Given Sony Ericsson’s direct link with PlayStation, the biggest brand in gaming, it seems amazing that there has never been a Sony PlayStation phone until now.
The Xperia Play is the first phone to carry PlayStation certification, and comes with its own mini version of the PS controls, a 5.1 megapixel camera, 1GHz processor and a 4in screen. How does it stack up? Let's find out...
Design and build
At 119 x 62 x 16mm and 175g the Play certainly fills the pocket – shy and retiring it ain’t, especially in comparison with its ultra-slim cousin, the Xperia Arc.
MicroUSB power/sync slot and 3.5mm headphone jack are on the side, but unlike the Arc, its sliver of buttons beneath the screen includes all four Android controls, including Search as well as Back, Home and Menu.
So far, so smartphone, but the sides give the first clue that this is no ordinary handset. On either side of a volume rocker are two very large buttons labelled L and R’, dedicated games controls whose purpose becomes clear when you slide open the phone to reveal a miniature set of PlayStation controls.
The familiar direction keys and shape controls are on the right and left, flanking a pair of touch-sensitive D-pads which replace the standard joysticks. There are also push buttons for Menu, Select and Start.
The 4in multitouch screen offers 854 x 480-pixel resolution and while it might lack the Bravia engine boasted by the Xperia Arc, there didn’t seem to be a huge amount of difference in general use. The Arc’s screen might look a little brighter, and give a little more insight into shadows, but it doesn’t improve hugely on what is already a fine screen.
Interface and OS
The latest Android 2.3 Gingerbread is the Play’s OS of choice, given a light dusting with Sony Ericsson’s Xperia user interface, most of which is largely cosmetic.
So the functionality of the icons and widgets are much the same as you’ll find on other Android phones, but they look different, and a few are unique to the Xperia range, such as Timescape, which pulls together all of your social networking and message updates into a scrollable rollodeck.
It includes ID pics and looks great, though if you have a lot of updates, it can get a bit hard to keep track.
The Play’s focus is clearly on gaming, though as Sony Ericsson is (very) keen to point out, this is not a replacement PSP, but a fully functional smartphone that’s optimised for gaming.
As such, it does a pretty good job. The controls are sensitive and easy to get to grips with, the screen is responsive enough to keep up with the action.
The problem seems to be that SE’s support for the device doesn’t seem to have caught up with its abilities yet. Of the 60 games promised for launch, we were only able to access a couple of dozen, though these did at least include some big names such as Avatar, Assassin’s Creed, Guitar Hero and Spider-Man.
It comes with six games on board but not all of them are optimised for the device – the D-pads often don’t work at all, for instance, not on Bruce Lee, and not on FIFA 10, though Star Battalion gave us a chance to give our thumbs the full control workout they’d been craving.
Buying your games isn’t entirely straightforward either. Although there’s a Play portal which pulls together all the available games, selecting one takes you to the individual supplier, each of which has different payment methods, which can be a pain.
The 5.1-megapixel camera focuses on quality pictures rather than gimmickry. Which is fine as far as it goes, though we do like to have a range of features and settings to twiddle with.
So you get LED flash, autofocus and some additional focus modes (auto, infinity and macro), exposure settings and white balance but that’s your lot. Picture quality is decent though, with sharp edging and generally accurate colours.
There’s also a front-mounted VGA camera which you can use for video calling, though you can’t use it for calls via your network – you’ll need to download a VoIP app such as Fring from the Android Market.
Apps and browser
The Android browser now supports Flash video and improvements to the latest version of the OS mean that it should run faster than previous incarnations. Certainly it’s smooth, particularly if you have a broadband connection over Wi-Fi, and text automatically wraps to fit the screen on many pages, which means less scrolling.
Media and connectivity
Optimised for gaming or not, the Play also makes a good fist of rendering video too. It may not have the Arc’s Bravia processing engine, but films still look sharp and play smoothly, though the native player is limited to the MPEG4 format.
The music player is Sony Ericsson’s own and includes the ‘infinity’ button, which searches online for additional Youtube content related to whichever track you’re playing.
There’s no FM radio but the supplied headphones are fairly good quality, with no shortage of bass, all the better to appreciate those gaming bangs and whizzes.
It comes with an 8GB microSD card to store your pics, vids, games and tunes, though it can handle up to a maximum of 32GB if you feel the need.
Performance and battery life
This is no dual-core handset, but the 1GHz processor performs well, and there was very little sign of lag whether switching between apps, browsing the net, watching movies or playing games.
Battery life proved to be decent if not spectacular, delivering a little under a day of admittedly heavy use with some extended gameplay.
- Slide-out PlayStation control deck
- 4.2in multitouch screen
- Good all-round spec
- Games aren't organised or optimised as well as they should be
Verdict: The Xperia Play is a good smart phone, no question, but it’s the little things that count. The controls and gameplay all work well, but it’s a shame so many of the games aren’t fully optimised for the platform with some of the controls not utilised, and there’s no single method of paying for new games. This is likely to improve in time, but it really should have been sorted from the start.
More info: Sony Ericsson Xperia Play spec
Price: From free on contract; £500 SIM-free