In a mobile-gaming world where most people kill a few minutes here and there playing time-wasters such as "Angry Birds" on their smartphones, what are the prospects for the most advanced portable video-game system to date?
That's the burning question as Sony releases the PlayStation Vita on Wednesday. The souped-up $250 handheld device offers the closest thing yet to "console gaming on the go" -- replicating the experience of playing sophisticated video games on console systems such as the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 outside the home.
"It's the sexiest piece of technology that gamers have ever had the chance to play," said Andrew Reiner, executive editor of Minneapolis-based Game Informer magazine. "The iPad's cool; the iPhone's cool -- but gamers need more than just a touch screen."
Not only does the PS Vita (pronounced VEE-tuh) have a touch screen, but it also has a rear touch pad so players can interact with games without obscuring the device's trendy OLED (organic light-emitting diode) display, which is capable of reproducing eye-popping, console-quality graphics. The system also includes 3G and Wi-Fi connectivity, and front and back cameras.
But the PS Vita's key innovation is its dual analog joysticks, which mirror the controller of Sony's PlayStation 3. Adding to the console-gaming-on-the-go experience is PS Vita users' ability to play online against PS3 owners, the first time such cross-platform gaming has been available.
More such synergy is coming. Soon, a PS3 player will be able to save his progress on, say, the baseball game "MLB 12: The Show," leave home to catch the bus, and then load the game on his PS Vita and pick up where he left off as he settles in for his commute.
These high-tech features would seem to hold minimal appeal to casual gamers, who download free or cheap apps by the millions to play on their smartphones or tablets. But some question whether the PS Vita will appeal even to hard-core gamers.
Anthony Domanico, 26, a compensation specialist from Roseville, has been playing video games since he was 10. He owns a PS3, a Nintendo Wii and a gaming PC he built himself. He likes the idea of the dual joysticks on the PS Vita but is on the fence about buying the new device because of the cost and smartphone competition.
"At $250, the price is simply a bit high to justify what you're getting," said Domanico, who oversees gaming coverage for the mobile tech blog Android and Me. "I believe the PS Vita will be one of the last efforts on behalf of console makers to release standalone handheld gaming devices. In short, smartphones and tablet computers are becoming powerful enough to best even the better handheld gaming devices such as the Vita."
But Alex Hennen, 34, an avid gamer from Albertville who also works in mobile gaming, plans to buy the PS Vita as soon as it's available.
"You just can't have the sort of complex experiences that many gamers crave on a touch-screen device without buttons," said Hennen, who designs iPhone games for St. Cloud-based developer Plaid World. "And Nintendo has traditionally shied away from certain 'mature' content on its handheld systems."
He said the PS Vita has wowed him with its dual joysticks and "gorgeous" OLED screen.
"Considering the quality of the hardware, I think the Vita has a very fair price tag," he said.
At launch, the PS Vita will have about 20 games available with most going for $30 to $40. "Uncharted: Golden Abyss" ($50), an extension of the PS3's popular "Indiana Jones"-style adventure series, has been getting the most buzz.
Game Informer's Reiner says he really likes what he's seen of the PS Vita's initial batch of console-quality games so far. But, he said, the device also could easily accommodate casual-gaming hits such as "Angry Birds" and maybe even have an apps marketplace with free and 99-cent games.
"You could have everything on there," he said. "So it could be the ultimate gaming machine."
Ironically, the PS Vita's ability to deliver console gaming on the go -- and everything else -- also could be a detriment.
"It is more for that sit-down experience, as I'm seeing so far," Reiner said. "Which begs the question: 'If I'm sitting down, why am I not just playing my PlayStation 3?' But at the same time, if I'm on an airplane for four hours, I'd rather be playing my Vita than my iPhone."
He admitted, though, that his excitement over the PS Vita is tempered by the realities of living in a smartphone world.
"In a down economy, buying a new system when you already have a phone in your pocket that's playing games -- I don't know; it's going to be tough."