The battle for your hand-held gaming dollar is heating up big time with the recent release of the Sony PlayStation Vita. This latest entrant in the portable gaming hardware market has a clear-cut competitor in the form of the Nintendo 3DS, and while we've had a close look at both of these offerings individually, we've decided it's time for a showdown. So which machine should you buy?

Both the Vita and 3DS feature bleeding edge hardware delivering the sort of power you'd have expected in a home console not all that long ago. These machines also boast impressive "non-gaming" internet and connectivity features and both have a decent degree of publisher support with plenty of new games available and more in the pipeline.

Head-to-head

We’ll break the battle down looking at some of the most important features, so you can make an informed choice, focusing on the features that matter to you.

Horsepower

When it comes to processing grunt the 3DS is superior to Nintendo's DS and comes with some interesting on board software. True to the name, the 3D display is central to the unit's appeal (we'll discuss the value of this feature later) but underneath the screen the 3DS is powered by a 1 GHz dual core ARM11 CPU.

The Vita is powered by the Cortex A9 CPU, the same CPU as that in the iPhone 4. This makes the Vita quite a mighty little beast and the processor (which can be upgraded from 1 GHz to 2 GHz) is clearly more powerful than the ARM 11 chip in the 3DS.

The Vita can also handle an exponentially larger number of polygons per second. Polygons are the 3D building blocks most games are made with and the 3DS can hurl 15.3 million of them around the screen at one time. This is a decent figure, but the Vita can handle almost ten times this number, with 133 million polygons per second being processed.

The Vita also has more RAM, with 512 MB to Nintendo's 128 MB. Finally, the Vita also supports 3G and Wi-Fi (if you grab the top spec model) and has Bluetooth connectivity, while the 3DS only supports Wi-Fi.

So, when it comes to sheer grunt the 3DS is easily out bench pressed by the Vita. However, power is only of value if used intelligently and Nintendo has a long history of making amazing software and capturing a solid market share with the least powerful platform in a particular market cycle. We'll look at software later, but the Vita does win hands down when it comes to processing power.

Ergonomics

The 3DS isn’t a particularly intuitive machine to play with at first. Combining stylus play with the direction slider and joypad isn’t something most people can do with a mere two hands – a prehensile tail would be useful! That said, you get used to "chopsticking it" with the stylus and then you can control all three inputs easily. Few games expect you to do this at a rapid pace anyway, but the interface is certainly not as easy to live with as it could be.

The Vita, with its twin joysticks, solid buttons and touch sensitive back pad, is far easier to use. The twin stick approach, now commonplace on consoles, is clearly easier to get the hang of and the Vita’s controls feel more solid than those on the 3DS. The twin stick has also proved useful in popular genres like first person shooters and some racing games.

The Vita's controls are also far less likely to give you sore wrists over long play sessions and the way the unit cups in the palm of your hand strikes us as more comfortable than than the clam shell design 3DS. You also have to hold the 3DS at a more consistent angle if you are trying to keep the 3D magic happening - move about too much and the 3D effect disappears.

If you have larger hands, the Vita is the machine you will most likely find is comfortable for longer sessions and even though I have become quite fond of the clam shell 3DS over time, ergonomically the win still goes to the Vita.   Display The 3DS might have a two pronged attack and the added bonus of a 3D display, but the Vita’s five-inch 960 x 544, 220 DPI screen is bigger than either of the 3DS screens and produces very sharp images. The Nintendo screens are very good too, but at 800 x 240 and 320 x 240 they fall short on resolution and, apart from the 3D aspect, the Vita has the better visuals by a fair margin.

The processing power behind the Sony unit’s screen also gives it a clear edge when it comes to detail, frame rate and visual effects. That said, Nintendo's aforementioned knack of making games that people want to play - even if they aren’t the prettiest - might nullify Sony’s advantage to some extent.   Portability Both machines really struggle to be called true "pocket" devices and unless you are a fan of cargo pants you'll almost certainly find yourself lugging them around in a bag of some description. The 3DS is markedly smaller and with its closeable "book" design you don't have to worry about your screen being scratched ... so we'd give it the nod in this category.

