Sony’s Vita TV was launched in Japan on Nov. 14 and will be released in other regions over the next few months. It will cost between US$100-$150. So what does this thing do? In a nutshell it’s a micro-console that plugs into your TV’s HDMI port, like the Apple TV or Ouya. It could be Sony’s answer to the mass market, which increasingly spends more time watching streaming videos and playing mobile games. The Vita TV allows you to play PS Vita games on the big screen with a PS3 or PS4 DualShock controller, an enticing prospect for those who already own a PS Vita and have a large collection of Vita games. It will also allow you to stream games from your PS4 to a different TV in the house, saving families everywhere from bloodshed over domain of the living room TV. There are plenty of articles out there going into more detail about its gaming capabilities such as this one.
But when I first heard about the Vita TV I was most interested in its capabilities as a complete entertainment center solution. The Apple TV has been hugely successful by making it easier to stream videos and music to your entertainment system. If the Vita TV is able to do this well AND add a top notch gaming experience it could be a serious contender to the Apple TV. So let’s say you don’t own a Vita or PS4. How does the Vita TV stack up?
Neither device is really meant for media storage. The newer Apple TVs only come with 8GB, not enough for even a modest music library, while the Vita TV has a tiny 1GB of space. These devices were made for streaming video.
The Vita TV will have all the video and music services available to the PS4 and PS Vita. This includes YouTube, Netflix, Hulu, Music Unlimited, and an internet browser. Music Unlimited is a subscription service that gives you access to millions of songs for $9.90/month. Of course, with YouTube giving you access to pretty much every song out there for free I don’t see any point in subscribing. It also gives you access to the Playstation Store’s collection of movies and TV shows. Here’s the full list of streaming services. The Vita TV also has an email app and an ebook reader, but I can’t picture anyone reading Game of Thrones off their TV.
The Apple TV has much the same offering with streaming video, but also gives you access to all iTunes content, including podcasts, and of course, your iTunes music library. It’s great for TEDTalks. A more complete list of Apple TV services is here.
But how easy is it to navigate on one of these devices? The Apple TV interface looks slick and for the most part is pretty intuitive, though it definitely leans heavily towards stuffing new content down your throat. That said it really does make it fun and easy to browse movie trailers. It’s one of the rare cases where I prefer to use the Apple Remote over my laptop trackpad and keyboard. You can sit on the couch with a friend, tea in one hand, remote in the other and scroll through a pretty carousel of popular content. Selecting an item brings up a description, Rotten Tomatoes ratings, and cast info.
In comparison the Vita TV interface looks downright ugly. It’s exactly the same interface as the Vita with buttons designed for a touchscreen, so on a TV they’re blown up into huge bubbles. Couldn’t they have at least picked icons that don’t look like they came off a Sony mobile from 10 years ago? Prompts also fill the entire screen, like they do on the Vita, making the system feel pretty dated. But at the end of the day these devices are meant to deliver the content you want as easily as possible. Interfaces are also often improved with software updates. So menu aesthetics aside, how are the controllers?
The Apple Remote is slender and minimalist in typical Apple fashion. They’ve done a great job of figuring out the minimum number of buttons needed to operate a system, and most of the time you’ll find they suffice. However, the Apple Remote feels a bit sluggish with slightly slow response times. Also, as it uses an IR receiver, you have to point the remote at the Apple TV, and even a mug sitting in the way will disrupt the connection. The Vita TV uses the PS3 controller and so is able to take advantage of all the extra buttons such as the D-pad and shoulder buttons. Menu switching is fast and responsive. However, where both these systems fail is in text input. While the PS3 controller is superior to the Apple Remote with its responsiveness and keyboard shortcut buttons (triangle for space, square for backspace, etc), it’s still vastly inferior to touchscreen keyboards. So neither of these systems is really viable for YouTube or general web browsing on its own.
Where the Apple TV really takes off is that you can control it with any Apple device. Out of the box it can be controlled by an iPhone, iPod, iPad, or Macbook. If you have a PC you can mirror your display using AirParrot. Android users can download an app called AppleTV AirPlay Media Player. It’s awesome for parties as anyone with an Apple device can easily play their own music or videos on your TV by simply connecting to your WiFi network. While the idea of Crowd DJing may not be appealing to you, there’s no doubt that it’s a lot of fun. It can also bring YouTube into a social gathering like never before. I was recently in a fairly upscale house party in Tokyo and someone decided to stream a YouTube video through the Apple TV. Most of us had iPhones or iPods so it was just unbelievably easy to stand there with your glass of wine and say, “Hey, you gotta check this out,” and throw your video up on the big screen. And just like that the YouTube Cocktail Party was a reality. On top of that you can play Keynote presentations, iOS games, and wirelessly turn your TV into an external display for your laptop. This means you don’t even need a DVD player anymore if your laptop has a disc drive. And it only costs US$99.
The Vita TV doesn’t have any of that functionality. It would probably be possible with 3rd party apps and software, but implementation would be too difficult/bothersome for most people. The Vita TV could be so much more if Sony developed a cross-platform app that turned your TV into an extension of any iOS or Android device. However, Sony will not do this. Sony does not look at its hardware as a core revenue generator, but as a gateway to its content services. This is why the PS3 (and Xbox and Wii) was sold at a loss. So the Vita TV will probably remain a proprietary, niche system that only has relevance amongst PS Vita gamers.
This is also why the new, more open platforms like Ouya and Steam Machines have a big opportunity to become the new supreme rulers of your living room.