For those of us who remember wasting hours with the original, green-screened GameBoy, the thought that the era of portable gaming consoles may be coming to an end is a bit sad. While their TV-tethered cousins will be around for at least another generation or two, super-powerful smartphones like the iPhone 4S are calling into question the need for dedicated portable gaming devices like the new PlayStation Vita.
After gaming extensively on both, we’ve come up with a point-by-point breakdown that we think explains why portable consoles aren’t dead yet.
Now this is a tough call to make. The iPhone 4S and the PlayStation Vita have two of the nicest screens we’ve ever seen, though they’re very different. The iPhone 4S’s “Retina Display” is an absolute marvel of pixel density—text and game graphics are crisp and clear.
The Vita, on the other hand, has the advantage of way more screen real estate, with a 5-inch screen that dwarfs the iPhone’s 3.5-inch display. The Vita’s OLED screen is significantly lower-res (two screens have approximately the same pixel count, but the Vita’s larger screen is much lower density), but it looks fantastic, with good contrast and bright, vivid colors.
Though both screens are top class, we think the Vita’s is the better choice for gaming. The iPhone’s smaller screen, usually partially obscured by fingers, doesn’t give game UIs any room to breathe.
Here we find the iPhone’s biggest drawback as a gaming platform. The capacitive multitouch screen of the iPhone is responsive, and has been put to great use in games like Infinity Blade and Angry Birds, which distill gameplay down to a series of swipes, but there’s no getting around the fact that you can do a whole lot more with buttons. The PlayStation Vita also has capacitive multitouch (by the way) but the real standouts are the dual analogue sticks and full complement of face and shoulder buttons.
Want an example? Try playing Street Fighter 4 on the iPhone 4S and Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 on the PlayStation Vita. Both are ports of fighting games, but the former is a crude, oversimplified imitation, while the latter feels like the same exact game on a smaller screen.
It’s difficult to directly compare the internals of the two systems, as neither Apple nor Sony have been very forthcoming about the exact specifications of the chips that run them: the iPhone’s dual-core A5 system-on-a-chip and the Vita’s quad-core ARM proc. Both systems feature PowerVR SGX GPUs—though, again, the iPhone’s is dual-core, while the Vita’s is quad.
Both the iPhone 4S and PlayStation Vita have 512MB of RAM, and you can get the iPhone 4S with 16, 32 or 64GB of internal storage. The Vita can also be configured with 16, 32, or 64GB of storage, though it requires an additional purchase of a (new, proprietary, expensive) memory card.
In terms of overall build quality, the iPhone 4S is clearly superior. The Vita is a lovely device, don’t get us wrong, but it’s entirely plastic and just doesn’t feel as solid as the metal-and-glass iPhone.
Comparing the software available on the two platforms is a matter of breadth versus depth. The iPhone 4S, with its 500,000 (and counting) apps has more games than you could play in a lifetime. And lest this be confused with a quantity-versus-quality argument, a lot of them are quite good. Polished, clever, and addictive, iPhone 4S games can be a great way to kill five minutes or even an hour.
But still, they’re not deep. You won’t find a game like Uncharted: Golden Abyss or Rayman Origins on the iPhone. These Vita titles are full-featured, console-quality experiences available on the go. Unfortunately, the launch lineup has some all-stars (all the games mentioned in this article, for instance) but also a lot of duds. Only time will tell what size of game library we can expect from the Vita in the years ahead.
So far, we’ve been comparing the two devices strictly as gaming platforms, but both include a lot of non-gaming features. Both are media consumption devices, for instance, with applications for listening to music and watching video. The Vita does this job just fine, though it can’t compete with Apple’s iPod heritage and wealth of content streaming and discovery apps.
Both also feature front- and rear-facing cameras. The iPhone 4S’s rear-facing camera is quite possibly the best smartphone camera currently available. The Vita’s… well, the less said about the Vita’s cameras the better. Suffice it to say, you won’t be using these for anything but augmented reality games.
And, of course, there’s the fact that the iPhone 4S is also a phone, and has a wealth of useful non-game apps—a counterpoint to the fact that the iPhone is significantly more expensive, taking the price of a phone contract into account.
If the PlayStation Vita couldn’t distinguish itself as a gaming platform that’s clearly superior to the iPhone 4S, it would be in big, big trouble. Fortunately for Sony, it’s clear that the PlayStation Vita is simply the best way to play real, high-quality games while you’re away from home. Games look better on the Vita’s giant, colorful screen, and the array of physical controls opens up the whole world of responsive, fast-paced gameplay. You’re not going to find the same buffet of almost-free, play-and-forget games that you see on the App Store—but you will get the kind of in-depth gaming experience you used to only be able to get on a console, anywhere you go.