An official "PlayStation phone" had been rumored since before the release of the original Sony PSP way back in 2005, and it’d been the subject of many a leak leading up to its announcement. However, it wasn’t until this February that we got our first official glimpse of the Sony Ericsson Xperia Play. With mobile gaming on the rise, and already a major draw for iOS, the PlayStation-certified Xperia Play was seen as an integral part of efforts to promote Android as a viable platform for games developers.
But can the Xperia Play live up to this promise, not to mention all the years of anticipation and hype that preceded it? And more importantly, is it a good smartphone in its own right? Join us after the jump to find out, in our review of the European Xperia Play. And you might also want to check out Andrew’s full review of the Verizon model if you’re considering picking up that version.
The Xperia Play shares many design cues with other 2011 Xperia devices. There’s the same glossy black plastic finish on the front and rear, and a silver trim around the sides. While the Xperia Play’s slide-out gamepad makes it heavier and bulkier than the average 4-inch smartphone, the contoured back panel means that it still fits comfortably in the hand and remains relatively pocket-friendly.
You’ll experience the usual fingerprint-magnet issues associated with black plastic chassis, but that’s unavoidable really. And despite this, we found that our review unit didn’t get too grimy, even during extended gaming sessions. The Play’s screen is a 854x480 resolution, 4-inch Super LCD which is comparable to other high-end smartphone displays. It doesn’t ship with Sony’s Mobile Bravia Engine like the Arc or the Neo, but the screen looks more than good enough, and we had no trouble using it in bright sunlight either.
Under the screen are the standard four physical buttons -- back, home, menu and search. Ports are located on the left side -- you’ll find a headphone jack and micro-USB port, though unlike the Arc and the Neo there’s no HDMI port provided, which is a minor disappointment. The power button, which incorporates the notification LED, is found on the top of the device, as usual, and the volume rocker is on the right hand side, between the two trigger buttons.
Slide the Xperia Play open and you’ll find a gamepad reminiscent of the long since abandoned PSP Go. There’s a direction pad as well as two touch-sensitive analog pads, and the iconic square, triangle cross and circle buttons. So in addition to the triggers on the back, you’ve got plenty of buttons to go around. The buttons are very low-profile, but we found they still felt comfortable to use, and provided enough feedback to make for an enjoyable gaming experience.
We noticed a little bit of looseness to the sliding mechanism itself, however this never resulted in any accidental gamepad slide-outs. There’s a reasonable amount of force required to slide the Xperia Play open, and once it’s open it still feels solid in the hand.
Moving onto the camera setup, you’ll find two on the Xperia Play -- a rear-facing 5MP sensor with LED flash capable of 480p video recording, and a front-facing VGA camera for all your video-chatting and hair-checking needs. Unfortunately there’s no bundled video calling software, and since the Play hasn’t yet been updated to Android 2.3.4, you won’t be able to make video calls through Google Talk either. However, the Android Market has several third-party offerings to help you out in this area.
Under the hood, the Xperia Play is pretty much the same as the rest of the 2011 Xperia line. The Play uses a 1GHz second-generation Qualcomm Snapdragon chip, paired with 512MB of RAM and the same slightly disappointing half-gig of internal storage. Though 380MB is reserved for apps, we wouldn’t liked to see more internal storage, especially on a gaming-focused device. Most of the Xperia Play’s games install (or can be installed) to the bundled 8GB micro-SD card anyway, so this isn’t a show-stopper.
Software and Gaming
The Xperia Play runs Android 2.3.2 out of the box, and soon after you power it on you’ll get the over-the-air update to 2.3.3. Unlike the Verizon version, the European Xperia Play uses Sony Ericsson’s own UI as opposed to vanilla Android. What this means is you get a UI that looks more like an Xperia phone than stock Gingerbread.
We’ve already gone into some detail about the Xperia UI in our reviews of the Arc and the Neo, but to briefly recap, we like the way Sony Ericsson’s arranged its software. It’s sleek, fast, and has a classy, understated look to it. It also fits together as a coherent whole better than a lot of manufacturer skins. There’s not the impression that someone’s just thrown a bunch of apps in there and hoped for the best. Instead, everything looks like it belongs.
Many of the bundled apps are simply re-skinned stock Android offerings, but there’s some unique functionality in there too. Sony Ericsson has included its DLNA media center app, and the Xperia Play can also connect over USB in “media transfer” mode, which allows certain files to be transferred over a USB connection without unmounting the SD card, thus saving time and hassle.
Facebook Inside Xperia doesn’t come pre-loaded on the Play, but it is included with the update to Android 2.3.3. For the uninitiated, this is part of Sony Ericsson’s effort to bring more social networking functionality onto its handsets, and it works really well. The gallery app can be used to browse your own Facebook galleries, or photos you’ve been tagged in. Likewise, the contacts app turns each entry into a sort of miniature personal hub, with each contact’s Facebook status and photos available to view. Other features of note include the ability to “Like” songs from directly within the music app, and check up on your friends’ media consumption in the Connected Media app.
