The Xperia Play is the end-result of possibly the longest-running rumours in the history of mobile phones. For years, eager gamers cried out to Sony to deliver its PlayStation gaming experience on a phone, and many of these fans went to the trouble of creating concepts of what they thought this phone should look like. The Xperia Play resembles those early mock-ups, although it takes quite a bit from its Xperia heritage, as well.
Unless you've been living in a cave, you'll know that the Xperia Play is the first phone to include a fully featured PlayStation-style gaming control pad. This controller resides below the screen and is accessed by sliding the top half forward. This physical design is an excellent metaphor for the phone as a whole; on top you have Sony Ericsson's latest Android smartphone experience and below you have its gaming side. It also highlights the great sacrifice with the Play; to accommodate the controller, the handset is twice as thick and 50 per cent heavier than Sony Ericsson's companion release, the Xperia Arc.
Gamers will appreciate the 3.7-inch WVGA display, even though it lacks the crispness and deep contrast of the Reality display in the Xperia Arc and Neo. The Play features all the usual knobs and ports you'd expect to find on a smartphone, though Sony Ericsson are wise to position in places where they won't get in the way while you're using the gamepad.
The PlayStation style controller is well designed and easy to use.
The PlayStation controller itself is also well-designed. It features a D-Pad, the famous four PlayStation buttons, plus two extra paddles or triggers on the edge of the handset. Rather than using twin analog controller sticks like a PS3 controller, Sony Ericsson opts for two touch-sensitive track-pads, a move that is great on paper but which ultimately hinders gameplay. The sensitivity of these pads is crucial, but there is no standard method for adjusting this sensitivity and most of the games we played didn't include this setting either.
The quality and quantity of games optimised for use with the Play's controller was always going to be the make-or-break of this smartphone concept. Measuring the success of Sony Ericsson's efforts is also completely subjective, but we happen to think it has managed to pull together a great list of titles. We managed to play about a third of the games on offer at launch, and most of them are great mobile games. Included in this list and pre-installed on a new Play is Crash Bandicoot, the first of what we hope will be many classic PlayStation game ports. Crash is one of the real standouts, too, with smooth gameplay, exactly as it was when we played it on out PSOne all those years ago.
Also great is Sony Ericsson's Xperia Play launcher, a catch-all for the games you've downloaded and installed, with links to download-compatible games through the Android Market or directly through developer's stores like Gameloft. The menu in this launcher is clean, colourful and so easy to use, borrowing heavily from the PlayStaion XMB menu structure on a PS3.
Our only frustrations with the gaming implementation on the Play both concern storage. By default all new game titles are installed to the phone storage rather than the included 8GB microSD card. After installing a dozen games or so we were alerted that the phone had low memory and then spent ten minutes or so manually moving the app's data across to the memory card. Alerted to the problem we went hunting for an option to save directly to the SD card being installing more games, but to no avail. The 8GB microSD card is also on the stingy side; after installing the games and transferring some music and videos across we filled this space in no time.
Sony Ericsson's first Android excursion — last year's X10 — was a bit of a dud. With a focus on form over function, the heavily customised Android firmware used by Sony Ericsson resulted in an extremely poor user experience, and because this customisation was built so deep into the system it took way too long for Sony Ericsson to release updates. In 2011, it's a different ballgame; Sony Ericsson's approach to Android is current and lightweight, using the latest Gingerbread build with a simple, fast Sony Ericsson overlay. The result is a smartphone experience on-par with the other big names.
Android also means that the Xperia Play is as business-friendly as most other smartphones — not that we expect to see too many Plays on the boardroom table. Users have access to a first-class browser, decent media playback and great email and messaging.
The Xperia Play also features a media sharing app allowing users to share videos, pictures and music over a Wi-Fi network. We tested this tool by pairing the Play with a PlayStation 3 and it worked exactly as we expected it to.
Sony Ericsson pack a 5-megapixel camera with LED flash into this smartphone, though we weren't overly impressed with the results. The photos we took looked washed out, especially when using the flash, and the sensor was extremely noisy.
For the most part of time with the Xperia Play was fantastic, though we did come across a bit of bugginess in the firmware. We had two review units in the office, one crashed a few times and the other experienced a few software crashes in games. Both units, however, experienced problems with the Wi-Fi network adapter, losing connection mid-session, switching access points without instruction and struggling to hand-off to 3G data once it had lost communication with a LAN. Keep in mind that Sony Ericsson was kind enough to let us review the Xperia Play two months in advance of its release, so there's every chance that these bugs could be squashed before its launch at the end of May.
These issues aside, the Play managed most other tasks with ease. Calling, messaging and push email all worked flawlessly during our review. Access to the Android Market and app downloads was also fine. Battery life was also reasonably good, considering our heavy use. We managed to play games for about five hours on a full charge, and on most work days we came home with power to spare.
Built on the solid Android platform and with a huge list of games to download at launch, the Xperia Play will resonate well with its target audience. There is a trade-off, though; the gaming controller makes this phone thick and heavy, and while some will bear this burden easily, others may shy away. We also can't forget the buggy firmware we stumbled across in this review process, though hopefully the Sony Ericsson boffins are already hard at work ironing these issues out.