Around this time last year I watched on in Tokyo as British, fluent-Japanese-speaking PlayStation group CEO Andrew House tried to convince Sony’s home market of the viability of a micro console.
The idea was understandable: Japan’s gamers, with smaller abodes and a growing love of social games, had shifted from home consoles to handhelds and phone fun in recent years. Was this a way of bridging that gap maybe? The Japanese media in attendance, however, looked vaguely perplexed.
Yet for the Brit journos there, who had spent much of the year bombarded by various TV boxes and dongles of all shapes and sizes, Roku this, Chromecast that, there was potential in these there hills: imagine one of those many TV set-tops welded to a massive back catalogue of PlayStation games, too.
Amazon Fire TV suddenly doesn’t seem so appealing, right, if you can get the PS4's Amazon Instant Video, Netflix and iPlayer on PlayStation’s box, too? With the PlayStation Now streaming service on the way, as well, could this also be like OnLive but one that actually, y’know, works and stuff? Minds were whirring. With no UK release slated at all, the Brit media got restlessly inventive and began wanting answers.
House was clearly warmed by the enthusiasm of his countrymen on the other side of the world. “Will you tell them?” he chuckled, pointing a thumb at some of the more cautious-looking execs at the edge of the room.
Well, the good news is after a series of formal demos – and in the face of some truly pointless third-party peripherals – we can now finally get our hands on the set-top formerly known as Vita TV in the UK wild, a full year on from its launch in Japan and just in time for Christmas stocking filling. The bad news is very, very little has changed in that year.
What Is It?
An £85, stupidly light 6cm x 10cm slab of set-top box that hooks up to any HDMI-connected TV or display for gaming and media fun – be that through digital store downloads or physical game cards for the PlayStation Vita gaming handheld. It's effectively a Vita without touch screens and physical controls, so that means there's a getting-on-a-bit ARM Cortex A9 quadcore processor and SGX543MP4+ GPU doing the heavy lifting, innards fans.
Who's It For?
Fans of gaming who want a slightly cheaper way to get their game on. Indie game fans who don't need access to all those big, shooty-bang-bang blockbusters. PS4 owners who want to stream their big, shooty-bang-bang games to a second room over Remote Play.
Build and Features
PlayStation TV is dinky but sturdy, slickly minimalist with a nice matte finish that slips into bags and falls down sofas easily when it's not sitting next to your telly like you’ve absent-mindedly put your phone down on the way to the sofa. For those who like black boxes compared to black boxes, see it next to an iPhone 6…
Piddly isn't it? Now in PS4-matching black rather than the Apple-aping white, you plug it into a telly or display of your choosing via HDMI, sync a DualShock 3 or 4 controller over Bluetooth with a connection of the microUSB, hook it up to your Wi-Fi and you’re away.
As well as a small suite of options that you have far better tech with which to access already – email, internet, messaging, etc – your main choices once booted up are: a) to play local games and media downloaded from the PlayStation store digitally; b) play PS Vita titles from retail cards or proprietary memory sticks shoved in the game slot; or c) Remote Play, which lets you stream PS4 games from the big brother console (if you have one) over your home network in 720p.
In the US, the box also supports PlayStation Now’s slightly stilted rental service, but not here yet. Hopefully they’ll have figured out what it is before it gets here.
The interface behaves, unsurprisingly, almost exactly like a Vita – same bubble apps, same store, same jaunty muzak – although refined and tweaked for a physical controller (now rather than swiping a game's tile away, you hold ‘O’ to activate the animation, that kind of thing). It’s slick enough, surprisingly intuitive and doesn’t feel too re-engineered.
As well as the HDMI out and USB ports, there’s also a proprietary memory card slot on PlayStation TV for upping the 1GB internal storage with something more meaty (you'll need to), or porting games and media over from your Vita if you have one, plus an Ethernet port which we’d recommend for getting the best out of Remote Play. There's also Bluetooth for headsets and keyboards.
PlayStation TV looks swish, is well built and is the most portable of micro consoles. It has an enviable catalogue of games to match, too. Seriously, from a good selection of PS Vita titles made for the hardware to a whole host of PlayStation classics to delve into from PS One and PS2 via second-room PS4 streaming if you have one sat next door under your big telly, there’s more quality to play here than on most Android boxes.
With DualShock support, you’re playing with a proper controller made by a top-tier hardware designer, too, not a plasticky knock-off that comes with most micro consoles. It feels premium and it feels polished – and the tweaked interface is better than you'd expect, too.
