"What do you want the PlayStation TV to do for you?" That's an important question when considering purchasing Sony's new microconsole. A more important question might be "Do you know what the PlayStation TV is?"
I ask because over the course of the past six days with the PlayStation TV, I've run into several people who had absolutely no idea. My wife, for starters, thought the PlayStation TV was an actual TV, and expressed surprise when I arrived home from Fedex with a package the size of a small shoebox. Later my nephew, who often watches my children for me while I work, asked why I didn't test the system out with them.
"But they're three."
"It's a game machine? They're not quite there yet."
"Oh, I thought it was like a cable box."
It is not a television. It is not a cable box. It is not a tablet, or a food processor or the latest teen singing sensation. So what is it?
The PlayStation TV is a small black box that connects to a television set via HDMI cable. Inside of that box are the guts of a PlayStation Vita handheld gaming system. It features a plug to connect to a wired network (built-in wireless as well), a USB port, a socket for the power adapter and two slots, one for a proprietary Sony memory card and one that accepts retail Vita games.
Plugging the unit into your television set and powering it on allows the user to stare at a setup screen for a few moments before remembering the unit does not include the Dualshock 3 or 4 controller required to use it. The $99 standalone unit expects the consumer to already own one of these PlayStation 3 or PlayStation 4 controllers, which is as keen an indicator of the target demographic of the PlayStation TV as any. While there is a bundle on offer that includes the unit, a Dualshock 3 controller, a (too small) 8GB memory card and a download voucher for the Vita version of The LEGO Movie Video Game, this is a product being sold primarily as an accessory to an existing PlayStation.
Now that we know what the PlayStation TV is, what exactly does one do with it? A common misconception I've come across over the past week or so is that the PlayStation TV can do anything a Vita can, with the exception of games requiring use of the portable's front touch screen, rear touch pad, camera or microphone. While the second half of that statement is true, the first part isn't wholly accurate.
Containing the same guts as the PlayStation Vita, theoretically any entertainment app that can run on the Vita should be able to run on the PlayStation TV. That said, the PlayStation TV's app selection is incredibly limited at launch — just Crunchyroll and Crackle, really — and while applications for more popular apps such as Netflix and Hulu are available for the Vita, those apps will not yet run on the PlayStation TV. It will stream movies and television shows from the Sony Entertainment Network, but no one wants to do that.
Rather than harp on what the PlayStation TV can't do, let's take a look at...
It plays PlayStation Vita games.
Much criticism has been raised over the "limited" library or PlayStation TV compatible Vita games since the unit originally launched in Japan as the Vita TV. Indeed, the official list of compatible titles from Sony Computer Entertainment America only lists some 143 games.
Obviously a gamer's PlayStation TV mileage as far as Vita games go will depend on how well that list coincides with their personal taste. Being a fan of Japanese role-playing games and other quirky titles that have only made their way to the West on Sony's portable, I'm incredibly pleased with what I can now play on my television. The games I've loaded have all run beautifully, with minimal blurring or jagginess from being blown up big.
Just beware of games that didn't get the PlayStation TV memo and still ask players to tap or swipe the screen to continue. They generally mean 'tap the start button'.
It plays PlayStation Portable games.
The Previous Sony Portable's PSTV compatible library is a respectable 264 titles. Basically, if it's for the PSP and it's available on the PlayStation Network, it can be played on the little black box. Considering the PSP was even more of a haven for Japanese fare, the PlayStation TV is really shaping up to be the $99 JRPG dream box.
Will there be jaggies? Yes, such jaggies will there be. The PSP screen wasn't meant for such largeness, and in 3D-centric games it shows. Having long used a TV adapater for my PSP to capture footage, I knew what to expect and wasn't really shocked.
It plays PS One Classics.
Some 129 games from the original PlayStation are purchasable and playable on the PlayStation TV. That's all of the Final Fantasies, Chrono Cross, Xenosaga, a bunch of Mega Man, Cool Boarders, Jet Moto — all the greats.
