- Review Date: 05/23/11
- Bottom line:
The Android-based Sony Ericsson Xperia Play is a unique phone designed for gaming, and it games well.
Gamepad is a terrific way to play. Latest version of Android. Overall solid specs.
Doesn't integrate with the world of PlayStation. Not the latest graphics hardware. A bit thick and heavy.
It's no PlayStation Phone, but the control pad on Sony Ericsson's Xperia Play makes it the best gaming phone available in the U.S. today. As with other unique phones, though, the big question is whether the Android-based Xperia Play will see a steady stream of new software that plays to its strengths.
Physical Design, Call Quality, and Web
The Xperia Play is relatively thick and heavy at 4.7 by 2.4 by .6 inches (HWD) and 6.2 ounces; that's the price you pay for the gamepad. The phone is clad in flimsy-feeling black and silver plastic, which doesn't make it feel like a premium product. The 4-inch, 854-by-480 screen is sharp, but dim.
Slide the screen open, though, and things brighten considerably. The gamepad is stellar. You get four directional buttons, the four PlayStation action buttons, two analog trackpads, Select, Start and Menu buttons, along with two "flippers" on the top edge of the phone, and they all feel solid and up for hard use.
The buttons mirror the PSP's layout, but they're slightly smaller and tighter than the ones on our PSP; for instance, when you press the directional buttons on the PSP, it feels like the whole underlying pad wiggles, which isn't the case on the Xperia Play. The biggest difference between the Xperia Play's controller and the PSP's is that the Xperia Play swaps the PSP's gray joystick for the two analog trackpads.
This is a phone first and foremost, of course. (If you don't want a phone, buy a PSP.) The good news is that it's a pretty good phone. RF reception was good, and call quality was adequate in my tests. The earpiece delivers loud, very slightly fuzzy voice calls. There's a ton of side-tone, the feedback of your own voice in your ear which prevents "cell yell." The speakerphone is just on the acceptable side of quiet. Audio transmissions through the mic, on the other hand, aren't great; the phone pushes through too much background noise. The Xperia Play had no trouble hooking up to our Aliph Jawbone Era Bluetooth headset ($129, 4.5 stars) and activating voice dialing. Battery life was positively epic at 9 hours, 46 minutes of talk time; this is a phone designed to be played with throughout the day.
The handset hits the Internet using Verizon's 3G CDMA EVDO Rev A network and 802.11 b/g/n Wi-fi, and it does just fine with both. Verizon's 3G network is slower than T-Mobile's or AT&T's, but it has great nationwide coverage. The phone also works as a tethered modem or Wi-Fi hotspot, with the right service plan.
Of course, what matters here is the games. If you don't intend to spend a lot of time playing, don't buy this phone. While it's a perfectly fine mid-to-high-end Android phone, the game pad adds considerable size and weight to the Xperia Play.
You download Xperia Play games in one of three ways: by going to the phone's Xperia Play gallery app, which shunts you to Verizon's V CAST store; by going directly to the V CAST store; or by going to the Android Market and doing a free-text search for "Xperia Play Optimized," which is incredibly awkward and turns up a lot of stuff that isn't actually Xperia Play optimized.
The good news about the V CAST store is that it uses carrier billing, so your game purchases appear on your phone bill, no credit card needed. That's great, but the bad news is that when I was trying it, it was hideously buggy. Downloads would crash, abort, or stall. I got errors like "Incomplete Purchase" and "SD Card Write Error."
Verizon and Sony Ericsson have said that the carrier was still working on its store, and that things would get better by the May 26 launch date. During my three days with this phone, they were already improving. On Friday, downloads moved much faster than on Wednesday. So I have hope.
Xperia Play is not a PlayStation phone; it's not running PlayStation games, and it's outside of the successful PlayStation world. Rather, the phone runs "optimized" Android games.
Sony Ericsson says there will be 55 optimized titles at launch; the stuff in the store right now varies wildly in quality. First of all, did I mention this isn't a PlayStation phone? There's no legal or approved PlayStation emulator, no way to buy PSOne games, no access to the PlayStation Network (though with its recent security problems, some people could argue that's a plus) and the only "classic" title on board is Crash Bandicoot.
