Looking for a comprehensive history chart of handheld consoles turned out to be a useless exercise. The reason why I wanted to start with a chart like was to illustrate the design that across the ages game consoles have followed very similar design ideas, and the reason why this has happened is because there’s pretty much exactly two methods how to make a handheld console to work; vertical and horizontal. These two just work, there isn’t really any other way you put the screen without making the playing awkward in a way or another.
SONY’s handheld console line has been mainly using horizontal approach. This is mainly due to the screen that governs the face of the consoles. PlayStation Portable Go is an exception to the rule, which shows that you can have vertical design. The underlying sliding mechanics of Go allowed SONY to cram PSP into a far smaller size, thou I have heard some contradictory reports on the quality of the buttons. Unlike with the 3Ds review, I will review PSP and PS Vita with each, and as I don’t have an access to Go, it’ll have to be a separate curiosity. If I ever get my hands on it, I’ll review its design as well. The reason to this is that neither console saw any truly different iterations in their lifetime (outside Go), and as such the two allow a good point of comparisons how SONY moved from PSP to Vita.
The versions that I will use in this review are PSP-2004 and PCH-2016. Both are second versions of their respective console series, so the comparison point is either little off or spot on depending how you want to view it. I would’ve wanted to review the first versions, but I don’t have access to them. I’m using a pair of PS3 controller as stands for this review.
One thing SONY always seems to emphasize with their consoles is that they feel nicely build. They’re sturdy. They don’t feel flimsy, they’re tight. Perhaps most importantly, they feel expensive. This is to differentiate the portable PlayStation line from its competitors and make a statement of worth. They make it rather well too, especially with overall glossy colouring and selected areas of silver with PSP, and overall uniform heft with Vita.
However, there are few places on both PSP and Vita where this aim for higher worth is betrayed. With PSP the very first thing is the UMD drive. When opening the drive door, you notice that the door is very thin plastic and the metal parts are equally as flimsy. It does not only look untrusty, but feels like that too. The UMD format neat in of itself, but SONY should’ve used MiniDisc rather than invent a new format. The discs are relatively well protected, much like the drive they’re inserted, they feel flimsy. Their appearance is also rather toyetic, unlike the MiniDisc that still looks good to this day. It’s weird to see a handheld that aims to be rather mature in design only have relatively immature looking disc format.
That is not the only piece that feels cheap with PSP. The memory card slot is protected by a piece of hard plastic that is connected by soft plastic. The outward appearance is decent and follows the overall curves of the console, but feel and back of the piece lack any sort of refinement. Of course, the idea is that you don’t see behind it but once or twice. The Vita remedied this problem by having all the pieces uniform in colour and having much more stylised look to them. The pieces are very small and don’t come to mind too often, but details tend to mount fast over the larger strokes.
Speaking of the larger strokes, let’s dive into the overall design of the consoles, starting with the PSP.
For its time, the PSP was a surprisingly flat handheld console, which kept getting flatter with each new variant. Flatness in itself is not a problem while playing a game, however, as the curves on each side of the console follow the natural geometry of human hands. This allows much more comfortable grip and puts the L and R buttons at a nice place for fingers to push them. In this general shape the PSP follows the GameBoy Advance, except it doesn’t have additional bulk in the back to conform more to the hands. This is unlike with the 3DS consoles, where the flatness and straight surfaces make playing games less comfortable.
The curves also dictate the placement of the buttons. When you grab the console, your thumbs should fall into place without any tweaking. PSP’s main action buttons are rather large, only a tad smaller than PS3 controller’s. Their distance is relatively the same as well, meaning that you should have easy time transitioning from a PlayStation controller to the PSP. The buttons themselves are slightly mushy and have a surprising amount of horizontal movement. They are nevertheless very responsive and have a nice tactile feedback to them, better than what either 3DS XL models have. The D-Pad on the other hand is a standard SONY fare. PSP’s D-Pad has 1mm smaller in circumference than PS3’s and is made of same hard crystal clear plastic as the action buttons. Because of this it feels more slippery and feels harder to play with. SONY’s D-Pads are rather love-it-or-hate-it kind of thing, but it is a sound design. It would’ve been better to use a textured surface on the D-Pad, but that would’ve broken the visual style of the console.
