In the second of my group of opinion pieces, I’m going to be going into detail about the system software. I know, I know, you all want to hear about the games, but games are not the only thing that make up a system. The pre-installed features of the system are just as important as those you have to run out and buy separately. I gave my introductory bit in my hardware run-through already, so I’ll just jump straight into it, shall I?

PS Vita Software Screen 1

A LiveArea screen. My LiveArea screen. No copying. Totally trademarked. I own that colour.

The first thing you notice when you jump into the Vita is that, instead of the XMB, (XrossMediaBar), which Sony used for the PSP, the PS3, and it’s brand of televisions and DVRs. It uses a new touch-based interface known as ‘LiveArea,’ it keeping with the theme they started by naming the handheld the Vita, (which is the Latin word for ‘Life’). It’s actually surprising how well the interface works. Each LiveArea screen only holds so many application icons, and you swipe up and down to change which screen you’re viewing. Even the lightest and shortest of flicks in the upward or downward direction will serve to change the screen. Like the touch screen interface of a tablet or touch phone, you can add and remove applications to the LiveArea at your leisure, and each screen can be coloured individually of the others. While that isn’t a hugely important feature, it does mean that you can customize your Vita to your heart’s content, and though not a reason to buy in itself, is hugely appreciated. Similar to the up-and-down swipes, running applications exist in separate LiveArea screens to the right of your application screens. At anytime, you can press the PS button to return to the LiveArea, and flick your finger to the right to return to your list of applications. When you want to return to your application, just flick your finger to the left and tap the ‘continue’ button. If you want to close a running application, you hit the PS button, and drag your finger from the top right of the screen to the bottom left, and literally peel that application’s window off the screen. It’s also how you bring the device out of standby mode. It’s all streamlined, and works very well. There’s also some very cheery music that plays in the background. I suppose that might get annoying after a while, but at this point, it still makes me very happy. My biggest problem with the LiveArea interface, and I recognize that it is a fairly minor gripe, is that every application has a little splash screen and ‘start’ icon after you start it. You can’t simply load up the application. Now, this is fine for running games, but sometimes it just gets excessive. Want to view your Friends List? Tap the ‘Friends’ application icon, and then the ‘start’ button on the splash screen that comes up. Same with the ‘Settings’ menu. Or the ‘Maps’ application. Even your list of trophies. Though it’s not exactly interfering with anything, I still found it to be excessive. As I said, games are fine, but the ‘Settings’ menu? Come on. My other problem is that you have to load up an application to view your friends or trophies. I feel that those could have existed as different LiveArea screens, maybe connected to the notification bubble at the top right of the screen, but no. Again, not a huge deal, but it’s a design choice that leaves me scratching my head.
PS Vita Software Screen 2

My two biggest problems: the web browser and the splash screens. Together. Oh, no...

My other big problem with the system software – and this will be no surprise to anyone who has used it on the PS3 – (perhaps the PSP, too, but I never used the feature on that portable) is the web browser. I don’t know what it is with Sony, but they cannot seem to do web browsing properly, outside of their laptops. The browser itself shares a similar look and feel to the PS3 browser, but at the time of it’s launch, and the subsequent writing of this piece, it is not compatible with Adobe’s Flash Player. That’s right, no Youtube videos for you, at least at the moment. I assume that this will be corrected extremely quickly, because given how pretty that screen is, watching videos seems to be one of the things it was made for, but Sony doesn’t seem to have taken that into an account. It’s a baffling decision to be sure, and a bit of a letdown to boot.

Some of the other software features I haven’t been able to use: the use of the ‘Party’ and ‘Group Messaging’ applications are predicated on you having friends with Playstation Vitas, and at the moment, I’m the only person I know that has one. So I can’t talk about those features. But there are a few, I think, that are worth mentioning.

The ‘Welcome Park’ application is one of the first things the system suggests you try the first time you boot it up. Basically, it’s just a collection of short mini-games that familiarize you with all the fancy things the Vita can do: touch controls, multi-touch, rear touch, tilt controls, the cameras, the microphone, all these are showcased in ‘Welcome Park.’ The touch/multi-touch game has you tapping on bubbles with numbers in them, clearing them but touching them in ascending order; the tilt game has you controlling a little man on a skateboard, avoiding the bubbles that are falling; one of the camera games has you take a picture, and then it scrambles it into a puzzle, which you then must solve. This group of games even have their own trophies to unlock. While at it’s core, ‘Welcome Park’ is little more than a collection of extremely basic tech demos, it was still a really cool idea to introduce a simplistic place where the Vita’s features are showcased. The thing is, I can see ‘Welcome Park’ having the most appeal for the non-hardcore crowd: the people who bought the Vita because they’d like to play games while they travel, but who don’t play console games a whole lot, and I don’t see this system appealing to a wide range of those people, at least not yet.

PS Vita Software Screen 3 PS Vita Software Screen 4 PS Vita Software Screen 5

Above: Welcome Park. Which features no benches, but there are no small children, either.

Another neat little preinstalled application is ‘near.’ ‘near’ basically does one thing: it uses your location data to tell you other people nearby who are playing with a Vita. It tells you what the people it finds are playing, and it’ll even tell you how far away they are. Basically, your Vita can become one of the best tool for stalking people you’re ever going to find. Given that it hasn’t officially launched yet, I didn’t find too many people. In my university town, from my house, there was one other person playing, (Welcome Park, if you’re interested), and according to the Vita, they were about a kilometre away. I felt that was a little too much information, but whatever. It’s a cool feature. Unfortunately, I just left for my Reading Week, and at home, there are no people nearby with a Vita. A little sad, but not surprising. ‘Near’ will also tell you what your friends are playing, and where they are, if you have any friends on your Playstation Friends list that own a Vita. Apparently, if you share your online ID, you can also make ‘discoveries’ in games. I have no idea what that means, because I’m not sharing my online ID at the moment, but I’ll be sure to let you know in the future.
PS Vita Software Screen 6

near: It's the Vita's handy-dandy stalker app!

