Before I start, please be aware that this review will be biased a lot with the point of view of a foreigner living in Japan. The device might be more adapted to the Japanese audience, but even then, it is not without default.
The disclaimer above being understood and accepted, let me break the suspense immediately: the Vita TV, in its current state, is a prime example of how Sony can completely mess up a launch and ruin a perfect idea. The device and its launch lineup gets pretty much everything wrong, and knowing that the Vita TV is the bone Sony threw at its Japanese customers because the PS4 will not launch in Japan this year; is what I would consider as an insult from Sony to its own country and fans.
If you remember, I was extremely excited by the Vita TV, I said it was probably Sony’s best idea in years. I believe they managed to ruin pretty much every single one of my expectations with this launch.
Of course it’s not all bad, but it’s pretty terrible on many aspects, so read along.
Unboxing, and “JP only” limitations
First of all, if you haven’t seen my previous articles, you can watch me unboxing the vitaTV here.
Also, the vitaTV currently only works with Japanese PSN accounts, and the Japan PSN. Maybe this was an expected limitation, but that pretty much ruined 90% of the fun for me, especially knowing that the Playstation Vita, which runs basically on the same hardware, runs fine on all variations of the PSN.
This review might be focused a lot on what it means for a device to be “Japan only”, but I have an international background and cannot simply ignore what I know about other devices and services in the world when I review Sony’s VitaTV. That would not be intellectually honest. That being said, I am aware that Japanese gamers are not looking for the exact same things as European and American gamers, so I’m trying to keep that in mind throughout the review.
Plugin and running the Vita TV goes extremely smoothly if you have ever plugged anything to your TV. The Vita TV is plug an play, and the only annoying step is that the Vita needs you to connect your PS3 controller through USB the first time you use it, probably to pair the controller to the Vita (hmmm, know that I think about it, maybe that’s a necessary step for any new controller on the PS3? Anyway it’s no big deal).
In the early setup steps, the Vita TV pretends to be “international” friendly, lets you choose your language and timezone, but eventually will not let you log-in with a non Japanese PSN account. For 98% of the people living in Japan that should not be a big problem. For foreigners like me, or people who have ordered the device and want it to ship outside of Japan, this can be a problem. Clearly, the device could work on all PSNs if Sony wanted to, but it also seems they want to control the release tightly. Too bad for international customers, as there’s a significant risk the vitaTV will never make it outside of Japan.
If you own or have played with a Playstation Vita before, there is no surprise here. The “Live Area” screen is the same one you’ve learned to know, with its annoying elevator music and everything.
A quick jump to the Playstation store will let you download a few apps to get started (I’ll describe a few of them below), although the bad surprise begins here: you’ll see that many Vita games and applications are not compatible with the VitaTV, but more on that later. For the apps that work, download and installation is as simple as on the Vita, and the navigation inside the PSN is pretty good with the PS3 controller.
Music and Video
I’ll be clear hear and explain why I am not even reviewing the integrated video and music players: these players suck on the vita, and they are pretty much the same on the VitaTV. Any video/music player on any smartphone or android box today runs better than those and supports more codec, better library management, etc… (think of XBMC if you’re looking for a good example)
Instead, I will be talking about the services and apps available on the VitaTV.
When you get a TV box, the first things you think about are Hulu, Netflix, amazon instant video, iTunes, etcc… that’s the type of app one expects to get there. Of course, Netflix is not available in Japan yet, but one would expect to find something similar. So this is what I looked for.
The very first bad surprise when trying the various apps in the PSN is that youtube is not compatible with the Vita TV currently. Of all apps, if there’s one you want to be compatible with a device that has the word “TV” in it, it’s youtube. Instead, the Japanese audience will get NicoNico video, a Japanese-centered service, which is “good but not great”, and “definitely not as major as youtube” (that’s not me saying that, but my Japanese wife)
In Video offers, Sony partnered with Tsutaya (originally a DVD/VHS rental chain, but today they also do streaming) to offer tsutaya online.
The interface of tsutaya online is not adapted to the Vita TV, for example does not go back to the previous when you hit the cross button (reminder, cross and circle are inversed in Japan), unlike pretty much every single other app on the vita. This makes navigation very confusing, and it really reminds me of a “webview” wrapped in an app like one can see on poorly programmed apps on smartphones (you know what I’m talking about).
Eventually, when you get around it, Tsutaya will impress you (the wrong way) with its prices. $3 (300Y) for a 3 days rental of 2 episodes of Dexter, when you can binge watch 4 seasons right now for $8 a month on Netflix in the US? Thanks but no thanks. This is in line with the prices in JP, but Tsutaya offers rental only, and not great prices, compared to the international offer, or even to hulu plus (which is available in Japan). The “sexy tsutaya” section however will probably have its fans. Tsutaya also have a few free things here and there, to convince you to create an account. From what I could see, this was mostly anime, and I didn’t go as far as creating an account to check.
No youtube, and some poor video rental integration, let’s just say that the video offer on the VitaTV looks like a desert today.
