Sony Ericsson Xperia Play review

Introduction:

Sony Ericsson’s Xperia Play is the world’s firs PlayStation certified device. While it may not be a frontrunner in the spec department in the current market, the PlayStation controls–D-pad, touch sensitive joysticks, four standard PS buttons, and shoulder buttons–make for a different and superior gaming experience on a mobile phone.

The device is currently available from Verizon for $450 outright and $200 on contract and will be hitting other carriers in the U.S. Public response has been mixed, though owners generally seem to be quite happy with their purchase. Can the Play hold up against the latest dual-core monsters in the Android world, or are those extra buttons just a novelty? I’ve found neither of these options to be entirely true. The Xperia Play is currently in a class of its own as far as cell phones are concerned, and should be judged accordingly.

Design/Specs:

Play is a weighty, solid device. The sliding mechanism feels simple and strong, and all of the body component materials, including the buttons, seem like they will last through a contract without issue for most. I throw in that qualifier only for those who abuse their phones. The Play feels like it could take heavy, careless use for a good while. I think it’s probably more difficult to design a sexy slider than a sexy slab, and some might be turned off by the slightly chunky look of the Play. These are also the same folks who want a phone with next month’s specs, rather than today’s or yesterday’s. But for mobile gamers, the silver control panel will be a good trade off for that little bit of extra junk in the trunk.

The Play’s slide out control panel features a d-pad, the standard PS buttons, start, select, and menu keys. When held open, in landscape mode, the user’s index fingers rest on two shoulder buttons. Holding the device for gameplay is natural and comfortable, and I think the PS controller has been represented well in the slider form factor.

The display is a somewhat dim 4-inch LCD with LED backlight at 480 X 854. Under the hood is a 1GHz Scorpion Snapdragon processor. Graphics are handled by the Adreno 205 GPU. 512MB RAM is satisfactory for the phone’s operation as a gaming device, but performance in game made is more impressive than when the Play is used as a smartphone. 400MB of internal storage may seem a bit chincy when even the “pre-loaded” games can require 200MB downloads, but the bundled 8GB microSD card is expandable to 32GB.

Software:

Android 2.3 keeps the Play running optimally, and SE’s modifications are minimal on this device. A widget here, a color there; there’s very little customization getting in the way of the Google Android experience. Many Android fans consider vanilla Android the only way to ship, but I like to see more OEM tailoring. Of course there are plenty of home replacements in the Android Market, but there is something to be said about the refined polish of a mature custom UI.

Games are the real draw for Xperia Play, and their performance is what sets the phone apart from the herd and what serious potential buyers are most interested in.

Gameplay:

Having dedicated hardware controls on a phone absolutely changes the Android gaming experience. The quality, action and responsiveness of the Play’s buttons are great. The D-pad, PS buttons and shoulder buttons feel fantastic and do not disappoint. The touch-sensitive joysticks, on the other hand, are a bit of a pain. In order to register an extreme angle–turning a car sharply, for instance–require pushing your finger to the very edge of the area designated for joystick control. The problem is that, unless you have large fingers, you’re likely to move past the metal contact and lose control. For this reason, I usually choose the d-pad for directional control.

Mapping changes even amongst the games SE includes on the device, and support from titles in the Android Market is a hit-or-miss affair. As I expected, console emulators and ROMs are a mixed bag of compatability and functionality.

Here is a demo video of some of the pre-loaded games, games from the Android Market, and console emulators.

Camera:

Play’s 5MP camera is capable and the results are definitely acceptable in medium light to bright environments for casual purposes. Stills turned out better than video, but both are fine for the average user. Play also has a front-facing cam. Samples of video and stills were shot at the highest settings. Stills were scaled down from 2592 X 1944.

Stills:

Video:

Daylight:

Artificial Light:

Torch:

Daily Use:

The Play’s 1,500mAh battery performed admirably during my testing. To let the phone sit overnight without charging (starting on a full charge), play games for 90 minutes solid, let the phone sleep for four hours, and then find that it’s still holding 60% of its juice was a very pleasant surprise. I have run the phone down before bed a time or two, but those were days of heavy gameplay.

After using the Play as a smartphone, I have no significant complaints. It works. Does it inspire me the way some other hot new Androids do? No, not when I consider it as a smartphone, ignoring the PlayStation aspects of the device. But let me tell you, those aspects are difficult to ignore.

With a 16:9 aspect ratio, the Play is good–not great, but good–for watching videos, and is perfectly capable of most other Android app experiences. Music, productivity, web browsing and everything else I tested provided what I would consider a good result. I wasn’t blown away, but I wasn’t really disappointed, either.

Sample call:

Conclusion:

Sony Ericsson’s Xperia Play puts standard smartphone tasks in the backset, if only by wooing you with it’s gaming prowess. And it is a formidable device, regardless of how it stacks up compared to the Vita or the Atrix, or whatever device it’s been compared to that it shouldn’t have been.

I think a lot of the complaints I’ve heard about the device came from people who are comparing it to the Charge or Infuseor some other gadget in what amounts to an apples/oranges situation. And you will find flaws with the Play if that’s your perspective. Those who are waiting for the next PlayStation certified device, or even the next generation of them, seem to have a better grasp on what this device is all about. It’s a maiden voyage that will hopefully result in a vibrant market of strong, cutting edge devices. And as the library of games grows, so will the appeal of those devices and the original, Play. For now, consider the Play a gaming system with smartphone functionality, rather than the other way around.

The strengths of this phone are in its hardware controls. Without them, Play would be an average phone for current and upcoming releases. It beats the pants off of last year’s Android offerings in terms of performance. But because so many of us are on the (bleeding) edge of our seats waiting for the new fastest processor, and the new best display, it’s important to point out that what makes this phone special are the hardware controls and what the device represents in terms of the developments over the coming year. Still, early adopters–at least those who are gaming fanatics–should be satisfied.

Tags: , , , ,