Content Manager is the application that handles transferring files from your Vita to your PS3, your PS3 to your Vita, your Vita to your PC/Mac, or your PC/Mac to your Vita. Basically, Content Manager is how you get videos and music onto your Vita. It also lets you backup files, a feature which, given the limited sizes and price points of the Vita memory cards, will be infinitely handy. Personally, I know that my 4GB card won’t last long, so the ability to copy downloaded titles onto the PS3 in order to free up memory on the Vita is going to be extremely helpful. The interface is fairly simple: the PS3 was given the needed features in an update in January, so it’s all ready to go. When you plug your Vita into your PC, it downloads the Content Manager program that you need, and then your ready to go. It’s quick and it’s simple, but that’s to be expected. It’s almost a necessary feature, and if it were overly complicated, that would be a problem. The only gripe I have with the system is that when you plug your Vita into your PS3, a little message comes up that says something to the effect of ‘the copying of files is handled from the Vita system.’ At this point, you load up the Content Manager on your Vita, and away you go. But, if you hit circle the make that message on your PS3 go away, the Vita won’t connect to the PS3. I didn’t know this at first, so it took me a couple minutes to figure out why I could connect it to my PC, but not my PS3. Once I realized, though, it was a bit of a face-palm moment. This isn’t a big deal, but I can see it giving a few people brief moments of trouble, in the same way it did me. It just seems so stupid. But again, that’s the only real problem with the Content Manager, and it’s a rather small one at that. I doubt most of you will be as silly as I was.
PS Vita Software Screen 7

The Content Manager: It lets you manage content. That's really all there is to it.

A feature actually brought onto the PSP, but (from what I’ve heard), that never worked as well as it should have is Remote Play. Now, I don’t know the full extent of the Remote Play feature on the Vita: there’s a video of someone using Remote Play to play Killzone 3 on their Vita, but you definitely can’t play all PS3 games that way. I tried Final Fantasy XIII-2, but it didn’t work. What I did find Remote Play useful for was playing PSOne games on my Vita. For some reason, PSOne games you download onto your PS3 can’t be transferred to the Vita. So, I used the Remote Play feature to play a bit of Final Fantasy XI and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night on my Vita in my basement, while my PS3 sat on the 3rd floor of the house in my bedroom. I thought that was really cool, but I don’t know quite how far the Remote Play feature is going to go. It works, yes, and from what I’ve managed to find, it works better than the PSP’s same feature did, but other than being kind of neat, I can’t say how much it will serve.
PS Vita Software Screen 8

Remote Play: Despite what the picture shows, it still works with an old-school, fat PS3.

The other applications that are preinstalled on the Vita are pretty straightforward: the PS Store opens the Playstation Store, where you can buy PSV and PSP games; the Trophies app lets you see the list of trophies, either on the Vita, or if you’ve linked it to your existing PSN account, all trophies associated with that account; Settings lets you tweak the system settings; Maps is Google Maps, but on the Vita, etc. etc. Couple other things I want to mention, though.

The first is that by pressing the PS and Start buttons together, you can take a screenshot of just about anything. That’s how I managed to post all the pretty pictures that came along with this piece: they all came straight off my own Vita. I found that by accident, but it does mention it somewhere. I think it says it while you’re using the camera, but I really can’t remember. Either way, it’ll make it really easy for me to post pictures alongside my reviews of Vita games, without having to resort to lifting pictures other websites have taken, like I’ve resorted to in the past. I wish the PS3 did the same.

The second is the battery life. I forgot to talk about this yesterday with the rest of the hardware stuff, but I figured I’d better mention it now. Plus, it kind of fits here, since you need battery power to run the system software. Anyway, it’s not bad. I managed to get about 5 hours out of mine, with the screen set to whatever the default brightness is, and my headphones plugged in with the volume at various levels. I don’t know if using the system’s speakers would drain the battery faster than using headphones, (I can’t see why it should, but as I said yesterday, I’m no hardware guru), but it might. If you were to dim the screen all the way and mute the system, I would guess that you could probably milk between 7 and 8 hours out of the battery. These are huge guesses, by the way. That I managed to get 5 hours in the first place could be a total, inexplicable fluke. But if I am right in my guess, that’s not bad. 5-8 hours is a pretty substantial chunk out of most trips you’ll take, so if you’re looking at this as a console to travel with, as far as battery life goes, it’s not too shabby at all.

So, aside with some minor gripes with the browser, the insistent splash screens, and the somewhat silly problem I had with the Content Manager, the system software works. ‘Near’ and ‘Welcome Park’ are cool additions, Remote Play has quite a bit of potential behind it, and Content Manager is, so long as you don’t have a mental hiccup, like I did, very easy to use. The rest of it is all straightforward. The interface is friendly, and works well, and the ‘peel away to quit application’ thing still hasn’t gotten old. All in all, I think Sony probably made the right choice by changing from XMB to LiveArea, at least as far as the Vita is concerned. There are a few silly design choices, true, (like the splash screens I mentioned, and the friends and trophy lists being separate applications), but all in all, I like what they’ve done. It complements the sleek hardware design of the system extremely well, as far as I’m concerned.

*Article first published as The Playstation Vita: An Honest Opinion (Of the Software) on The Honest Opinion Corner.