Sony Ericsson is looking to take mobile gaming to the next level with the Xperia Play Android smartphone ($200 with a new two-year contract on Verizon; price as of May 20, 2011). The Xperia Play features a slide-out gamepad for gamers who want more than touchscreen-only controls.
Bulky but unique design
I have to hand it to Sony for trying to add some class to the Play. The piano black finish and chrome trim make the phone shine—until you pick it up and get fingerprints all over it. The phone’s look and feel are very reminiscent of the PSP Go, and the Play’s 4-inch capacitive touchscreen does a good job of displaying colors and text. At 4.7 inches by 2.4 inches by 0.6 inch, the Play is a bit bulky, though no more so than other phones we’ve seen that come with slide-out full QWERTY keyboards. The Play weighs 6.2 ounces, so it feels heavy but sturdy in hand.
The phone’s power button and notification light sit at the top of the device; along the left spine are the headphone and charging ports. The volume rocker and gamepad shoulder buttons occupy the right spine, and on the back of the Play is a 5-megapixel camera. On the face of the device you’ll find the four standard Android buttons (Back, Home, Menu, and Search), as well as a VGA front-facing camera for video chat.
The slide-out gamepad on the Xperia Play is definitely the phone’s coolest feature. Though not as good as gamepads on dedicated portable gaming systems, the Play’s worked reasonably well with several games I downloaded from the Android Market. The gamepad is set up much like Sony’s DualShock controllers, albeit with a few differences. For starters, two touchpads are set up in the place where you’d find the analog sticks on the DualShock. I couldn’t find many games in the Android Market that use touchpads, which in any case were not sensitive enough for most twitch-based first-person shooters. Both the D-pad and the face buttons (X, Square, Triangle, and O) were very responsive, but they felt stiff and a bit too sunken in, making them hard to press. The Start and Select buttons are awkwardly placed below the face buttons, and there’s a Menu button under the D-pad as well. More often than not, when I tried to quickly pause the game I was playing, I ended up pressing the Select button instead. Also, the shoulder buttons were too spongy and flimsy for my taste; I wish that they had had a little more resistance.
Android 2.3, aka Gingerbread (Finally!)
The Xperia Play is the first Verizon phone to ship with Gingerbread (Android 2.3). In a display of regrettably rare restraint, Sony Ericsson and Verizon didn’t mess with the OS too much. The phone comes with some preloaded software—including the whole Verizon suite of apps (VZ Navigator, Visual Voicemail, My Verizon Mobile, Backup Assistant, and the V Cast App Store) and a handful of games to show off the Play’s game-playing prowess—but nothing I would classify as bloatware. The seven preloaded games are Madden NFL 11, Bruce Lee Dragon Warrior, Tetris, The Sims 3, Star Battalion, Crash Bandicoot, and Asphalt 6: Adrenaline. These are all the full versions, and (with the exception of Tetris) they’ve all been optimized for use with the Xperia Play’s slide-out gamepad.
Oddly, though the Play runs Gingerbread and has a front-facing camera, our review unit didn’t include the latest version of Google Talk. As a result, the phone lacks a native video calling app, but I hope that Verizon will push out the up-to-date version of Google Talk for the Play in the near future.
Unfortunately, the Xperia Play carries some rather outdated specifications. It is a 3G-only phone in a world that increasingly embraces 4G and LTE-enabled devices; and it has only about 400MB of internal storage, which severely limits the number of apps and games you can download and store. The Play compensates for this deficiency by including an 8GB MicroSD card, but the limited onboard memory is still disappointing.
The 1GHz Snapdragon processor does an admirable job of keeping the phone and games running smoothly. Even high-definition games like Cordy played without a hitch. A dual-core processor would have been nice for game performance, but its adverse effect on battery life might have been severe). The screen was nice and responsive, and the UI felt fluid as I swiped around the homescreen and navigated through the phone.
Call quality was reasonably good. Voices came through clearly, and I didn’t notice any static or hissing. The Xperia Play managed to last almost an entire day of phone use on a single charge, though playing games on the device will significantly deplete the battery. After an hour of playing Crash Bandicoot, I saw that my battery had dropped from 75 percent charge to 50 percent. If you plan on using this device as your primary gaming handheld, you would do well to carry a charger with you.
Games, games, games
When it comes to playing games, the Xperia Play is without equal among smartphones. Having a physical gamepad instead of a virtual one gives the user much better control when playing games. And because the Play is PlayStation Certified, you can download and play classic PlayStation games from the Android Market; the Play is also the official mobile handset of Major League Gaming.
All of the preloaded games made good use of the slide-out touchpad, though not all were fun to play. Madden NFL 11 looked terrible and wouldn’t let me use the touchpad to select plays or navigate some of the menus. Bruce Lee Dragon Warrior was another disappointment, due to a significant lag between when I input a command and when my fighter actually performed the instruction. Asphalt 6: Adrenaline and Crash Bandicoot were the games I ended up playing the most because they took full advantage of the hardware. Asphalt 6 is a great-looking racing game with responsive controls and a wide variety of game modes. Crash Bandicoot was just the way I remember the original version on the first PlayStation, and it played buttery smooth.
The rest of the phone, unfortunately, is lackluster on the multimedia front. The 5-megapixel camera on the rear of the device does an average job at capturing images and uses the stock (and somewhat underwhelming) Android camera software. Images, like the one on the right, weren’t especially sharp, and colors were slightly darker than they appeared in real life. Videos looked better but were a bit on the quiet side.
The Play’s sound quality was weak. The external speaker popped at higher volumes, and bass-heavy songs lacked emphatic sound.
The Xperia Play will appeal to mobile gamers who are sick of poor touchscreen controls and are looking for a more fulfilling gaming experience on their phone. Currently, only a handful of games are optimized for use with the gamepad, but more game developers may support it in the future, since the APIs for physical game controls are included in the Android 2.3 SDK. Users who aren’t big into gaming, however, should look elsewhere. The Play’s relatively outdated hardware, microscopic memory, and lack of 4G support are enough to keep most smartphone buyers away.
[Armando Rodriguez is an editorial assistant at PCWorld.]