Battery Life

Even though the Vita has been criticized when it comes to battery life it is pretty much on a par with the 3DS when you take into account the extra drain on the battery caused by the 3D on the Nintendo unit. The 3DS runs for between 3-5 hrs on a charge (shorter if the game you are playing is very 3D intensive) and the Vita over five, so a narrow victory to Sony here.  

Software

Nintendo may well have a lead in this critical department by virtue of the 3DS being in the market longer, but the Sony release schedule is looking promising and combined with the option of playing already downloaded PSP games, there is plenty of software for the Vita even at this early stage. Some of these games, like the stunning Wipeout 2048, the epic Uncharted and the deliciously mesmerizing Stardust Delta, are just superb.

Nintendo also has a great roster of games, especially when looking at titles that exploit the popularity of its core intellectual properties. Zelda and Super Mario 3D Land are that good I’d buy a 3DS just to play them alone. Mario Kart, Kid Icarus, Pilot Wings Resort and Street Fighter IV: 3D are also great games. Further, Nintendo will develop aggressively for the 3DS and the company has much more in-house development muscle, so we can expect to see some stunning games from the big N to support the third party efforts.

Sony will be more reliant on outside publishing help, but as was the case when the original PlayStation came to market, Sony’s offering presents a powerful and sexy platform for developers which should help tip the scales a little back Sony's way.

So the verdict on the all important issue of software is to some extent a draw. Sony’s launch games look amazing, and the games do have the benefit of more powerful technology, but again Nintendo has this quirky habit of making great games even when its technology isn’t the best on the block.

Of course it really comes down to which games you will most want to play and personally I have had more fun with the 3DS at this stage.

Price

On this issue the simpler, cheaper 3DS comes up trumps. The 3DS is now a very reasonable US$169.99, while the Vita retails for $249.99 for the Wi-Fi version and $299.99 for the 3G/Wi-Fi version. This sort of gap is indicative of the situation across the globe, with the 3DS being the cheaper machine in every market. So Nintendo, which already initiated a price reduction last year, brings the cheapest machine to retail outlets. This advantage may be a long term thing too, as there has been plenty of speculation to suggest that the Vita is actually being sold at less than cost by Sony. Thus a price drop may be a while away. Still, there's an element of "you get what you pay for" here given that and the Vita is a more powerful machine.  

The Verdict

The Nintendo unit isn’t exactly a one trick pony, but without that trick (the 3D) it would be clearly outclassed in this battle. That said the effect is at times impressive, but some people find it disconcerting, with some players reporting headaches and discomfort. The fact that you can tune the intensity of the 3D effect to suit or switch it off entirely is a very good thing. However, by doing so you eliminate the one significant point of difference that the Nintendo hardware has over the Vita.

Also, not many of the current crop of 3DS games makes significant use of the 3D feature. While Rayman is one game that bucks this trend, for many games it is little more than garnishing and some games are indeed better to play with the feature turned off. Still Nintendo might be able to reinvent a few game genres as it innovates further to incorporate 3D play.

The Vita's most notable innovation is the touch sensitive control pad on the back of the unit. This interface element hasn't been used prolifically in games yet either and it will take a solid injection of creativity from the development community to make a game that really exploits this feature.

The Vita prevails when it comes to power and performance and so most would concede it is the "better" machine, technically at least.

Both units have excellent third party support, in particular the level of support for the Vita in the short space of time since it has hit the market has been prodigious. There are plenty of games that are unique to each unit, and the key in choosing between the two is to look at each catalog. The 3DS has a very "Nintendoesque" software focus and there are some great "younger" games, while the Vita isn't quite a full-blooded PlayStation 3 you take with you, it's getting close - a fact that the games reflect perfectly.   Either way you are going to have some great fun when gaming on the go.