Sony Ericsson Xperia Play Android smartphone
The Playstation phone in all but name
Review The evolution of smartphones has introduced a divide between gaming capability and gaming playability. Powerful processors and operating systems allow increasingly complex gaming. But complex games demand complex controls. Finger swishing and prodding might suffice when flinging belligerent avians around the screen, but virtual thumbsticks and buttons largely fail to convey more rigorous controls into the hands of players.
Gamekeeper: Sony Ericsson's Xperia Play
With the Xperia Play, Sony Ericsson attempts to bridge the divide by combining the functionality of its Xperia smartphone range with Playstation-certified gaming controls. But while the result proves far from epic fail, glaring design inconsistencies and tech concessions mean the Xperia Play is not so much compelling convergence but more confused chimera.
Although understandable, the most obvious concession is nonetheless disconcerting. At 119 x 62 x 16mm and weighing 175g, the Xperia Play is the obese gaming couch-potato sibling of the svelte Xperia Arc. Of course, that extra bulk is necessary to house its defining gaming pad – and the unit's concave rear proves surprisingly ergonomic, but it also belies some flabby tech inside. The Arc's muscular innards are largely absent here.
The downgrading of the Xperia Arc's 8.1Mp camera, Exmor R CMOS sensor and 720p video to a standard (and rather poor) 5Mp camera and WVGA video recording might be an acceptable trade-off in a device geared towards gaming. However, the missing Bravia engine and HDMI output – or indeed, any TV-Out – are inexcusable, especially at this price point.
A sliderphone of a different nature
Without the Bravia engine, the 4in screen is disappointingly dim. The 480 x 854 resolution displays a vivid, warm colour range and impressive sharpness, but indirect light quickly spoils the view, while direct sunlight converts the glossy, thumb-print-loving screen into an expensive compact mirror.
Prod 'n' play
The styling impresses though, with a classy piano-black body and chrome finish at the sides and on the Android buttons. These initially confuse by not following conventions being re-ordered to Back, Home, Menu and Search.
The otherwise excellent build quality is let down by a flimsy, brittle battery cover. Under the hood, the Sim and microSD cards (8GB provided, 32GB max) are housed away from the battery, and are hot-swappable – invaluable given the Xperia Play takes two minutes to power up.
It might take a while to get going, but the Xperia Play is no slouch in running Android 2.3 Gingerbread. The 1GHz Snapdragon processor breezes around Sony Ericsson's stylish Android UI overlay, and app switching is almost instantaneous. But its raison d'être is gaming, and the imminent deluge of dual-core handsets makes its single-core, 512MB RAM combo feel decidedly dead-on-arrival.
Whether the game pad alone compensates for the CPU choice is highly questionable. But its form and functionality are incontrovertible. A smooth, robust sliding mechanism reveals the elegant brushed-chrome pad, and the opened unit rests snugly in the hands.
Left and right controls appear at the edge
The navpad and face buttons are naturally shallower than a Dual Shock's, but their resistance is firm and snappy. As is the resistance of the left and right triggers (actually more like flippers), which, with the volume rocker between them on the side of the handset, are perfectly placed behind the screen when in gaming orientation.
Pushing all the right buttons?
The twin touch-pads take some getting used to and, in truth, do little to improve upon virtual thumbsticks. That said, relieving the screen of directional controls and buttons provides a palpable advantage over traditional touchscreen-only gaming – N.O.V.A 2 and Modern Combat 2 were just two of the games that improved immeasurably in terms of playability when compared to their iPhone counterparts.
The Bruce Lee game is one of up to seven titles bundled with the handset
Even the otherwise poorly placed 3.5mm headphone socket makes sense when in gaming orientation, as the headphone lead drops comfortably beneath the unit. Yet, the design is not entirely flawless.
The power button, which doubles as the screen lock, is placed too near to the left trigger, which led to frustrating interruptions until I trained my finger to curl evasively over it. And the home and app screens are locked into portrait mode, so you need to swivel the opened unit to read icons comfortably.
Apps homescreen and Gaming content options
The game browsing and buying experience also makes for uncomfortable reading. Fragmented into three apps: Xperia Play, Get Games and Playstation Pocket, the system will confuse even the most tech literate, and is in desperate need of streamlining.
Worse still, Sony is not imposing any standards on game controls, so the current crop of 'Xperia optimised' Android games have wildly different implementations, with many employing an unnecessary, bewildering mix of touchscreen and pad controls.
During testing the Xperia Play's battery lasted a decidedly uninspiring 22 hours of fairly intensive use, including around 2 hours gaming. So I'd be surprised if the battery lasted more than a couple of days on more moderate use. Call quality was about average, although the sound quality of music was excellent, with both the on-board twin stereo speakers and bundled in-ear cans vastly outperforming my iPhone 4.
Not the gamechanger that was hoped for, but perhaps a cult classic in the making
Perhaps explaining Sony's reluctance to label it the Playstation Phone, the Xperia Play feels like the smartphone equivalent of
Audi's Porsche's 924. It lacks the latest tech and its inconsistent hardware and software design are unworthy of the marque, and hints at a product rushed to market to gain a foothold for the Playstation brand. Although not entirely without merit – the game pad should help it find a natural home in the Android homebrew and emulator community – there's no denying that in setting out to unify smartphones and dedicated handheld consoles, the Xperia Play makes a compelling case to maintain the status quo. ®
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