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This wasn't the PSP phone I was looking for

For those who have been dreaming of a PSP Phone, bad news: looks like the Xperia Play isn't quite it.

Xperia Play: don't call it a PSP.
Xperia Play: Don't call it a PSP. Sony Ericsson

I bought a PSP Go a year ago. Why? Because I believed the PSP could transform, become something more than it's been. Perhaps, even, achieve the promise I first felt when I held the very first PSP in my hands back in 2005. It was a magical device back then. It drew crowds, turned heads. Waiters and subway riders wanted to know what it was that I was holding, how they could buy one. My parents were fascinated. Friends wanted to hold it. A Sony portable device hasn't achieved that original PSP magic since--certainly not once the iPhone made its 2007 debut.

To some degree, the circa-2005 PSP is the standard to which I wanted to hold a PlayStation phone. Once rumors began spreading about such a device last year, I held a little hope out that the time had finally come for a gaming handheld to branch out, try new ideas. Could a portable gaming handheld climb back into relevance as a smart device, post-iPhone and Android?

I had my ideas of what I wanted in a PSP phone. The Xperia Play, detailed in Barcelona, Spain, today, just doesn't cut it.

To its credit, the Xperia Play does look like a potentially excellent Android phone. In fact, an Android OS was something I hoped a PSP phone might have. Unfortunately, the Xperia Play looks like it'll do a lousy job of being a PSP--or, a Sony NGP.

  • Xperia Play lacks the full PSP library, not to mention the NGP's: Android-playable PlayStation games aren't the same thing, and a paltry 50 titles at launch doesn't sound promising. Existing owners of PSP content are up a creek, and will have to repurchase games.

  • No dual-analog pads! Buttons and a physical D-pad are OK, but the real appeal of a gaming phone lies in an analog stick. The Xperia Play uses a touch-pad zone with virtual analog--in essence, no different than touch on an iPhone or iPad. This hasn't solved the control issue for hard-core gamers--instead, it's a lateral move.

  • Weird design: The asymmetrical feel of the Xperia Play's flip-up screen doesn't resemble a PSP at all. It's not even as elegant as a PSP Go. It bothers me. Does it bother you?

  • It's an estranged cousin to the NGP: Unlike the iPhone and iPod Touch, which are practically fraternal twins, the NGP and Xperia Play have as much in common as you do to that odd relative who moved away years ago to live in the desert. Despite possibly debuting in the same calendar year, these two devices aren't synonymous, and don't share the same games. One can't substitute for the other, meaning an even more fragmented PlayStation universe.

Maybe one of the most bothersome parts of the Xperia Play, the one that feels like a bad harbinger of its future as a gaming handheld, is its strange name. "Xperia Play" doesn't mean much to anyone. Why not use the name PlayStation Phone? Or PSPhone? It feels like Sony's hiding from the association, which is bizarre--this is, after all, a gaming-oriented phone. It has a flip-up control pad instead of a keyboard. Why not make it crystal clear? As part of an Xperia lineup of smartphones, the "Play" seems to take a backseat to the phone itself, and to its Android functions.

The Sony NGP ended up being the new Big Idea in gaming. Meanwhile, the Xperia Play stands off to the side, a secondary story to the NGP's next-gen graphics and capabilities. The two ideas never merged, never became one. Instead of a PSP phone, SCEA and Sony Ericsson ended up unveiling a new PSP and a new phone.

This isn't a PSP phone. This is an Android phone that happens to play a few PlayStation games. It's not enough to take on Apple's App Store. Maybe it wasn't intended to be, but it's also something I'm highly unlikely to ever want to buy.