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I think that for the money you’re better off going with an iPad mini. I got my son an iPad last year because it can do so much more than a regular hand held gaming system. He’s able to download his textbooks, do his homework, play games, and even watch live TV or our DVR recordings with the DISH Remote Access app. After my son heard one of my coworkers from DISH talking to me about this app that works anywhere there’s Wi-Fi or mobile 3G network, he forgot all about the 3DS and the Vita hadn’t been released yet.
This is one where I totally disagree with you. While there can be solid tablet or smartphone games, they pale in quality and complexity to a good handheld console game. You simply cannot get the same gameplay quality in a title that sells for next to nothing as you can in a console game that cost millions of dollars to produce. Plus there is the issue of controls. A touch screen is fine for simple strategy/physics games such as Angry Birds (Just to give one example. ). But for a deeper gaming experience like Assassins Creed III: Liberation on the Vita or Super Mario 3D Land on the 3DS, there is really no comparison to games on Android or iOS. For fine control, there is no substitute for physical control sticks and buttons. Touchscreens just don't work as well, and your fingers end up blocking a portion of the screen.
I readily concede that an iPad or iPod touch is much more versatile than either of the two portable consoles, and they are fine for simple, distraction type games. If your kid wants versatility, then there you go, head over to the Apple store. If they want a superior and deeper gaming experience though, walk on past it and head over to Gamestop for an actual gaming console.
BTW, I'm not trying to be "a hater". I play games on my smartphone when I'm waiting for someone/something, or if I only have a few minutes to spare. I even play a couple Need for Speed titles and find them passable. But Mario Kart 7 is in a whole 'nother league of gameplay.
There isn't ALL that much difference in up front cost. I mean, really, how many years do you keep a video game system? 5 or 6 years if you buy it early in its life cycle. So 50 bucks difference means you are paying an extra $10 or so a year for the more expensive Vita. Unless you are really strapped for cash, that's pretty meaningless. However.....the Vita doesn't use standard SD cards for data storage like the 3DS, it uses an odd proprietary memory card. The good people at Amazon charge $58.19 for a 16GB Vita memory card, while a 16GB SanDisk SD card that the 3DS can use costs $12. Sure a little extra here and there doesn't matter much, but an extra $50 here and $50 there starts to add up. Plus the games are much more expensive for the Vita. Uncharted for the Vita, admittedly one of its more expensive games, is $79.99 on Amazon. Paper Mario for the 3DS sells for $39.96.
Ok, so you pay more for the Vita, and Vita games. Vita games are more like current gen console games, whereas the 3DS games are similar to the Wii (not WiiU). So you do get what you pay for in that respect. That is mitigated by the much smaller game library the Vita offers, even without considering the thousands of DS games the 3DS is capable of playing. You didn't mention the age of your kid, but if they are under 10 or so, there are many, many more age appropriate choice for the 3DS than there are for the Vita. On the other hand, if they are old enough, there are some killer titles on the Vita - just not very many of them.
If I was buying for myself, I would still get the 3DS (in fact I did), but the decision is much closer. I like JRPGs and no system has as much to offer as the 3DS thanks to its backwards compatibility with DS titles. I bought the original 3DS, but if the XL with the larger screens had been out at the time, I would definitely have gone with it, even though it is too large to fit in my pocket.
I'd find out what kind of games your child likes, and then do some research to figure out which platform is better for him (or her). The other thing to do is take your child to a place like Best Buy and just observe what he or she is drawn to. Also, ask the gamers who work at whatever place you shop at which platform would be best for a child of that age and which they'd recommend overall.
That being said, I'm reading some nice things about Vita: