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Christmas Gift Guide
Phones

Sony Ericsson Xperia Play vs Sony NGP in portable PlayStation punch-up

The Sony Ericsson Xperia Play is a PlayStation-certified Android phone with slide-out gaming controls. We got hands-on to find out if it's going to steal the Sony NGP console's thunder.

We were psyched when we learned Sony Ericsson was making a PlayStation Phone running Android. Not only could this be the gaming phone we've always wanted, it could make up for the lingering disappointment of the PSP, with its dearth of decent games and thumb-cramping controls.

But then confusion struck. Sony announced a new PSP, mere weeks before the PlayStation Phone was due to debut at Mobile World Congress. Was Sony not talking to Sony Ericsson? Fast forward a few weeks and we have the full picture. The new PSP is the Sony NGP, and it packs more monster hardware than Godzilla's local B&Q. The PlayStation Phone, meanwhile, is the Sony Ericsson Xperia Play, and it rocks our cotton socks off with its slide-out PlayStation controls.

But while the Play hits the UK in just a few months, we're going to have to wait until Christmas for the NGP, and potentially beyond that. So, at this admittedly early stage, let's throw them into the blender and see which one survives.

All-rounder

The Xperia Play is an Android smart phone, running version 2.3 of Google's mobile OS. That's a pretty powerful start to be honest -- immediately the Play is much more than just a gaming device. It's also a phone, an MP3 player, and has easy access to thousands of cheap or free games on the Android Market app store.

Design differences

The Play is a much smaller device than the NGP. The Play's display is 4 inches on the diagonal, with a resolution of 480x854 pixels. The NGP rocks a 5-inch OLED screen with a 960x544-pixel resolution. The Play looks okay, but we think the NGP looks much better, at least in the early pics from Sony. It's worth bearing in mind though that a powerful, bright display can wreak havoc on a device's battery life.

When we subjected the Play to a hands-on test, we found it felt light without feeling cheap, even if it's a real chubber -- those PlayStation controls bulk out the phone, and make it quite thick in the middle. That's more of a problem for a phone, which rather than slinging in a rucksack, you'll want to keep in your pockets for y'know, making phone calls and stuff.

The NGP is something of a beast too. It measures 182 by 84 by 19mm, and will consume all the space in your hands, pockets and so on. In fact, it'll expand to fill any space. You could fit a whole iPhone 4 into the space taken up by the NGP's display alone.

Take control

Enough about the design though, let's talk about those controls. Slide the phone apart to crack open this phone like a PlayStation-certified oyster, revealing the buttony pearl within. We've played several games on the Play, and we're mighty impressed by the controls themselves. We thought they would feel cheap and wobbly (they certainly looked naff in the leaked photos), but they're solidly constructed, and were responsive to our tender touch.

You'll get four direction buttons on the left, and the iconic four PlayStation buttons over on the right of the slide-out section. Between those sets of buttons there are two touch-sensitive pads that serve as analogue sticks without the actual sticks. We played some driving and flying games using these, and were impressed by the degree of control they offered. Who needs sticks, eh?

Behind the phone there are two shoulder buttons, which, when you add them all together, gives you almost every button from the traditional PlayStation controller. There are even Start and Select buttons underneath the buttons on the right. All that's missing are the analogue triggers.

The NGP's controls aren't so economical in terms of space, but as raw bits of hardware, they're likely to be much better than the Play's offering. A D-pad, two proper analogue sticks, four control buttons, shoulder buttons and an innovative trackpad on the rear of the NGP will doubtless give you great control over the gaming action on-screen.

Pro performers

Games on the Play felt smooth, running on the 1GHz processor, but when the action on screen hots up, we worry that the Play's hardware will start to lag behind. We're confident that with the current specs, the NGP is going to have the Play beat hands down in terms of the intense games it can handle.

The NGP packs a quad-core processor, which is monstrously powerful for a mobile device. That said, bear in mind the NGP is still nearly a whole year away -- we could even see a second, more powerful Xperia Play from Sony Ericsson in that time.

App-solutely fabulous

The Play's strength lies in Android, and the attached PlayStation Suite -- an online games shop for Android that will let you download classic PSOne titles for the Play. The NGP is going to have access to this too, but it's not running Android, so you'll lose out on the thousands of apps you can get at that way.

The NGP's game roster will be limited to those you can download from the PlayStation Suite and sister site PlayStation Network, and games you buy for the system on physical media, if it ends up using it.

These are all likely to be more expensive, and after a year of high-quality, dirt-cheap mobile games, we think there's something to be said for a gaming system that also lets you download Angry Birds and Doodle Jump. There are also loads of old console emulator apps floating about that let you play just about every old game under the sun. If you want a huge variety of games, Android is a powerful ally.

Verdict

Which device you go for depends on what kind of gamer you are. If you're hardcore and like deep, immersive games on a console so powerful it could snap your arm like a matchstick, the NGP will tick all your boxes. It'll also help that you're probably the kind of person who doesn't mind splashing out on a device that has rather limited non-gaming applications compared to a high-end smart phone.

If you're more of casual in your gaming, the Play will suit you better. It'll probably be more expensive when all's said and done, but you also get a powerful Android smart phone, and if there aren't any great games out for a few months, you can just install a few dozen free titles from the Android Market. The other benefit is that you'll be able to acquire the Play much sooner than the NGP.

Pick a side, then let us know which mobile gaming monster you fancy in the comments, or on our Facebook page.