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Tech Lab

PlayStation Vita: too big, too pricey, no phone

Lots of technology companies create flawed products, but nobody does it quite like Sony Corp. Other companies deliver inferior technology or careless design. Not Sony; its stuff is attractive and crammed with advanced features. And yet, time and again, Sony makes something you wouldn’t want to buy.

Which brings me to Vita, the new PlayStation hand-held gaming device that goes on sale in the United States next week. It’s gorgeous, with a spectacular color screen, a massive quad-core processor chip, and an innovative touch-control system. In all, it is the best hand-held gaming device I have ever tried. But the Vita will have limited appeal for several simple reasons: It’s too large, it’s too expensive, and it doesn’t make phone calls.

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Our iPhones and Androids are reasonably decent game gadgets that do thousands of other tasks and can be used to call the office. So how many of us will pay $250 and up for a device that’s exceptional at just one thing?

Sony’s video game business has gone a long time between hits. The company dominated the home video game console market with its relatively cheap PlayStation 2. Then came 2006 and the PlayStation 3. It was the most technically advanced console on the market, but its $600 price tag scared away shoppers. Today, you can get a PS 3 for $250, but Sony’s share of the game market still lags behind Nintendo Co.’s Wii and Microsoft Corp.’s Xbox 360.

The entry-level PS Vita costs $250, same as a basic PS 3 and $100 more than Nintendo’s 3DS hand-held game machine. The Vita’s price makes sense at first; this thing’s a monster. It’s about seven inches long, three-quarters of an inch thick, and weighs nine ounces; quite a load, especially if you’re already toting a smartphone.

All that extra space is stuffed with advanced technology. The Vita has a GPS location chip, it supports 3G cellular data courtesy of AT&T Inc., and then there’s the monster processor and an amazing OLED (organic light-emitting diode) video screen. I’m a sucker for OLED technology, which delivers richer color contrast than the usual liquid-crystal display screens.

But then you notice that the base model Vita lacks a vital accessory: a flash memory chip for storing saved games. You’ll pay about $20 for a four-gigabyte flash card. And Sony insists you use the company’s proprietary “memory sticks,’’ which cost more than the commonplace SD memory cards.

You’ll also pay more if you want access to the AT&T network. No phone calls, of course; it’s a data-only connection. There’s no contract; you pay by the month, and through the nose: $14.99 for 250 megabytes of data downloads, or $30 for three gigabytes. Luckily, you can skip this feature and use the Vita’s Wi-Fi system to connect to hot spots at home or on the road.

At Sony’s PlayStation store, you can purchase movie and music downloads. Video of all sorts looks excellent on the OLED screen. But the Web looks awful, because the Vita has a lousy browser. It’s dead slow and doesn’t support the popular Flash format for videos and animations. Sony promises future upgrades; it is also working on other vital Internet apps, like Facebook, Twitter, and Flickr.

Meanwhile, stick to gaming. I wasted a lot of time with Uncharted: Golden Abyss, a brand-new adventure in the superb series of PS 3 games starring fortune hunter Nathan Drake. Even shrunken to hand-held size, the saga loses none of its charm. As with the previous Uncharted games, Golden Abyss combines run-and-gun shoot-outs with quirky puzzles and stunts.

And Drake has come up with some new tricks especially for the Vita. During fistfights, you can knock out a foe with a swipe of the touchscreen. Even cooler is a feature that lets you manipulate objects in the game by rubbing the back of the Vita; yes, its rear panel is touch-sensitive. What will they think of next?

It’s hard to give a thumbs-down to a device this impressive, but Japanese consumers have done just that. The Vita was rolled out before Christmas over there and did well for a couple of weeks, but then sales fell off a cliff.

There are only so many hard-core gamers, and hordes of them will buy a Vita. The rest of us will just pick up the phone.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.

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