(Ars Technica) -- These days, it seems, it's not enough for a digital device to just play games. To keep up with the smartphones and tablet computers of the world, any game system needs to at least nod in the direction of cloud-based and social networking "apps" that are all the rage with the kiddies.
Sony's PlayStation Vita has now done exactly that, launching free downloadable Netflix, Twitter and Flickr apps in conjunction with the system's official debut Wednesday (though pre-orderers have had the system for a week now).
Your very first encounter with two of these apps foreshadows the occasionally awkward experience to come. When you first load up Twitter or Flickr on your Vita, you're asked to click a button that opens up a web browser where you can log in to the service.
Then you're expected to write down a confirmation code and navigate back to the original app to confirm your credentials. It's a minor, one-time annoyance, but it makes the Netflix app's integrated login prompt seem futuristic by comparison.
Netflix is probably the most useful of the apps in the Vita's initial batch. Even if you already have the streaming video service on a host of other devices (and you probably do), the Vita's large, crisp screen provides a pleasant portable viewing experience without being quite as large or cumbersome as an iPad or laptop (not to mention an HDTV).
The Vita's 960 x 544 resolution isn't quite "HD," but high-definition content still looks pretty good, provided you have the bandwidth to view it (warning to 3G users: Netflix will eat up your data allowance incredibly quickly).
This is the only Vita app so far that makes use of the system's face buttons as well as the touch screen, letting you fast forward and rewind with the analog stick or pause with the X button. You can also use the touch screen to flick through a timeline of screengrabs from the video, which is quite pleasant.
My only real complaint about the interface is the odd inability to scroll through the front page of recommendations with quick flicks -- instead you have to awkwardly tap on-screen buttons to move up and down the rows.
The Vita's Twitter app, dubbed LiveTweet, provides all the basic functionality you'd expect from the service and then some. It's easy to scroll through your timeline, @replies or direct messages with responsive flick scrolling and a familiar pull-down-to-refresh option.
You can easily search through tweets by keyword or hashtag and even view a series of @replies through a handy conversation view. Writing tweets is relatively painless using the Vita's big on-screen keyboard, though I found myself often missing the space bar when I was typing quickly.
But LiveTweet is somewhat annoying to use if you, like me, primarily use Twitter as a way to scan for interesting links posted by interesting friends. Clicking a link from LiveTweet loads up the Vita's somewhat limited web browser, which takes a few seconds to warm up and then load the page.
Once you come back to LiveTweet, the app has often lost your place in browsing the tweetstream, which means you have to wait a few seconds for everything to load again and then waste time scrolling to find your place.
It's also hard to imagine where Twitter for the Vita is going to find its niche. If you're on the computer, you likely have a better Twitter app just a click away. If you're away from the computer, you're more likely to have a Twitter-capable smartphone that's handier to carry around than the massive Vita, which easily dominates any pocket it fits in.
Still, if you need to tell the world about your Super Stardust Delta high score right now, you're only a few taps away from doing so on the Vita.
Flickr rounds out the Vita's initial round of apps, with quite possibly the nicest interface of the bunch. Rows of easy-to-scroll-through thumbnail images provide quick access to you photostream, favorites, contacts, saved searches and even suggestions for interesting Flickr members to browse through.
There's also a nice batch upload option that doesn't even require leaving the main menu, though why you'd want to upload many photos from the Vita's low-quality camera is a mystery (the service might be more useful for uploading screenshots, though, which I did while composing writing this very piece).
It only takes a couple of taps to go from a tiny thumbnail to a beautiful, full-screen image that you can easily pan and zoom around with the multitouch screen. It is somewhat annoying, though, that you can only view caption and tag information when the image is an unzoomed, compact square on the right side of the screen -- some sort of transparent overlay option would have been nice.
It's also a bit odd that there's no option to download photos to your Vita to use as home screen wallpapers, though you can use the Vita's screenshot function to approximate this feature.
So far, the Vita's nongaming apps feel more like nice extras than crucial selling points for the system. They work better as a proof-of-concept for the potential nongaming uses of the Vita's excellent touchscreen than as tools you're likely to fully integrate into your digital life.
Here's hoping Sony relaxes its tight hold on the PlayStation Network marketplace to let more app makers play around with the system's potential outside of games.
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