The Vita builds up from PSP’s base, curves and all. However, this time your thumbs fall unto buttons that are smaller than previously. While you’d think this would make the console smaller, the Vita is actually wider and higher console than the PSP, but it is about one-third thinner. There are two main things that separate Vita’s design from PSP. The first is that the Vita has no real corners in its design, it is very smooth console that has eliminated most if not all tight curves to sit in the hands more naturally. The second is that the touch surface in the behind has now created a need for intended space for the rest of the fingers. The Vita has two over regions in the back where you can have your middle fingers rest against or whatever position you feel the most comfortable with. However, as the touch area is rather large, the ovals are spaced rather close to the edges of the system, which can feel cramped to larger hands. I often find my middle fingers going beyond the ovals, but no game has taken any problems with this yet.
Vita’s smaller action buttons are similar in feel with the PSP’s, hard transparent plastic and all, but this time instead of having zebra rubber underneath them they sit on top of pushbuttons on the PCB. This changes feeling drastically, but on the long run it’s up to opinion which one feels better. The pushbutton ones don’t have any mushiness to them, but their tactile feedback is very sharp with not in-between zone. Personally, I’m am more worried about how long the buttons will last. On PSP I can always change the rubber underneath if it goes bad, but for PCB mounted pushbuttons I need to de-solder old ones off. The D-Pad is the same, pushbuttons underneath. However, the design has changed from previous SONY D-Pads, now being one whole unit instead of four separated directions. It is also smaller, but it feels nice. This is due to the fact that the plastic is different from previously. Yes, it is still transparent and glossy, but there is more friction to it. Without a doubt one of the best D-Pads out there, better than what the 3DS has to offer.
Both systems’ L and R buttons follow the overall shape of their consoles and are almost identical in feel. The main difference in them, outside the shape, is that the Vita allows the shoulder buttons to be pushed down from whatever point you wish. With the PSP you need to press from the corners because of pivot point inside. This is a clear design evolution to accommodate more hand sizes and ways of holding the console.
Both consoles’ function buttons (Start, Select etc) feel the exact same with pushbuttons on the PCB underneath. This clicky nature works for them, especially on PSP, where they are differentiated from the main buttons. Vita’s volume buttons placement is extremely strange, as instead of placing them somewhere easily accessible, they reside on top of the console between the game card slot and the R-Button. The Power button is opposite to them, which does feel more natural. The reason to this placement is because the face of the console was already full. Underneath the D-Pad you have the left stick and Menu button and underneath the action buttons you have the right stick, Start and Select. Both consoles’ faces’ are governed by their large screens. With PSP these buttons were placed under the screen in a more or less logical manner with other buttons, but it does make a busy looking face and in the end doesn’t look very good. With Vita the screen’s surroundings were cleaned, leaving only SONY and PSVITA logo above and under it. It does look better, but because of this some functionality is lost.
Vita has two sticks, which overall feel very nice and play games fine. They are better than PSP’s or 3DS’s Slide pads, but take more room. Perhaps they could’ve been slightly smaller by a millimetre or two. I don’t really play games that utilise them too much, so they’re a bit waste on me. However, shooting games likes Soldier Blade play really damn well.
Handheld consoles never really had good speakers, but SONY tries to make them at least properly serviceable. The PSP has small speakers both sides of the screen, just angled up from the D-Pad and the action buttons. This is a good placement as the sound is not obstructed, but their relative closeness can cause some stereo to be lost. Vita on the other has its speakers on the very edges of the system, causing them to be under your thumbs. The sound quality doesn’t take a too large hit from this, but the closer your thumbs are to the surface of the console, the more muffled the sound will be. Of course, headphones are recommended when it comes to playing handheld games, but that doesn’t excuse the awkward if not stupid placement. I assume that the speaker elements are large enough to require more space, unlike the camera unit that’s residing just next to the action buttons.
Speaking of the camera, the only hard corners on the console can be found on its back on the main camera unit. For whatever reason it’s not smooth as the rest of the console, making it a bit curious spot.
Overall speaking, PSP and PSVita showcase the stronger suite in SONY’s design. The PSP still stands in terms of comfort and design when playing games on it, but the Vita is better in almost every respect. Hell, Vita’s battery life alone is an incredible improvement. In terms of design alone, they beat the DS and 3DS fair and square, but their library was weak. Vita is essentially dead in the water with no real games to carry it. All it is getting are ports, sequels or remakes. After some time, most of its games are ported to other platforms. The Vita has been made a useless console even by its own company, as SONY is pushing Gravity Rush for the PS4.
PSP was a neat console with only a handful of unique games, and that will be Vita’s fate as well. It is sad to see a handheld console with such great design wasted.