Although advancements like dual-core processors and gyroscopes are creating convincing and satisfying gameplay on smartphones, there are those who yearn for something closer to a dedicated gaming device. The Sony Ericsson Xperia Play was envisioned as such a hybrid--more advanced than the disastrous first attempts at cell phone-gaming device combinations (the Nokia N-Gage and N-Gage QD), but less specialized than a separate Nintendo DS or Sony PlayStation Portable.
That's why the Sony Ericsson Xperia Play arrived to such fanfare early this year at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain. At last, the world would see Sony's interpretation of the mythical PlayStation Phone. The result is indeed quite intriguing. The Xperia Play ships with the latest Android OS, version 2.3 Gingerbread, and its hardware specs, while not the absolute top of the line, are still commendable. They include a 1GHz Snapdragon processor, a 4-inch display, a rear 5-megapixel camera, and the usual Wi-Fi, GPS, and Bluetooth.
But it's the slide-out game pad that truly has gamers excited. Its button layout resembles that of a regular PlayStation controller, with the directional pad on the left and the PlayStation controls on the right. It even has the left and right shoulder buttons along the sides. Yet, it's not quite ideal. Taking the place of the two analog joysticks are two touch-sensitive circles. Also, though the Xperia Play is "PlayStation-certified," it's not part of Sony's PlayStation Network, and you have to buy your PlayStation games all over again for the new device (although it does come preloaded with a few old favorites like Crash Bandicoot).
Another sticking point is that the Xperia Play lacks 4G LTE. Though 4G isn't completely necessary, we do think 3G-only data is a potential sore spot if you're signing up for a two-year contract at this point, especially as Verizon continues to offer a wider array of 4G-capable phones in even more markets. The lack of HDMI and DLNA support also prevents the phone from being a true multimedia powerhouse.
In the end, we do think the Sony Ericsson Xperia Play delivers pretty good gameplay, but it's not quite good enough to persuade serious gamers to choose it over a dedicated gaming handheld.
At first glance, the Sony Ericsson Xperia Play looks like most other Android smartphones. A large 4-inch capacitive touch screen dominates the front, and the color scheme is the usual black with silver chrome accents along the sides. The glossy piano-black finish is prone to collecting fingerprints. The blocky body has slight curves on the sides that make it comfortable to hold.
Measuring 4.68 inches long by 2.44 inches wide by 0.63 inch and weighing in at a hefty 6.17 ounces, the Xperia Play is not exactly the skinniest phone we've seen. As gaming handhelds go, however, it's a pretty typical size--both the Nintendo DSi and the PSP-3000 hover around 7 ounces--and it takes up considerable room in a bag. Which makes sense, because the Xperia Play hides a full slide-out game pad underneath its smartphone exterior.
The entire pad is matte silver, and the button layout bears a striking resemblance to that of Sony's DualShock controller. You get the D-pad on the left and the familiar face buttons (triangle, circle, cross, and square) on the right. The Select and Start buttons are also present, but instead of being in the middle, they're located to the lower right. A menu button sits in the lower left, and there are left and right shoulder buttons on the right edge.
In the middle of the game pad is a long inset oval with two circles inside it. These two touch-sensitive circles essentially replace the two analog joysticks you would find on a DualShock controller. In theory, this sounds like a decent compromise, as two physical joysticks would bulk up the phone even further. However, in practice, we found the touch-sensitive controls not as responsive as we would like. This was especially annoying in games that require precise movements. For example, in Asphalt 6 we often opted to use the D-pad instead of the analog controls to get the steering just right.
The touch controls aside, we quite enjoyed gaming with the Xperia Play. Game movements felt fluid, with no noticeable lag. The D-pad and face buttons felt easy enough to press, and we soon found ourselves engrossed in the game rather than worrying too much about the mechanics. The left and right shoulder buttons do feel a little flimsy, but not enough for us to be too concerned about.
Part of what makes the gameplay so immersive is the brilliant display. It boasts an 854x480-pixel FWVGA resolution and 16 million colors that result in deep blacks, sharp graphics, and crisp text. The luscious screen helps bring graphic-intensive apps, games, and videos to life. The capacitive touch screen feels smooth and responsive as well. You can adjust the brightness and the backlight time, and there's a proximity sensor at the top that will shut the display off when you place it next to your ear during a call.
Underneath the display are the four Android hot keys for the Back, Home, Menu, and Search functions. Though they're skinny, we do like that they are physical buttons instead of the more common touch-sensitive ones. On top of the phone are the power button and a tiny LED for notifications. On the right are the aforementioned left and right shoulder buttons plus a volume rocker; the 3.5mm headset jack and Micro-USB port are on the left spine. Above the display is a small front-facing VGA camera. On the back is the larger megapixel camera with an LED flash. The microSD card sits behind the battery cover.
