Review: Verizon Xperia Play – Game on!

Review:Verizon Verizon Xperia Play

We reviewed the international version of the Sony Ericsson Verizon Xperia Play a while ago but the handset has just landed on Verizon and we thought we’d give the world’s first PlayStation Phone another look on Big Red.

There’s not much different in the Verizon version with the hardware, so I’ll defer to the great work already done by Simon Sage. You die-hard Android fans out there will love that the Verizon Xperia Play launches with a near-stock version of Android 2.3 Gingerbread. I’ll note the specific parts that are unique to Verizon’s version of the PlayStation Phone in the full review below.

Sony Ericsson Verizon 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
  • Verizon 3G
  • Wi-Fi b/g/n and DLNA support
  • Bluetooth
  • GPS

The Good

  • Tasteful, simple, useful software customizations
  • Great games with high replay value
  • Wide selection of apps
  • Near stock version of Android 2.3 Gingerbread

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 Verizon version obviously has the Verizon logo on the game pad and on the back but it’s essentially the same make and build as the international version.

The Verizon 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 Verizon 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 Verizon 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 game play slows down. That could just as easily be a result of background apps or syncing, in any case.

Build Quality and Finish

Review:Verizon Verizon Xperia PlayThe Sony Ericsson Verizon 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 software on the Verizon Verizon Xperia Play has one major difference from the international version: it’s nearly stock Android 2.3 Gingerbread. Yes, there are a few preloaded apps and some Sony Ericsson wallpapers but this is a near-clean version of Android 2.3.2 (Yes, that’s not the latest version).

Android 2.3 Gingerbread debuted on the Samsung Nexus S and while it’s not quite the quantum leap that Froyo was, it still adds a ton of little features which add up. The one that’s most noticeable is the way you select text has been changed to make it easier to copy and paste. There are also nice little user interface flourishes throughout the OS – For instance, if you get to the top or bottom of a webpage or app, you’ll see an orange bar glow. This is a small but neat little touch.

You’ll also notice many overall performance improvements over Android 2.2 devices even though the Xperia Play doesn’t rock a dual-core processor. In general, it’s been very fast and responsive whether I’m making calls, downloading apps, surfing the web or sending out e-mails. The gaming experience is pretty smooth too but that can get bogged down depending on how many apps you’re running.

The Verizon Xperia Play comes preloaded with a handful of preloaded apps including Amazon Kindle, the VCast App Store, VZ Navigator, It’s nice to finally see handsets launching with Android 2.3 Gingerbread and it’s even nicer to see it not being mucked around with too much. Unless it’s HTC Sense, I’ve found that many of the custom UI Android layers just get in the way.

Games

The biggest signature feature of the Verizon Xperia Play is the games. By default, the phone launches into a game browser when you slide it open, which includes the six titles preloaded on the device: Asphalt 6 (racing), Bruce Lee: Dragon Warrior (fighter), The Sims 3, Crash Bandicoot, Madden NFL 2011 (football), and my favorite to date, Star Battalion (flight sim). There are shortcuts in the launcher to view other featured Verizon 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 game play, 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 rather they included a similar mechanical joystick on the Verizon 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

I ran the benchmarks on the Verizon Verizon Xperia Play using Quadrant, Linpack and Neocore with all other apps off. The results are pretty solid. In parentheses, we have the benchmarks of the international version – variances can be attributed to a variety of factors.

Quadrant (System Benchmark)

Average: 1515 (1162)

Neocore (Graphics Benchmark)

Average: 60.0 frames per second (60.0 FPS)

Linpack (Processor Benchmark)

Average: 37.999 MFLOPS (35.909 MFLOPS)

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).

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 Verizon 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.

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 favorite callers quickly and easily.

The Verizon network is as solid as you would expect, as we found clear connections and strong data coverage in the San Francisco Bay Area. Your mileage may vary but Verizon is pretty good around the country (with certain exceptions).

The Verizon 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?

Review: Verizon Xperia Play - The world's first PlayStation Phone

The Sony Ericsson Xperia Play is a unique proposition to customers but it’s 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. Having a near-stock version of Android 2.3 is also a big win for this device.

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.

  • Daniel

    The Xperia Play games are not N64 / PS1 quality.  All Gameloft games are higher than PS2 quality, but fall short of PS3 quality.

    what were you smoking when you was playing these games?

  • Tony Allen

    One word.. Minecraft!

  • zafren

    this phone needs to bulky for the comfort of playing games..the bulkyness is not a problem

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001193067336 Kamryn Whitfield

    man my phone wont cut on and i have to keep it open just to do anything and this phone f@cking suck

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