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.