Inside the Playstation Vita

Teardown: Playstation Vita

Playstation Vita gets the teardown treatment to see what makes it tick.

Portable gaming is bigger than ever. Angry Birds - nuff said. But as that notable success shows, the smartphone is increasingly becoming the main platform. So, while handheld gaming devices remain strong they are seeing much of the potential user base eaten away.

In the last few months, the two leading players in dedicated handheld consoles, Sony and Nintendo, have launched new platforms: the PlayStation Vita (considered in this teardown) and the Nintendo 3DS (the featured teardown in E&T ISSUE NO).

While both have sought to extend the definition of high-end portable gaming, they have been accompanied by clear reactions to the intrusion of the smartphone. Nintendo slashed the price of the 3DS shortly after launch to reseed its market. Sony is arguably looking to have it both ways, exploiting its positions in both gaming and cellular handsets.

As well as the Vita, 2012 is seeing Sony support a series of 'PlayStation Certified' products. These smartphones are capable of running many PS-branded games, and alongside its internal offerings, Sony has signed up fast-moving Taiwanese player HTC to produce PSC phones. Going further, Sony has also launched a more formal mobile gaming framework aimed at not only its own in-house but also Android environments.

(Not to be outdone, Microsoft, which has historically been more of a rival in the full-size console market, is looking to increase its portably gaming share from the Nokia-led move to Windows Phone 7 handsets).

So it was that the Vita emerged earlier this year into a highly dynamic environment. And even its design reflects the colliding markets. Its touch pad controls certainly mark it as the successor to the PlayStation Portable (PSP) and Go, but there is also the touchscreen (active matrix OLED, like so many of today's smartphones), WiFi and optional 3G capability.

Meanwhile, elements such as a gyroscope, eCompass, accelerometer, and multiple sensors - all present and correct here - are common to both platforms.

Going under the hood, the core of the design is a custom-designed system-on-chip, the CXD5315GG. "It boasts a quad-core, ARM Cortex-A9 processor with 4Gb of mobile DDR2 memory," notes Andrew Rassweiler of IHS iSuppli Teardown Analysis Service. "There are four die inside: one from Toshiba is, we assume, the core processor, another from Samsung is video memory, and then there are mobile DDR dies from Samsung. In addition there is 4Gb of built-in NAND Flash for game storage with an option to upgrade via a memory card slot.

"The Vita clocks in at a total of 1,308 components. At first glance, this seems overwhelmingly more complex than the Nintendo DS at 704 components. But when you consider the fact that Sony purchases the 3G module as a single unit (we broke it down into its sub components) that would bring the count down to 969. Interestingly, the PSP Go we analyzed back in 2010 had a very similar component count of 954 components, but clearly this new device is more feature-rich, and basically adds functionality while keeping the overall complexity roughly the same as the PSP Go.

"Perhaps not that surprisingly, the overall complexity overall is similar to smartphones."

Sony may not have as much room to make margin on the Vita's hardware as Apple does with the iPhone. The implied margin here is only about 32 per cent against 50 per cent for the iPhone, and the real margin is thinner, as the IHS iSuppli analysis does not look at all costs - just hardware and manufacturing.

"Having said that, this product stands to make more margin than the PS3 whose costs were, early in its lifecycle at least, well in excess of retail prices," says Rassweiler.

So, is the Vita (and, for that matter, the 3DS) the last hurrah for the handheld gaming platform. For sure, 2012 will be a watershed year where volumes could provide answers to some important questions.

For example, the handheld gaming segment has unquestionably lost market share to smartphones and tablets among casual gamers. Some app store games are free or cost only a few pounds. But is the consumer entirely comfortable with this model?

It's equally clear that the mobile market changes even faster than the PC market. So, if a consumer uses their iPhone as a gaming device but decides to switch after only, say, 18 months to a Droid, that user loses all of his or her games. Even within the same platform, there can be compatibility issues between different flavours of the Android operating system and different iPhone models. These issues can cause gamers to shy away from their cell phone as their handheld gaming choice.

Then among more dedicated gamers, buttons are essential. But the market for smartphones with buttons will likely not grow beyond a niche.

Finally, children make a large part of the handheld gaming market, which has seen more kids getting iPads, but the norm is not for them to not get expensive smartphones (yet).

The Vita certainly (as does the 3DS) borrows from the smartphone but also looks to up the ante both technologically and in terms of functionality. However, Sony's PSC plans show the company is not putting everything on one horse.

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