Review: Sony Ericsson Xperia Play – The world’s first PlayStation Phone

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Sony Ericsson’s announcement of the Xperia Play was met with both bewilderment and intrigue; could Sony’s solid, established strategy in gaming really be applied to mobile, and if so, is slapping some familiar hardware controls on the back of the Xperia Arc the best way to do that? Sure, Sony has had plenty of experience making portable gaming devices like the PSP Go, but Sony Ericsson is still very much a separate entity from the PlayStation family. The only other player in a remotely similar situation is Microsoft, who is trying to push a whole mobile OS to take advantage of the Xbox 360. Nintendo is having none of it, leaving it a two-horse race between the established video game pros. The only real x-factor is Apple, who has done a great job at popularizing mobile apps, games being the most used among them. iOS 4 even introduced an Xbox Live-style achievement and social network called Game Center. However, despite making a gold mine for old and new game developers alike, portable gaming had still been existing in its own bubble for some time.

Now that we’re starting to see some crossover between the two industries, interesting new takes on smartphone like the Xperia Play doesn’t seem so crazy. Though it’s a new mash-up, it’s still heavily steeped in the established Android world. There are a lot of questions to be answered, namely will hardcore gamers default to the Play, or still opt for a dedicated portable gaming console? Will more casual gamers not be interested in the added bulk provided by a dedicated slide-out controller? Hit the jump and find out!

 

Sony Ericsson Xperia Play

Available soon for $99.99 on a three-year contract from Rogers, $199.99 on a two-year contract from Verizon

Specifications (Spec-sheet)

  • 1 GHz Snapdragon processor
  • 512 MB RAM
  • 4-inch FWVGA display (854 x 480)
  • 5-megapixel camera with LED flash
  • 1.3-megapixel front-facing camera
  • 8 GB microSD card preloaded
  • Android 2.3 Gingerbread with Timescape and Sony Ericsson customizations
  • HSPA 3G
  • Wi-Fi b/g/n with mobile hotspot and DLNA support
  • Bluetooth
  • GPS

The Good

  • Tasteful, simple, useful software customizations
  • Great games with high replay value
  • Wide selection of apps

The Bad

  • Added thickness and new controls feel awkward for smartphone
  • Games eat up a lot of battery life
  • Joysticks awkward to use
  • Mediocre camera quality

Hardware

The Xperia Play has a 4-inch FWVGA display, that, though lacking the heavy duty “Reality Display” and Bravia branding as the Arc, is just as sharp and responsive. There are still the same brightness issues, however… In an attempt to smoothly transition to ambient lighting conditions, brightness will gradually increase or decrease, but in darker situations, this can sometimes result in a flickering effect that goes up and down as it tries to find a sweet spot. That makes for a lot of eye strain, and usually resulted in me just waiting for better conditions. This wouldn’t be so much of a problem if there was an option to turn off automatic brightness adjustments.

In terms of layout, the Xperia Play wins bonus points over its bigger brother, the Arc, for having a dedicated search key alongside menu, home, and back. Along the right side are the L and R shoulder buttons for gaming and a volume rocker in between. I’m a little disappointed that L and R don’t have any remapping options, because either one would be a great camera shutter key. Like the Arc, the Play is having some fun with LED placement, this time being built into the power button on the top. It’s a nice change of pace, and works perfectly well.

The left side hosts the 3.5mm headphone jack and microUSB slot, while two speaker ports sit opposite of the L and R keys. The back is home to the 5 megapixel camera, LED flash, and secondary microphone with subtle Xperia branding in the center next to the Sony Ericsson logo. The rear battery cover was flimsy and a pain to take off and put back on, but underneath the hood both SIM and microSD slots were easy to find and accessible without removing the 1500 mAh battery. If you intend on loading up games that are hundreds upon hundred of megabytes in size, and your microSD card is already full of music and other media, being able to hot-swap easily will be very welcome.

Buried at the Xperia Play’s heart is a 1 GHz Snapdragon processor with 512 MB of RAM. Generally speaking, it’s enough to handle 3D games, though I have had a few experiences where gameplay slows down. That could just as easily be a result of background apps or syncing, in any case.

Build Quality and Finish

The Sony Ericsson Xperia Play lacks the the slimness and sharpness of the Arc, but still has enough style thanks to some well-placed curves. The slide mechanism has sufficient kick, but I do worry about any phone with moving parts. With enough abuse over time, any spring can lose its bounce. In terms of feel, the whole exterior is smooth plastic, which will likely mark easily over time.  I didn’t have any of the same screen scratching issues as with the Arc, but it looks like it has the same secondary protective film that was prone to marking.

Software

The Sony Ericsson Xperia Play runs Android 2.3 Gingerbread, with a few customizations in the native apps, and prominently featuring Timescape, their social networking home screen widget and app that pulls in updates from Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare, and LinkedIn. Overall performance was good, but there was the occasional hangup that might stall an app launch or chunk up transitions between home screens.

Coming from using a BlackBerry on a day-to-day basis, I’m always impressed with how customizable Android phones are, and the app selection doesn’t hurt either. Five home screens fill up fast though, and I often miss the Scenes function from HTC handsets that can swap out whole sets of home screen arrangements.