The Xperia Play’s gaming experience is based around two central apps -- the Xperia Play games browsing app, and the pocket PlayStation app. The former automatically jumps into life when you slide open the gamepad, and is where you’ll find games build specifically for the Xperia Play. The latter is the place to find emulated PlayStation games purchased through the Android Market.
Our review unit came pre-loaded with Crash Bandicoot, The Sims 3, Star Battalion, Tetris, FIFA 2010 and Bruce Lee Dragon Warriors, and we were able to download Gameloft’s Asphalt 6 for free, thanks to a promotion open to all Xperia Play owners. Videogames have always been right at home on a D-pad and button-based control setup, so it should come as no surprise that all the pre-loaded games -- and even emulators we downloaded from the Android Market -- worked really well on the Xperia Play’s gamepad. The only thing we we’re a little unsure of is the two touch-sensitive analog pads, which take a bit of getting used to, and don’t provide quite as much precision as a regular analog thumb-stick.
Emulation of original PlayStation titles is handled flawlessly by the Xperia Play, and games run at full speed, just as they did on the classic console all those years ago. Not everyone’s going to feel quite as nostalgic about older titles like Crash Bandicoot and Destruction Derby, but it’s great that the option’s there for those that want it.
The Xperia Play originally launched with a rather humble catalog of games, this is slowly but surely growing, with the likes of WipEout and Lumines now available for the device. Sony is putting the weight of its PlayStation brand behind the Xperia Play, and hopefully this steady trickle of new games will continue in the months ahead. The real test will be whether Sony can keep up the pace of new releases as well as emulated PS1 titles.
The Xperia Play ships with a 1500 mAh battery, which provides more than enough juice to power a second-gen Snapdragon and a 4-inch Super LCD. You’ll easily get a full day of regular smartphone usage out of the Xperia Play, so in most instances a nightly charge will be enough. Throw gaming into the mix and things become a little more unpredictable.
However, generally speaking, we found that the Play coped well with the bundled Gameloft titles, PlayStation games and emulators from the Android Market. None of these managed to completely devour the phone’s battery, although obviously gaming is more taxing across the board than casual texting or browsing.
In addition to the basic VGA camera for video calls, there’s a 5-megapixel rear camera on the Xperia Play for your photo and video needs. Unfortunately this isn’t the same high-performance Exmor R sensor found on the Xperia Arc and Neo, but it does a good enough job at capturing stills in a variety of lighting conditions. There’s also a macro mode option which we found worked well outdoors, but struggled to focus properly indoors, or in low light.
Video recording is limited to 480p resolution, but we found footage recorded on the Xperia Play scaled well to larger displays. The frame rate remained consistent, at 30fps, and the camera coped well with transitions between light and dark areas, even on the bright, sunny day when we recorded the sample below.
The decision to include a more basic rear camera was probably made so as to avoid making the Xperia Play prohibitively expensive, and as such, we can overlook the lower video quality. Photo quality is good, and video quality, though not high definition, is by no means bad.
As with all 2011 Xperia phones, if you buy an unbranded Xperia Play without a SIM lock, then you’ll also be able to unlock its bootloader and fiddle around with custom ROMs and the like. Thanks to the easy unlocking and rooting path, there’s already an active development community based around the Xperia Play, with unofficial ports of popular ROMs like CyanogenMod currently available. With the Xperia Play already already widely available, you can expect plenty of community support for this device in the months and possibly years ahead.
The Xperia Play is yet another example of a highly specialized Android device. It’s designed for gamers, and it’s well suited to gaming on the go, either through the built-in pocket PlayStation, the bundled Xperia games portal, or the host of other titles and emulators on the Android Market. It’s also a capable smartphone, based around the proven combination of a 1GHz Snapdragon, Android 2.3 Gingerbread and the Sony Ericsson UI.
However, before you take the plunge and invest in an Xperia Play, you should be sure that you’re happy with the trade-offs that are required to enjoy this kind of mobile gaming experience. One of these is the device’s size and weight -- it’s a little more portly than the average smartphone, and positively obese when compared to the Xperia Arc. You’ll miss out on 720p video recording, too, something which is becoming more and more standard these days. And price is also a concern, with Xperia Play SIM-free prices still hovering just below the £400 mark -- perilously close to the almighty Samsung Galaxy S II.
Whether or not this is a fair trade will depend on how important mobile gaming is to you. If you see it as more of an occasional distraction than something around which you’d build your dream device, then your £380 could instead by spent on a more capable all-rounder like the Xperia Arc or Nexus S. However if you’re determined to have a high-quality, button-based gaming experience within reach 24 hours a day, then that’s exactly what you’ll get from the Xperia Play.