The switching of memory cards between Vita and PlayStation TV, not to mention controllers between main console and secondary set-top, is a breeze after you've synced your PSN accounts, and you can toggle and optimise the controls on a lot of games to suit the new setup.
Despite some fears for the standard of the Wi-Fi connection, Remote Play connected and worked every time for us and, despite the considerably larger upscale to process, was not noticeably worse than on Vita, giving a very decent picture if inevitably a bit bleached out and lacking sharpness.
As ever some games work better than others, and some Wi-Fi connections are greater than others (ours is pretty middling), but we enjoyed the turn-based likes of Road Not Taken, the chiefly static-viewpoint of Drive Club and got momentarily lost in a Destiny hole for a few hours without dropping out.
Playing a lot of Vita games on the big screen for the first time is an enlightening experience, too. Pumping out the soundtrack to Spelunky on a stereo, in particular, is epic, while Retro City Rampage scales up great. In fact, almost all of the titles available on Cross Buy with PS3 play fantastically, which begs the question: do you already have a PS3? If so, you can probably already do this.
Well, £85 is a lot of money for a device that needs you to provide your own controller. If you don’t already have a spare DualShock of some description, this takes the price quickly over a hundred quid. When you add on a proprietary memory card (again, if you don’t have one) then you’re paying more than a PS3 Super Slim (remember, Vita memory cards cost a staggering £70 for 64GB). For us, we had most of this covered already, but for a new starter, you need to bear that in mind.
And for that money you’re also getting a very slight bit of equipment. While it looks slick and solid, the PlayStation TV is so light it’s over-powered by the weight of the cables in its back – those OCD types who like things perfectly flat may be leaping up and adjusting a fair bit.
The internet browser, as with the Vita, is pretty terrible, slow and cumbersome, but most importantly, there are no native apps for the likes of YouTube, Netflix, Amazon Instant Video or BBC iPlayer. As with Remote Play on PS Vita, you can't stream the PS4's apps either, which makes PlayStation TV a bit of an on-demand black hole at present. The only video you’ll be getting here right now is some YouTube through said iffy browser (Netflix doesn't work), from Sony’s store (expensive, poor choice) or fired over alongside photos and music from a server to the Network Media Player app (which is clunky and you’ll need to download from the app store).
On top of that, a fair few Vita games don’t work on PlayStation TV – and because of the shared store with the handheld, it’s not always easy to tell which ones, either. When they don’t, you get a screen like this…
Of the 23 games on our memory card pulled from our Vita, seven wouldn’t run on PlayStation TV. Some seemed to us fairly obvious no-nos based on their gameplay – touch-heavy titles such as Tearaway, Little Big Planet and Gravity Rush, the latter’s stunning holding screen getting our hopes up when it teased us that it might…
Ah, what could have been. Although we’re less sure why The Binding of Isaac, Terraria or Sine Mora don’t play ball – maybe they need updates. Also, while the perfectly working Fez now boasts “PlayStation TV support” text on its store page, Hotline Miami (which also runs fine) doesn’t, so there's a fair bit of assumed knowledge here.
And finally, Remote Play: while in principle it’s great, the quality and appropriateness fluctuates massively from title to title to the point that we still think it’s not quite there yet as more than a rather nifty Brucie bonus if you have an enviably fast Wi-Fi connection. We found FIFA 15, above all, almost unplayable on ours, glitchy, blurry and laggy to the point of mis-timing shots and tackles, but there are many shades. When it works, it’s great, but when it doesn’t, there’s really no getting around it.
Should I Buy It?
It’s a strange one as, in all honesty, probably not, but we know we’re going to continue using the hell out of ours, so how’s that for hypocrisy? There’s a rational response to a high cost for a level of functionality that you can get for better value elsewhere. With poor on-demand TV options and expensive peripherals, PlayStation TV seems almost stuck in first gear. This may change in the future if the media apps flood in, but this feels like a repurposed device, rather than a fresh new take on a media hub, and that's a shame.
Yet for a particular person – let's call him "Matt" – who wants to play a load of indie games he already owns, plus partake in the odd Destiny session, in his "office", leaving the big telly free to maintain domestic harmony, PlayStation TV still serves a purpose. I may even make it an overnight-bag regular for sprinkling fun on hotel TVs. It's something of a niche extravagance, then, rather than the cheap, mass-market entry point some expected, which is perhaps not so shocking from a brand that doesn't really do "budget". But it's a clever little thing and for some that will be enough.