When the current generation of handhelds came out, the big question was whether they could compete with smartphones and tablets. Of course, smartphones and tablets have a huge advantage: They serve a much bigger market, because people don't buy them just to play games.
A phone can replace a console, but a console can't replace a phone. If these devices can offer experiences that compare well with gaming on handheld consoles, and if the prices are similar, the handheld consoles are dead. And the news this week from Apple indicates a challenging future indeed for the Vita and the 3DS.
Of course, the Vita tries to ward off this assault by offering tons of power and a great control setup. The 3DS, meanwhile, features a 3D effect and the backing of Nintendo. But the next iPad iteration promises that these advantages will wear down in the near future. Tablets and phones already feature an ever-expanding library of games, some of them top-notch, and now Apple is stepping its game up when it comes to power.
The CPU of the Vita—by far the more powerful of the two handhelds—is capable of speeds of up to 2 GHz. But if it actually ran this fast, the batteries would practically disintegrate, and so it typically runs at much lower speeds. There are even rumors that Sony underclocked the processor significantly and may or may not unlock the full speed, via a firmware update, at a later date.
Underclocking rumors aside, this used to give the Vita a nice graphical edge over Apple products that are much more expensive. But Apple does not respect the niceties of the "generation" system—the iPad 3 was announced in March, and it will become obsolete next month. And the company promises that the fourth-generation iPad will feature no less than double the speed and graphics capability of the previous model.
The 1 GHz processors in the current iPads will be replaced by the A6X. The full specs are not yet available, but according to various estimates, this new processor will be clocked somewhere in the vicinity of 1.5 GHz and will not use more battery power than its predecessor.
Yes, there's a lot more to graphical prowess than CPU speeds, but this number suggests that the iPad will offer visuals that at least loosely compete with the Vita's. And the vast improvement in such a short time span raises the possibility that future iPads will far outpace the Vita long before Sony is ready.
Of course, this doesn't necessarily spell the end for the 3DS and Vita. The 3DS still has its clever two-screen setup, its 3D effects, and a Mario library that spans decades. And the Vita still has the backing of Sony, PlayStation One games, and controller features you can't get without a USB gamepad on an iPad. Also, while Apple has managed to sell 100 million iPads to date, the devices certainly appeal to a certain type of consumer, and that type of consumer is not necessarily a hardcore gamer.
Perhaps more important, there's the issue of price. Even the cheapest fourth-generation iPad, with a 16 GB hard drive and no 4G service, will set you back $500, exactly twice what a basic Vita costs, and a 3DS is even cheaper. A hardcore gamer—a person who wants real controls and a company that excels in game development at the helm—still has a lot to gain from skipping the iPad and buying from Sony or Nintendo.
But it's hard not to come back to that generation-span issue. If we expect the Vita and 3DS to last even five years, they'll face down iPads and smartphones that are getting faster, cheaper, and sleeker, seemingly by the minute. And maybe, just maybe, even the hardcore gamers will start to ask themselves why they need a handheld when they have a phone—something they didn't even buy for its gaming potential—that looks just as good.
When Game Boys were all the rage 20 years ago and the Internet was only slowly seeping into the public consciousness, few of us could have imagined how much power could fit into a tiny box. It was great news for handhelds as the Game Boy morphed into the Game Boy Color, the Game Boy Advance, and eventually the DS. But as the huge cell phones of yesteryear shrank, shapeshifted into BlackBerrys and iPhones, and eventually become capable of serious computational feats, this very same process came to threaten the entire foundation the Game Boy was built on.
Date: October 25, 2012
*The views expressed within this article are solely the opinion of the author and do not express the views held by Cheat Code Central.*