For music, Sony offers their “music unlimited” program on the Vita. This costs 980 Yen per month (about $10 a month), but Sony offers you a 1 month free trial. Music unlimited has a few cool options, such as the possibility to play music in the background while navigating in the browser, etc… I haven’t tried this option as it only works for offline comment (not while streaming, why, oh why…).
Music unlimited looks like an ok service, but it could do with a bit more: a free mode, maybe an intermediate offer for about $5, like the competition. In a world where everyone and their grandma have pandora, spotify, itunes, amazon mp3, etc… I don’t know how music unlimited is even competing. It’s ok, just not mindblowing, and that’s basically the only music service on the vita TV.
The Vita TV does not offer a mindblowing music/video experience, but one of its benefits over other set top boxes is that it is, after all, a Playstation Vita, and integrated in the Sony PSN ecosystem. So how well does it perform in terms of games?
Well, the games support on the vita TV is probably the worst surprises in this product.
It was expected that a handful of games would not work on the Vita TV, namely games such as Uncharted, that require heavy use of the touch screen (yeah, in case that wasn’t clear, the VitaTV does not magically change your 42” TV into a touch screen… it actually simulates touch screen with the PS3 controller, but I haven’t tested that).
however Sony is the champion of not keeping their promises, and the VitaTV comes with somewhere around 120 compatible games, out of about 450 titles available for the Vita today. Yup, about 3 vita games out of 4 are not compatible with the Vita TV. You can check the full list of compatible games here. And to be clear, this applies to cartridges as well!
As an example, I tried with my cartridge of Mortal Kombat, which greeted me with a message that will become very familiar to all those who try the device for just a few minutes:
Well, that’s ok, I bought that game in France, and maybe MK is not that popular in Japan, so I wasn’t really expecting it to be working with the Vita TV anyway. How about Ridge Racer, a game I bought in Japan, made by a Japanese company, and that was part of the f###ing launch lineup for the Vita when it launched in Japan? Nope, won’t work on the Vita TV.
But maybe he worst offender for the Vita TV game compatibility is how PS+ users get sc***. Sony offers a free trial of PS+ for 15 days, which is nice, unfortunately, a large share of the PS+ free games are not compatible with the Vita TV. If anything, I would have expected Sony to focus on their most loyal customers for this release, but it doesn’t seem so.
Thankfully, there is a category dedicated to the VitaTV in the PSN store, that will let you access a list of the games and apps actually compatible with the device.
Still, this reminds me of the poor initial selection of PSP compatible games on the vita when the vita launched. It seems Sony like to start from scratch with every iteration of their console. Imagine if the psp 2000 had only been compatible with 1/4 of the psp games at launch. This is how it feels to get a vita TV today.
On the bright side, PSP games compatibility, from what I could see, is on par with the playstation vita, that’s several hundred playable titles there.
I tested one PSP game, Motorstorm Arctic Edge (bonus points for those of you who remember why I own this game). Gameplay was smooth, loading times were good, and overall the experience was enjoyable. The Vita TV, coupled with sony’s Dualshock, offers a great gaming experience once you find a game it actually accepts to run.
Of course, PSP games on your 42 inch TV are not going to look great. Even Motorstorm, which in the days was pushing the PSP hardware to its limits, really doesn’t look great. There is an option on the PS Vita to add bilinear filtering to PSP games, which makes the experience much better, but I couldn’t find that option on the Vita TV, I don’t know why they would remove that.
It is also possible to play games from the PS1, the pocketstation, and neogeo on the vitatv, although I haven’t tested those. I would assume compatibility is similar to that of the Vita for those games.
I was able to test one playstation Vita game named Guilty Gear XX. Although this was definitely not a HD experience, the graphics looked way more enjoyable than those of PSP games, and playing that game was lots of fun. It’s a shame so few games are compatible in the first place. That particular game also brought a limitation of the Vita TV, which is that despite being a “tv console”, it won’t magically turn Vita’s single player games into a 2 player game. which is too bad when you think of how much fun some of those games could bring. I believe some PS1 games support two players, but I haven’t tried to plug in 2 controllers yet.
Although I wasn’t expecting it to, it is worth mentioning Skype does not work on the Vita TV. The lack of a camera and mic are probably the obvious reason here, but they could still have kept it, if only for chat.
I haven’t tested things such as the browser. I have enough browsers around me that I do not need the broken experience of trying to type with a PS3 controller. Maybe with a usb keyboard, that could become better.
No youtube support, only a handful of Vita games compatible for launch, video and music services have a poor selection and excessive prices… the Vita TV is the perfect example of a great idea that got ruined by a rushed launch, just to meet the 11/15 date. In its current state, I do not recommend this device to anyone, Japanese or not.
I am sure the software will improve with time, but currently there is close to no use for this device. It’s a shame, as the hardware is more than decent, the dualshock controller works great with the live area, and overall the main interface feels really smooth and adapted to a TV.
Verdict: the VitaTV is a wasted opportunity, 4/10. Will consider raising the mark when the Vita Games compatibility increases, and when international accounts/PSN access becomes a possibility.