of making phone calls: Sony’s PlayStation Vita. It has front- and back-facing cameras; a Web browser; a store for downloading movies, TV shows and games; a music player; and an optional AT&T 3G network connection. This spring, Sony plans to add its own music-streaming service, Facebook, Skype and Foursquare. Netflix, Flickr and Twitter apps are slated to work on the device on Wednesday, when it’s available in stores. All these features are still secondary to the main reason a person might plunk down $299 (3G and Wi-Fi capable) or $249 (Wi-Fi) for this device: gaming.

Sony’s PS Vita is the latest move by a portable-game maker to gain some ground back from smartphones. Nintendo’s 3DS, which I reviewed last March, now has a Netflix app and other smartphone characteristics. The company also plans to add Hulu Plus to the 3DS later this year.

Not surprisingly, I found the PS Vita did best with games and pretty well with the programs over which it seemed to have the most control. Other features seemed like they were added just for the sake of adding them and didn’t work nearly as well.

The PS Vita’s pre-loaded Near app has a whimsical interface that showed 28 people near me who were signed into the PlayStation Network. The PS Store was easy to navigate and clearly displayed details about each downloadable item. But the Web browser can’t play Flash and only partially supports HTML 5, which will make it impossible to see content on many websites.

It lacks an email program, so users are limited to sending things via the PlayStation Network to people using PlayStation. Photos I took with the device could only be sent this way and a workaround of hooking my PS Vita into a PS3 or a PC to offload photos seemed antiquated.

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The device’s rear touch pad, lets users control games with fingers on the back.

The PS Vita embraces multi-touch gestures on its responsive, bright screen. A peeling-back gesture reveals the home screen and can be used to close any program. A bubble in the top right can be tapped to see download progress or device notifications, and swipes up, down, left and right help users navigate around screens. Playful bubblelike icons represent all apps.

The design of the PS Vita is obviously related to its predecessor, the PlayStation Portable. It has game controllers that flank the right and left sides of its 5-inch touch-screen, and its top right and left corners double as buttons. At 7.2 inches by 3.3 inches, the PS Vita looks like it could eat an iPod Touch for lunch. Its 3G model weighs twice as much as the iPhone 4S.

This is the first portable gaming device to have two joysticks instead of one. Sony says the “dual analog sticks” offer better gaming. When I played “Uncharted: Golden Abyss,” the right joystick adjusted my vantage point and the left moved my character.

People can control games using their fingers on the screen or—in a novel twist—on the back of the device. A rear touch pad lets fingers operate from where they naturally rest when holding the PS Vita. I played Sony Computer Entertainment America’s $30 “Little Deviants” game by rolling a ball-shaped creature through mazes, controlling where the ball moved with my fingers touching the back of the PS Vita. While playing the $40 EA Sports “FIFA Soccer” game, I used the touch pad to aim and shoot the ball. I found the touch pad so sensitive that it was hard to use, but this might get easier over time.

In the $50 “Uncharted: Golden Abyss” game, I guided the main character up a wall by moving my finger on the touch screen rather than using multidirectional buttons. Likewise, I balanced my character as he walked across a plank of wood using the PS Vita’s built-in motion sensor; aiming a gun works with the motion sensors rather than a joystick.

Plenty of PS Vita games are geared toward the serious gamer, with 21 of the 26 games launching with the PS Vita costing $30 or more. (These can be downloaded through the PlayStation Store or bought as PS Vita Cards at retailers.) “Uncharted: Golden Abyss” comes with a 43-page digital instruction manual, which I had to read to get anywhere in the game. There are 275 PlayStation Portable games playable on the PS Vita and available for download, and pricing for those starts at 99 cents.

(Games for Nintendo’s $170 3DS portable gaming device range from $2 to $40 apiece. The most expensive game you can buy for Apple’s $499 iPad is the $17 “Final Fantasy III” game by Square Enix.)

Wirelessly downloading content from the PS Store only works in Wi-Fi, but the 3G model can download files smaller than 20 megabytes over 3G. I downloaded a demo mode for one game from the PS Store and 26 minutes later, it was on my PS Vita. Downloading a movie was harder: I used a $25 gift card and bought the $14.99 standard-definition (HD wasn’t available) version of the movie “Tower Heist,” but an estimate told me that it would take over 3,000 minutes to download, and I gave up shortly after the download started.

Battery life is estimated at three to five hours for gaming without network features in use. I played in shorter intervals and didn’t have any trouble with battery life.

At times, the PS Vita seemed a bit slow to respond. As I initially set up my PlayStation Network account for use in “Friends,” a built-in social-networking app for interacting with other PS Vita and PlayStation 3 users, I waited several seconds. A polite “Please wait” message appeared far too often.

Gamers will like the PS Vita’s double joysticks, while non-gamers will feel more comfortable with its motion and touch controls. But instead of competing with smartphones, this device should stick to what it knows: games.

Write to Katie at katherine.boehret@wsj.com


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