It can Remote Play PlayStation 4 games.
Like the PlayStation Vita, the PlayStation TV can stream Remote Play capable PlayStation 4 games — just not quite as well. With my Vita, as long as I have a relatively strong wireless signal I can stream my PS4 games with minimal lag. With the PlayStation TV I could barely play until I had both the PS4 and the PSTV wired to the same router. I'd imagined the exact same functionality as I enjoyed with the Vita, only on a big screen in another room. That's not quite what I got.
Yes, my network configuration might be to blame, but I'm not alone in having trouble connecting the two systems for a lag-free-ish experience. I have years of network troubleshooting experience under my belt as well — the average consumer does not.
And then there's the PlayStation TV's technical limitations. Once everything is set up properly, the convenience of playing PlayStation 4 games in another room is offset by the fact that the PlayStation TV does not output in 1080p — 720p or 1080i is the best it can do. That, and it does not support surround sound, only outputting two channels.
My struggle getting the PlayStation TV and PlayStation 4 on good speaking terms put a serious dent in my opinion of the unit in this capacity. It's not the magic box I expected it to be.
It can stream games through PlayStation Now.
Sony's streaming game service went into open beta the day of the PlayStation TV's release, and the two go together quite well. With a wired connection and a willingness to spend a slightly smaller amount of money on a timed rental than I'd pay for a physical copy of many of the available games, the PlayStation Now is very playable on the PlayStation TV. I'm not a huge fan of the service, but it indeed works.
It can stream TV shows and movies.
It can, but as mentioned above the options are incredibly limited at this time. You've got Sony's Video Unlimited dealio, Crackle, Crunchyroll's streaming anime service and some sort of concert streaming app that barely counts.
Between the limited variety and the system's technical limitations, this is not a microconsole to purchase for media streaming. Both the $99 Apple TV and the $99 Amazon Fire TV output at full 1080p with surround sound (optical outputs and everything), and offer a broad range of popular streaming services — Hulu, Netflix, Amazon Prime (Fire TV), iTunes (Apple TV). The Fire TV even offers Android games, in case you're looking for a bit more interactivity.
It can transform your TV into a world of ugly bubbles.
The PlayStation Vita user interface was kind of cute on a portable system. On a big screen TV? Not so much.
This is an interface designed for clumsy thumbs. It's a poor use of screen real estate. It's sloppy. The first time I had to delete a game to make room for another, the empty space glaring back at me from the screen was jarring.
Navigation with a Dualshock controller works well enough, but again, it's jarringly obvious this menu system was not designed with a television-based device in mind.
It can fall off of the entertainment stand.
Measuring a mere 2.6" x 4.1" x .5" and weighing under four ounces, the PlayStation TV is a freakishly small thing. A freakishly small thing with heavy cables plugged into the back of it. I've fished it out from behind my entertainment stand four times now. It should come with a suction cup.
That's what the PlayStation TV will do, which brings us back around to the original question.
The PlayStation TV does many things, but it only does a select few of them consistently well. The PlayStation 4 streaming is inconsistent. The video streaming lacks variety. Both of those suffer from the system's video and audio hardware limitations. There's a lot of compromise involved in picking one up for those reasons.
The PlayStation TV is built with the innards of a PlayStation Vita, and it's at its best when its doing what Sony's portable was built to do — playing Vita and PSP games. Even then there's a lot of compromising to do. The library is smaller than many would like, and some of the portable system's best games (Tearaway) were built to take advantage of its unique features, features that aren't available on the PlayStation TV.
There are two types of people I feel will be able to get the most out of the PlayStation TV. The people who look through the software compatibility list and get as excited as I did at the prospect of playing some of the amazing games that made the cut on a big screen for the first time (or again, in some cases), and people that really enjoy fishing rectangular plastic blocks from behind their TV stand.