Game quality varies considerably. The preloaded games Asphalt 6, Bruce Lee, and Madden 11 are stellar; they're easily handheld-gaming-system quality. Head into the store and you find Star Battalion HD and Galaxy on Fire HD, both good-looking fly-and-shoot games; Aftermath XHD, a suspenseful, overhead-perspective zombie-fighting game, and Zenonia 2, a classic Japanese RPG complete with "all your base are belong to us" level dialogue. Buried deep in the Android Market (and not even on the first page of search results for "Dungeon Defenders"), Dungeon Defenders: Second Wave, is a killer real-time strategy title.
But there are also a bunch of stinkers. Wave Blazer is a painfully low-res boat-racing game. I Must Run! is cute, but it's Apple 2-quality graphics and gameplay. Rollercoaster Revolution also looks thoroughly 8-bit. Head into the Android Market, and things get sketchier. Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock says it's an Xperia Play game, but the graphics are jaggy and it doesn't even use the gamepad.
The gamepad adds a huge amount to the gaming experience. Playing games on a touch screen is always a little awkward, because your finger covers the field of play. Touch screens also involve a lot more hand motion, which takes longer than just moving your thumb to a nearby button. The responsive, physical buttons here let you focus on what's happening on the screen.
Here's my worry, though: I have seen these one-shot ecosystems come and go, and they've always failed. Verizon's LG Versa had an optional gamepad accessory, but never reached critical mass to attract game developers. Sprint's Kyocera Echo ($199, 3 stars) has an intriguingly Nintendo DS-like dual-screen design, but also seems to be failing to excite developers.
Sony Ericsson told me it will offer a relentless march of new, high-profile titles, with several to be announced during the E3 Expo from June 7-9.
Sony Ericsson has made some good promises, but they have a poor track record for delivering competent smartphones here in the U.S. Don't believe their promises; rather, buy this phone if it has games you want to play today.
Other Android Stuff
The Xperia Play is one of very few phones to run Android 2.3 Gingerbread, and Sony Ericsson told me that they're committed to keeping the OS current. While the phone has a bit of Verizon bloatware, it's not excessive, and it uses the stock Android user interface (unlike the European version of the Xperia Play, which has Sony Ericsson's Timescape home screen widgets). That's not to say that this is purely stock Android—there are under-the-hood customizations to support the gamepad. But it looks like stock Android.
The phone's Qualcomm 1GHz MSM8255 chipset, with an Adreno 205 GPU, is fast and delivered 56.7fps on the Neocore gaming benchmark, which is close to the benchmark's maximum of 60fps. That said, newer dual-core chipsets have delivered faster performance on processor benchmarks, and Nvidia has convincingly shown that games specially coded for its Tegra 2 chipset can show more detail than the same games in versions written for single-core Snapdragons. So the Xperia Play isn't cutting edge. The best games show that it'll be good enough for most people.
The phone comes with an 8GB memory card that fits in a slot under the back cover, but you can swap that out for up to a 32GB card; just remember to copy all the files over, and it'll save your games. The Xperia Play plays all the usual music formats in the standard Android music player, over both wired and Bluetooth headphones. MPEG4 and H.264 videos played smoothly in standard def, but there's no support for XVID, DIVX or any HD videos; there's also no HDMI out.
Pictures taken with the 5-megapixel camera were a little bit soft and hazy, but had good color and weren't blown out. The autofocus is rather slow at 1.2 seconds. The video camera mode takes smooth 800-by-480 videos at 30 frames per second. There's also a VGA-quality camera on the front, for the day when Android gets decent video chat software.
The Xperia Play could be better, of course. First and foremost, it should be a PlayStation phone, with a PlayStation emulator playing PlayStation games cross-platform with PSPs and NGPs. It could also use an up-to-the-moment, super-gamer chipset like Nvidia's Tegra 2 or Qualcomm's upcoming Adreno 220 GPU. It doesn't. Let's get over that.
The fact remains, that with the right games, the Xperia Play's gamepad makes gaming more fun on this phone than on any other comparable device. The Apple iPhone 4 ($199, 4 stars) has more high-end games, and the upcoming Motorola Droid X2 has more graphics power, but nothing compares to playing with dedicated, high quality gaming controls.
The real question is whether great games will continue to come out for Xperia Play, or whether it will get the same lack of support that we've seen for other Sony Ericsson products in the U.S. (Remember AT&T's Xperia X10? No?) Keep an eye on what Sony Ericsson announces at the E3 gaming conference in June. That said, if you like the games available for this phone, game on.
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