Sony Ericsson continues to push the Infinite button in the media player to launch into a YouTube search for related videos, which I don’t find particularly useful, but the next update should include some new discovery options through TrafckID and Facebook.

Although the core Android OS has come a long way in terms of functions, there are still a few gaps. One that leaps out is that once you’ve signed in with your Google account, you can’t switch it around in GTalk. Apple fans still don’t have iCal support. Unless you’re willing to go through the complicated and risky rooting process, there’s no easy way to take screenshots. That may be me nitpicking, but there’s always room for improvement.

On the whole, I found the Xperia Play’s software didn’t run quite as smoothly as the Arc, but still well within the realm of usability.

Timescape and Sony Ericsson Customizations

Timscape has come a long way since the Xperia X10, and like the Arc, it runs like butter once updates are loaded in. From the home screen, Timescape lets you cruise through incoming text messages, Facebook updates, tweets, and with the right downloaded extensions, Foursquare check-ins and LinkedIn updates. With one tap, you can switch to a filtered view, to browse just particular updates in a full-screen view, and if you like, you can drill down into the message for further interaction in the browser.

The Android Market has a dedicated Sony Ericsson section where you can find Timescape extensions, along with other related apps. Those of you with the LiveView watch accessory will be able to find compatible apps in this section, as well as other stuff that Sony Ericsson is working on, like a new contact app called life.contacts. Sony Ericsson has their own cloud service for keeping contacts in sync (among other things), but I found it mostly redundant with Google’s services already heavily baked-in.

Visually, Sony Ericsson has done some great stuff with the home screen. There’s nothing interesting happening in the notification menu at the top, but widgets get a cool wobbling effect when moving them to the animated trashbin. Compared to the vanilla app list, the Xperia Play’s can be reorganized alphabetically, most used, most recently installed, or your own custom order. Finally, pinching from the home screen produces a smooth animation that lets you see all home screens at once. They’re small additions, but they really stick out.

 

Games

The biggest signature feature of the Xperia Play is the games. By default, the phone launches into a game browser when you slide it open, which includes the seven titles preloaded on the device: Asphalt 6 (racing), Bruce Lee: Dragon Warrior (fighter), FIFA 2010 (soccer), Hockey Nations 2011 (probably just a Rogers thing), Madden NFL 2011 (football), and my favourite to date, Star Battalion (flight sim). There are shortcuts in the launcher to view other featured Xperia Play-optimized games, like NOVA 2, Worms, Assassin’s Creed, Guitar Hero, Call of Duty 6, and lots more. As someone who uses their phone as their primary music player, I found some of these games took up a lot of room on my microSD card, so either make sure you’ve cleared enough space, or keep a spare card for games handy.

As for actual gameplay, things go smoothly so long as you don’t have anything running in the background. Most of my time was spent with Bruce Lee and Star Battalion, and I didn’t find the touch-sensitive joysticks to be particularly useful for either of them. Without any physical resistance or other tactile feedback, it was hard to make precise movements, so I tended to default to the four-way directional pad. The PSP had a small nub which worked just fine for me in the past, and I would much rathered they included a similar mechanical joystick on the Xperia Play.

Overall, the graphics and performance are around Nintendo 64 / PlayStation 1 quality, which isn’t a bad thing necessarily, since there were some really fun games for that generation. In its current state, it doesn’t seem like the game quality quite matches the PSP, though I definitely had fun with what was preloaded and would probably end up buying a few other titles eventually. As a primary selling point, however, I’m still not entirely convinced that a dedicated gamer would be willing to sacrifice performance and battery life on their phone rather than pay a little bit extra for a portable gaming console. I definitely like the idea of phones being tailor-built to particular tasks (like Garmin’s failed Nuvifone lineup), but it seems to me like those willing to get such heavily-slanted smartphones would be just as willing to get a separate dedicated device.

Benchmarks

Here are some benchmark scores taken with some of the standard Android tests available, compared to the results from the Samsung Droid Charge in parentheses. Scores are averaged over three tests each.

Quadrant (System Benchmark)

Average: 1162 (962)

Neocore (Graphics Benchmark)

Average: 60.0 frames per second (56.7 FPS)

Linpack (Processor Benchmark)

Average: 35.909 MFLOPS (36.276 MFLOPS)

Speedtest.net

(on Rogers HSPA in Ottawa, Ontario)

962 kbps down, 881 kbps up

Multimedia

Web Browser

The browser on the Sony Ericsson Xperia Play is the standard Android fare, including support for Flash 10.3, HTML5, multiple tabs, bookmarks, and sharing options via e-mail, Twitter, Facebook, or any other apps that decide that they want to plug in to the browser. The browser scored 93 in Acid3, 182/400 on the HTML5 test, and around 37 FPS in the GUIMark vector Flash mobile test.

