REVIEW: Sony Ericsson Xperia Play smartphone

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Name: Xperia Play (Sony Ericsson)

Type: Android Gingerbread smartphone with slide-out gaming controls

Specifications: Click here for full specs

Price: RRP £599.99 SIM-free

Image Gallery: Click here

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After months, years even, of rumours of a mythical “PSP Phone” Sony Ericsson finally revealed the PlayStation-certified Xperia play at MWC 2011.With the handset finally touching down in the US this week, even more gamers will be able to get some Android/PlayStation hybrid action very soon. But can the Xperia Play live up to the expectations years’ worth of whispers have left it with, or will it suffer the same sorry fate as Nokia’s N-Gage gaming/mobile crossover?

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There’s no denying that the Xperia Play is a lot chunkier than we’ve come to expect modern smartphones to be. At 16mm thick and weighing 175g, it leaves an undesirable bulge in your trouser pocket that may well raise a few eyebrows on a cramped commute to work. The actual design of the phone however, with its silver curves and sharp 480×854 4-inch touchscreen is actually rather pleasant overall.

Its extra heft is not without good reason though; where many phones would house a slide-out QWERTY keyboard, the Xperia Play instead places a set of gaming controls. Featuring full PlayStation certification, you get a digital directional pad, Start and Select keys, two shoulder buttons, two touch sensitive thumb nubs to mimic analogue sticks and the Triangle, Circle, Cross and Square buttons so familiar to fans of Sony’s gaming consoles. Though the flat thumb pads take some getting used to, all buttons are well spread out and comfortably placed; you could tap away at these controls without strain for a good few hours.

Which is a good thing, as gaming is obviously high on the agenda for the Xperia Play. Though running the Gingerbread build of Android, Sony Ericsson have made a fair few tweaks in order to make this a hybrid gaming/mobile machine, though it’s a serviceable experience at best. Sliding out the controls instantly fires up the “Xperia Play” app, which is where things quickly get fragmented and confusing.

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Firstly, a note on the games themselves. The Xperia Play has a handful of dedicated titles, designed specifically for use with its unique controls, ported versions of Android games that now make use of the slide-out buttons, as well as playing regular touchscreen Android games and retro PlayStation One titles optimised for the Xperia Play.

The problem is, there is no centralised store to buy them from. Depending on the game you want to purchase through the Xperia Play app, you could be re-directed to the Android Market, with purchases made through Google Checkout, or developer game store pages in the browser as is the case with Gameloft titles, which use two further payment methods to buy games; the ubiquitous PayPal or less-well known Payforit, which adds the price of the game to your monthly phone bill. Try to purchase an old-skool PS1 game and you then need yet another app, called “PlayStation Pocket” which confusingly only re-directs you back to the Android Market store anyway. To make matters worse, browsing the Android store for Xperia Play games often leads to you finding little or no differentiation between Xperia Play optimised versions of previously available Android games and their standard touch versions; it’s incredibly easy to download a game thinking it’s ready to be used with your new control scheme only to find you’ve mistakenly bought the wrong version.

This fragmentation could easily have been fixed with a dedicated Xperia Play games store that collected all the appropriate games in one place and used a single payment method, but as it stands it’s all a bit of a mess.

Should you manage to build up a decent catalogue of games after jumping through so many different stores’ hoops, navigating your library then becomes a chore too. The “Xperia Play” app is split between two confusingly titled areas called “Xperia Play Games” and “More Games”, both scrolling to show thumbnails of available titles. Though you may not have realised, “Xperia Play Games” refers to the area where your purchased games are stored, while “More Games” brings you to the fragmented purchasing system we detailed above. Would it not have been simpler to just call them “My Games” and “Game Store”, or something similar? Entering into the “Xperia Play Games” section isn’t much fun either, as there is no way to organise your library, nor any way to sort games between those which are designed for the Xperia Play’s controls and those that are just touch-focussed titles.

When you finally get playing, there’s no denying the Xperia Play can be fun to use. Despite only sporting a 1GHz processor, games play smoothly. Pre-installed games like Star Batalion and Bruce Lee Dragon Warriors are a good laugh, and you can still get a kick out of old PS1 games like Crash Bandicoot. Even battery life is impressive, with continued gaming capable on average for around the five and a half hour mark from our tests. The problem is, even if you disregard aged PS1 games (present here as much for nostalgia’s as gameplay’s sake) most of the Xperia Play catalogue looks a bit rough. It’s certainly no match for the recently released Nintendo 3DS, or even the original PSP, or iPhone games like Infinity Blade in terms of visuals. Games are expensive too, and £4 for a copy of Cool Boarders 2 that has been so badly ported that it still asks me to save to a PS1 memory card is a joke. Which begs the question; why would anyone chose the Xperia Play over cheaper, superior alternatives?

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Arguably, as it’s a smartphone too. But so is the iPhone 4, and it’s again a superior alternative with top notch games on offer. That’s not to say the Xperia Play, as a mobile phone, is not without merit though. As an Android Gingerbread phone you still get four physical back, Menu, Home and Search buttons, as well as 3.5mm headphone socket as handy for gaming here as playing music, a USB port for charging or data transfer and a microSD slot too, useful for storing the sizeable games, as well as a lock button that we found a little too easy to press mid-game.

Sony Ericsson’s re-skinning of the Gingerbread OS is actually rather good here. The company’s previous UI attempts have been atrocious, but here they bring some welcome additions. As well as being visually quite arresting with its blue colour scheme and translucent windows, you get the ability to drag-and-drop apps on top of each other to make folders, as well as pinching the screen to see an exploded view of all five of the phone’s homescreens at once, which makes navigation nice and simple. With the UI now standing alone from the core Android experience, owners of the Xperia Play should also be able to get timely updates for the operating system, as Sony Ericsson will not have to tweak as much at their end first.

Though the 1GHz processor seemed fine for games, it doesn’t work so well with the Timescape widgets however. These “live” sections of the phone can be used to get a quick glance at status updates from social networks and your email inbox among other things, but are so CPU intensive as to grind the phone to a halt at times.

A solid 5.1 MP camera sits on the back, that we found took crisp, bold images, with a camera UI very easy to get the best shots from. Video recording mode is a little less impressive, with often blurry results, but it holds its own with the majority of cameraphone recording options. Oh, and did we mention that it makes calls too? Well the Xperia Play does. In fact, it’s one of the few areas where the phone performs consistently, with no dropped calls and clear audio quality throughout our testing period.

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Verdict:

On paper, the Xperia Play sounds like a master-stroke of device covergance, branding and usability, but in practice, it leaves a lot to be desired. While the chunky size necessitated by the controls would be more than justified if the gaming aspects lived up to expectations, it’s nowhere near as slick an experience as a dedicated handheld console. And while it performs fairly well as a smartphone, it’s hamstrung by its size and the premium price its novel design results in. Though there is still potential for Sony Ericsson to turn around the system’s failings with software updates, it may be too little, too late for the legions of fans who have waited years for the fabled PSP phone to arrive. Ambitious, but ultimately highly flawed.

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3/5

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GALLERY: Sony Ericsson Xperia Play

Gerald Lynch

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