The Sony Ericsson Xperia Play aims to combine the power of an Android smart phone with the gaming prowess of Sony's PSP line of handheld consoles. With a slide-out game pad, 5.1-megapixel camera, 4-inch touchscreen and Android 2.3 Gingerbread running the show, the Play is a kingly device on paper.
But, in practice, it's a jack of all trades, and master of none. It's not as slick as rival smart phones, nor as engaging and usable as a portable console. Hampered by confusing software, it's hard to recommend the Play over its more competent rivals.
The Play will be available on a contract from about £30 per month when it hits shop shelves in April. It's also available SIM-free now for between £375 and £500.
Come out and Play
The Play's headline feature is its slide-out game pad. It slips out from beneath the screen just like the Qwerty keyboard on plenty of other smart phones.
There are direction buttons on the left of the game pad, while the four iconic PlayStation buttons -- square, triangle, circle and cross -- sit on the right-hand side. Two touch-sensitive pads reside in the centre, and there's a couple of shoulder buttons on the back of the phone as well, which your fingers can rest on during gaming sessions. Start and select keys complete the line-up.
Inside the Play, there's a 1GHz processor, which does a fine job of keeping everything ticking along. We didn't find any games running slowly. Other phones offer nippier processors, but we think the Play's chip is fast enough.
The 4-inch display isn't as bright as the screens on rival mobiles, like the Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc, so it won't fare well outdoors. But its resolution of 480x854 pixels is good, and means games, photos and videos all look sharp.or
Assembling a fine stack of hardware is all well and good, but reliable software is the mortar that holds those bricks together, gluing them into a compelling, entertaining gaming device. To stretch that already-stretched analogy further, the Xperia Play feels like a brick wall held together by toothpaste.
If you can get to the stage where you're actually playing a game on this phone using the slide-out controls, and the buttons intuitively correspond to the on-screen action, it's possible to have a great gaming experience on the Play. But due to confusing, fragmented software, actually finding, purchasing and downloading titles is difficult.
For instance, sliding out the game pad launches the 'Xperia Play' app, which is divided into 'Xperia Play Games' and 'More Games' sections. It's not exactly clear, but the former section hosts games that are already installed, and the latter section takes you to a sliding menu of titles that you can download. Tapping on titles in this menu enables you to buy them, and here the first problem becomes clear -- there's no single store from which to download games.
All over the shops
Tapping on half those titles takes you directly to the Android Market, where you can pay for and download games using Google Checkout. But titles by developer Gameloft will take you into the browser, where you'll have to sign into PayPal and enter your credit-card details, or opt to pay via your phone bill using a service called Payforit. Most of the publicised launch titles, including Avatar, Let's Golf 2, Assassin's Creed and Spider-Man, are developed by Gameloft, so get used to seeing that PayPal screen.
Classic PlayStation games can be found in yet another app, 'PlayStation Pocket', but, when you browse for new titles from there, you'll be redirected to the Android Market. Bafflingly, games you've purchased via PlayStation Pocket won't show up in the 'Xperia Play' app that launches when you slide out the controls. To find those games, you'll have to fish about in the phone's main menu -- a process made tiresome by the fact that the Play's main Android interface doesn't switch into landscape mode when the gaming controls are open. Dipping out of a game and into the menus means you'll have to tilt your head to see what's going on.
In the Android Market, we expected to see clear differentiation between games built with the Play in mind and the horde of regular touchscreen titles. But there's no icon or badge to identify Play games, and no way of searching for titles that are made for the Play's physical controls.
We noticed that several apps in the Android Market had two separate versions -- for instance, Millionaire City had a double in the form of Millionaire City - Xperia Play. That's handy in this instance, but it seems that making such a distinction is left to individual app developers, so don't expect these naming conventions to occur consistently.
What's missing is a single PlayStation app, separate from the rest of the operating system, with its own payment system and registration process. Such an app would collate games built for the Play in one place, categorising them by genre, price and popularity. It would also assign you a gamer tag, track achievements, and act as a gateway to online gaming.
Separating the game-browsing and downloading process between several different apps with different log-ins makes for a sluggish, tiresome and confusing experience that will see you bounced from Web page to Web page, back to the phone's menu and into different app stores. Comparing the PlayStation 3 or PSP's gorgeous, minimalist interface with the Play's offering makes us ache with disappointment.
Hard to port
Not every game is optimised to use the Play's slide-out controls. Indeed, few games are, and we found a number of cases where either the controls didn't work at all, or only some of the controls worked. In the latter instance, you might find, for example, that the circle button works as a 'back' key and the arrow keys move up and down menus, but you're otherwise forced to use the touchscreen.
These inconsistencies aren't confined to random Android apps either. In the pre-installed FIFA 10, we were amazed to see an early on-screen pop-up advising us to press the 'A' button to shoot. But there is no 'A' button on the game pad. Sure enough, though, one of two on-screen keys is labelled 'A'. It's clear that the game is a lazy port, thrown clumsily at the Play's hardware in the hope that something would stick -- and this is Sony Ericsson putting its best foot forward with a pre-installed title. It's not encouraging.