Music and Video

The home screen widget for the native media player is really slick, with a simple animation playing above the track timeline while it’s going. Despite its good looks, however, I’m not able to listen to music using my Bose in-ear headphones with in-line mic without holding down the microphone’s mute button. This is an ongoing issue with Sony Ericsson’s Android phones, and as someone who uses their phone regularly for music, it’s something of a dealbreaker. The prepackaged headphones work fine, but I found them uncomfortable. For games you’ll pretty much have to use headphones; despite there being stereo sound, those speakers are extremely tinny. The music app itself is pretty standard; you can sort and search your library by artist, album, or individual track, as well as create, view, and edit playlists. There are a variety of equalizer presets, so sound can be optimized depending on whether you’re listening to rock, metal, classical, or anything in between. Speaking of which, I’d like to see mobile media players offer some detailed, user-set equalizer options someday (like WinAmp or Windows Media Player offers). The preloaded music ID app by Gracenote was accurate, but not particularly helpful in providing artist biographical information when I tested it.

As flashy as the default media gallery app is, it would be nice to have the option to switch to a clean-cut list view with plenty of sorting options. It’s a pain having to comb through folders of album art to find what I’m looking for. Regardless, pinch-to-zoom on still images is really smooth, and there are plenty of sharing options to get your pictures up onto Facebook, Twitter, or just about any network online you could think of, thanks to a large selection of apps in the Android Market.

Video rendering is solid, handling streaming Flash, large MP4 and MOV files just fine. Everything looks great on the 4-inch 854 x 480 display, which provides a few extra pixels over the standard WVGA displays out there just to ensure no there’s no cropping at all for 16:9 ratio videos. Seeking through even large videos is lag-free, which is always nice. Although there’s no HDMI-out, there is DLNA support so you can stream your videos out to the TV over your local Wi-Fi network (assuming your big screen supports it). I didn’t have much luck with my Samsung TV, reporting that the video formats I wanted to watch weren’t supported, but your milegage may vary.

Camera

As with the Arc, I’ve been happy with the close-ups taken with the Xperia Play’s camera, but not much else. In long-range landscape shots, there’s a lot of detail that’s lost, and in low-light with flash, focus has some problems. In medium lighting with flash on, the 5 megapixel shooter handles amply, and though the forward-facing 1.3 megapixel camera doesn’t do particularly great for stills, it’s more than enough for video chatting. Speaking of which, there doesn’t seem to be video chatting support in GTalk yet. Weird.

Camera settings are pretty standard, including some preset options for white balance, geotagging, color effects, exposure settings, and scene modes. Nothing fancy like panorama auto-stitching, but overall, the camera is more than enough for most casual point-and-shoot situations.

Landscape, daytime.

Close-up.

Low-light with flash.

Call Quality and Battery Life

Call quality wasn’t the best I’ve ever had, and experienced some echoing as well as clicking during data transmission. Call handling is par for course with Android, tying in with your Google account’s contacts and linking them with friends from various social networks. Home screen widgets help you access your favourite callers quickly and easily.

The Xperia Play takes its biggest hit in battery life when playing video games. As a day-to-day phone, you can squeeze the 1500 mAh battery through the prescribed 6.5 hours if you make sure you keep Wi-Fi, GPS, and sync turned off most of the time, but barring that, I would want to carry around a spare battery pack or ensure I could charge it mid-day (especially if I intended on playing some games).

 

Verdict – Do Gamers Need a PlayStation Phone?

The Sony Ericsson Xperia Play is a unique proposition to customers, and one that isn’t easy to take. Games are a huge part of the smartphone app ecosystem, so it stands to reason that a phone with a dedicated controller would do well, right? Well, it’s still too early to tell, since the real mark of success will be if game developers buy into the idea and make the necessary tweaks to optimize their games for the Xperia Play’s hardware. There’s a lot to love about Android regardless, as it is ripe with customization, apps, and solid built-in functions that sync seamlessly with the cloud.

That being said, I would tell hardcore gamers to sit tight on this one and wait for the next iteration, when the games library, as impressive as it is at launch, will be much bigger and of higher quality. I suspect shady third-party emulators will also have a field day with the standardized controls. For now, casual gamers who find that they have a lot of time to kill, and don’t necessarily want to be productive in that time, the Play might actually be a good fit. The software still has a few bumps as far as stability goes, but the Xperia Arc shows that improvements on that front aren’t far off.

 

 

  • MOTOX

    I think they could have done better but i might buy a 2nd gen down the road….one on verizon as well…with 4g lte, as my thunderbolt now, a 1900 mah battery….dual core, android 2.4…bigger memory, cloud services if any from sony…the games, maybe an hdmi port and the same dock with hdmi….otherwise i would love this phone because it has great quality games for android…which i ported to my thunderbolt for now of course… :)

  • MOTOX

    I think they could have done better but i might buy a 2nd gen down the road….one on verizon as well…with 4g lte, as my thunderbolt now, a 1900 mah battery….dual core, android 2.4…bigger memory, cloud services if any from sony…the games, maybe an hdmi port and the same dock with hdmi….otherwise i would love this phone because it has great quality games for android…which i ported to my thunderbolt for now of course… :)

  • Squrbit

    why do 1st gen always suck???

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