Android fans will love the fact that the Xperia Play ships with Android 2.3 Gingerbread. Sony and Verizon were also smart enough to leave the interface alone for the most part; you won't see any fancy Timescape skins here. You get the usual five customizable home screens and the crawling main menu that fades to black. Sony did include a few of its own wallpapers, and Verizon did preload a few V Cast apps like VZ Navigator, My Verizon Mobile, and Backup Assistant, but the experience is otherwise quite vanilla. The main application of interest is the Xperia Play gaming app, which we'll get to in the Features section.
With such hype and buzz about it, we were really expecting the Xperia Play to blow us away with its features. Unfortunately, the Play is not quite the high-end phone we thought we were getting. It doesn't have a dual-core processor like its competitors, and neither does it have 4G LTE, even though Verizon offers many phones in its price range that do have 4G. It also does not offer HDMI or DLNA support, so you can't easily stream your phone's contents on a big-screen television.
That's not to say the Xperia Play doesn't have pretty good features, however. As we said, it ships with Android 2.3, so it offers user interface improvements such as a faster keyboard, better copy and paste, Internet calling, and download management. Android 2.3 also brings with it API support for game-pad controls so that more developers can create games that work with devices like this one.
To play the games, you first have to access the Xperia Play app. You can either access it the old-fashioned way by selecting it from the menu, or you can simply slide open the game pad and the app will launch automatically. The welcome screen shows a horizontally scrolling list of your game library. The Xperia Play comes preloaded with Madden NFL 11, Star Battalion, Bruce Lee Dragon Warrior, The Sims 3, Asphalt 6: Adrenaline, and Crash Bandicoot. There's also Tetris, but that doesn't take advantage of the Xperia Play's controls. The interface is clean, well-organized, and easy to grasp.
Verizon has partnered with Sony to offer select Xperia Play titles directly from the V Cast store. On the lower right of the screen is a More Games button that leads to a list of featured Xperia Play games you can purchase from the V Cast App Store. In fact, you can access the V Cast App Store directly from the Xperia Play interface--just tap the tiny Verizon cart icon on the top right. The Xperia Play also supports games sold in the Android Market, but bear in mind that not all games can be played with the game-pad controls. Be sure to look for games that are designed with the Xperia Play in mind.
Aside from the gaming aspect, the Xperia Play offers the usual Android and phone features, such as integration with a variety of social networks like Facebook and Twitter, text and multimedia messaging, Gmail and other e-mail, Google Maps 5.0, voice navigation, search, YouTube, the WebKit browser, and basic tools like a calendar and a calculator. The phone also comes with Office Suite for reading and editing Office documents. In addition to the V Cast suite of apps, Verizon also threw in the Kindle app and Skype Mobile. The phone also supports Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, GPS, a speakerphone, and voice dialing. It can be used as a portable Wi-Fi hot spot for up to five devices.
The 5-megapixel camera takes average-looking pictures. Images just did not turn out as sharp or as colorful as we would like. Colors were especially dim in low light. The LED flash helped a little, but it mostly just washed out the image. The camera can record video as well, but not in HD quality.
We tested the Sony Ericsson Xperia Play using Verizon Wireless. Call quality was on the whole quite good, but we did have a few problems. On our end, it was pretty acceptable. Callers sounded clear, with good volume levels. There wasn't much crackling or background noise, either. However, voices were often fuzzy.
Sony Ericsson Xperia Play call quality sample Listen now:
On their end, callers reported much fuzzier voice quality than we expected. They also reported faint crackling sounds in the background. They could certainly hear every word we said, so it wasn't so bad. We did have to speak up when in speakerphone mode, however.
Despite its only having one processor, we were pleased with the Xperia Play's performance. That's because it uses Qualcomm's 1GHz Snapdragon processor, which proved quite speedy overall. We experienced no lag or jitters when launching apps or multitasking between open apps.
While we were disappointed the Xperia Play does not have 4G LTE, it does have 3G/EV-DO Rev. A support. We were able to load the mobile CNET page in just 6 seconds and the full CNET page in 24 seconds.
The Sony Ericsson Xperia Play has a rated talk time of 7 hours 40 minutes and a standby time of 16.9 days. It has a tested talk time of 6 hours and 7 minutes. Gameplay time is rated at 5 hours and 35 minutes, while MP3 playback is rated at 30 hours and 35 minutes. According to the FCC, the Sony Ericsson Xperia Play has a digital SAR of 0.75 watt per kilogram.
The Sony Ericsson Xperia Play is a great alternative for the serious mobile gamer who is tired of touch-screen controls. The physical, tactile buttons on the Play do provide a more immersive gameplay experience. However, the touch-sensitive circles are just not as responsive as we would like, and do not replace the precision of actual joysticks. We don't think it's time for serious gamers to give up their Nintendo DSes or PSPs just yet. As for the smartphone component, we do like that the device ships with Android 2.3 Gingerbread. However, the Xperia Play lags behind higher-end Android phones with its average photo quality, lack of an HDMI port, and lack of 4G LTE. So while the Xperia Play does signify a step forward in the world of mobile gaming, it hasn't won the race.
The Sony Ericsson Xperia Play is available for $199.99 with a two-year service agreement with Verizon Wireless.