The PlayStation Vita is an impressive piece of hardware. Featuring an OLED screen, dual analog sticks, cameras, touchscreens, and tons of graphical power, it is clear that the device is packing serious tech into the palm of gamers’ hands. And with a $249.99 starting price point, the Vita is taking a clear shot at the similarly priced Nintendo 3DS. Make no mistake about it, the handheld console war is back on.

All the tech in the world, however, won’t win gamers over if the device doesn’t feel good and bring the right gaming experiences along with it. The Sony PSP sure had a lot of tech under its hood back when it launched, but the lack of a second analog stick became an issue almost immediately. The same can be said about Nintendo’s 3DS. Its glassesless¬†display is certainly advancing the tech side of things, but the system’s lackluster launch titles, along with awkward controls on some games, might keep the 3DS from being the hit the original DS was. Playing a game like Kid Icarus Uprising for an extended period of time is simply not comfortable on the device, and nearly impossible for left-handed gamers.

Thankfully, the PlayStation Vita corrects almost all of the problems of the PSP and a feels great in your hands. The device is larger than a PSP for sure and will be a tight fight — if it fits at all — in gamers’ pockets, but it is extremely light and the sticks and buttons are positioned in a way that should keep gamers’ hands from cramping. In fact, the only inputs on the device that felt initially awkward were the front and rear touchscreens, with the rear touchscreen proving the most problematic.

In contrast to the smooth touchscreens found on Apple’s iPod Touch, iPhone, and iPad, Vita’s front touchscreen felt just a bit textured. While this did not make the screen any less responsive, it did feel noticeably different, and¬† gamers will likely need a little bit of time to adjust — for instance, I had to use just a little more pressure to slide my finger around the screen.

Apple products dominate the touchscreen landscape, and people generally love how iOS devices feel and work, so it is a little odd that Sony did not try to replicate those screens a bit more closely. It was also a little odd to reach over the controls — the analog stick, buttons, etc — to use the touchscreen. On an iPhone, for example, your fingers are right there on or very near the touch screen. When holding the Vita with your thumbs on the analog stick or face buttons, it takes a little getting used to before it becomes clear which finger(s) you want to use on the front touchscreen. And depending on the game, that finger(s) might change.

Vita LittleBigPlanet

I found myself holding the device entirely in my left hand and using my index finger when manipulating the world in LittleBigPlanet, but reaching my thumb over to use the touch controls when playing Virtua Tennis 4 on Vita. This issue will likely go away as gamers get more and more comfortable with the system, but it jumped out during our 30 minutes with the device.

The rear touchscreen, though, presented many of those issues and more. While some games, like LittleBigPlanet, gave gamers an on-screen indication of where their fingers were on the back touchscreen, others, like Little Deviants, did not. While the on-screen indication certainly helped, it did not necessarily make things simple. Part of the complication in navigating with the rear touchscreen is that this is the first time people have had to use this new skill set. The issue of which finger(s) to use is also present. I found myself alternating between my index fingers and middle fingers.

A mini-game in Little Deviants illustrated the rear touchscreen difficulties the most, though. The game was a simple version of Whack-a-Mole: doors opened, and Little Deviants would be facing either forwards or backwards. If they were facing forward, the player had to touch the them using the front touchscreen, if they were facing backwards, the rear touchscreen. Not only did this mini-game highlight the difficulty in knowing exactly where your fingers were on the back touchscreen, but it also brought the issues of which finger(s) to use and how to hold the device to light more than ever before. Holding the Vita like a PSP and reaching across the screen with your thumbs made touching the Little Deviants that popped up in the center of the screen difficult, while holding the device in one hand and using an index finger made switching positions to use the back touchscreen harder than it should have been.

Vita Little Deviants

It is likely these issues will all but go away as gamers get more hands-on time with the system and become more comfortable with it, but they are issues gamers should be aware of. While I do not have small hands by any means, perhaps a gamer with larger hands will not have any of these issues at all.

Still, it never hurts to include more control inputs. The front and rear touchscreens should not be seen as a problem for the device, as developers do not need to use them at all. Sure, a lot of the demos Sony is currently showing on the Vita highlight touch and gyroscope features, but there is no reason why a developer needs to use these inputs if they don’t like them. While the device does not have R2 and L2 shoulder buttons, the front and rear touchscreen could easily replicate those functions and with that, the Vita can finally bring a true console experience to the palm of gamers’ hands.

The analog sticks felt good — they are actual analog sticks, unlike on the PSP, 3DS, or even Wii U controller — and the buttons felt great. It might take a 2D fighter like Street Fighter x Tekken to really put the d-pad through its paces, but the PSP and Dual Shock d-pads have certainly be serviceable in this regard, and there seems to be no reason why the Vita won’t continue that trend.

Finally, Vita’s most obvious selling point — its five inch OLED screen — really needs to be seen to be believed, but you can trust us when we say the device feels great in your hands. Hopefully the games will deliver on the tech and promise of the system.

Are you excited about the PlayStation Vita? Do you think it will be a bigger hit than the PSP was? What game or feature do you like the most/least about the device? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

tags: E3 2011, Sony, Vita