Lou Kesten

Associated Press

The PlayStation Vita wonít replace your smart phone.

For starters, it isnít a telephone (although it will eventually let you use Skype). And itís too big to fit in your pants pocket, unless youíre wearing MC Hammer-style parachute pants.

But if you love gaming on the go, youíll find room for the Vita in your jacket or your carry-on bag. Itís the most beautifully designed portable game console ever, built to deliver the kind of adventures you canít get in Appleís App Store or in the Android Market.

More than any previous hand-held, the Vita feels immediately comfortable to a gamer whoís spent years with a PlayStation controller in his hands. For the most part, the buttons are close to where they are on Sonyís DualShock ó including, most importantly, analog directional controls under each of your thumbs.

Two ďthumbsticksĒ are essential to many games, allowing you to move your character with one stick and look around the environment with the other. The single thumbstick might have been the biggest drawback to Sonyís earlier model, the PlayStation Portable, preventing its games from capturing the essence of their home-console-based cousins. Now, though, the Vitaís Uncharted: Golden Abyss genuinely feels like an on-the-go extension of the Play-?Station 3ís Uncharted 3: Drakeís Deception.

In between the thumbsticks is the real showstopper: a dazzling 5-inch OLED (organic light-emitting diode) screen with vivid colors and sharp contrast. Golden Abyss is the systemís real graphics showcase, delivering jungle landscapes that are nearly as lush as those in its PS3 cousins. Ubisoftís delightfully silly cartoon adventure Rayman Origins looks just as colorful as it was last year on high-definition consoles, while the abstract puzzle game Lumines: Electronic Odyssey hypnotizes with its virtual fireworks. And as bright as the display is, the Vitaís battery life isnít bad, allowing about five hours of play between charges.

The OLED display also serves as a touch screen, which gets the most use when navigating menus. Each game and app gets its own bubble ó essentially a round version of the now-familiar iPhone icons. There are 10 bubbles per page, and you can easily slide between pages vertically or horizontally.

The Vita also has built-in motion sensors ó so, for example, you can steer a vehicle in Wipeout 2048 by tilting the hardware. And cameras on the front and back of the machine let you super-impose game graphics on top of real-world settings. You wonít want to use the cameras to take photos, though. The results are unacceptably grainy.

Sony has thankfully jettisoned the dreadful Universal Media Disc (UMD) format that added so much weight to the PlayStation Portable. Instead, games come on tiny cards that are about as wide as and slightly longer than a quarter. You can also download games, movies and TV shows from Sonyís PlayStation store, but be warned: If you plan on building a big library youíll need to invest in Sonyís proprietary memory cards, which run from $20 for 4 gigabytes to $100 for 32 gigabytes.

How much the Vita will set you back depends on how you intend to download games and connect with friends. The Wi-Fi-only model costs $249. For $299, you get WiFi and the ability to access AT&Tís 3G mobile broadband network, which starts at $15 per month and limits users to 250 megabytes of data.

Game prices range from $10 for PSP classics to $50 for brand-new releases. Thatís going to make the Vita a tough sell to smart-phone gamers who are used to software costing a couple of bucks.

But the Vita isnít designed to replace a smart phone. If you just want another machine that can play Angry Birds, youíre missing the point; the Vita is targeted at gamers who want to take PlayStation-quality games on the road, and it delivers beautifully.