The story of smartphones has always been one of convergence. First generation devices merged mobile phones and PDAs, and smartphones’ roles steadily expanded in the years that followed as they also become our MP3 players, digital cameras, GPS devices, web browsers, social networking tools and even mobile Wi-Fi routers.
And while gaming software has been part of the smartphone equation from the jump, built-in gaming hardware has always been on the to-do list. Smartphones with gaming controls have been talked about for years, but we’ve seen little in the way of actual implementation.
The new Android-powered Sony Ericsson Xperia Play – the so-called PSP phone – is perhaps the first true gaming smartphone. Merging a portable gaming device with a phone does come with trade-offs, though, and while tried-and-true gamers will find much to like about the Xperia Play, casual gamers will likely want to stick with traditional phones with a touchscreen gaming interface.
The Xperia Play is an attractive black and silver Android 2.3 smartphone with a 1GHz Snapdragon II processor, a 4-inch touchscreen display, a 5MP primary camera, and a front-facing camera for video chat. Onboard you’ll find the usual array of wireless technologies including 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 2.1, GPS and a 3G EV-DO radio.
The phone is a bit thick at 0.63-inches, but feels good in the hand. The exterior is slick plastic. At just over 6-ounces, the Play is also heaver than most smartphones, but by no means feels like a brick. It doesn’t look for feel like a Cadillac device, nor does it seem cheap.
The slide-out hardware component on the Xperia Play is the only novel aspect of the device. Rather than the familiar QWERTY keyboard, the sliding section is home to a PSP Go inspired game pad.
On the left is the four-way directional controller (D-Pad), on the right are the standard PlayStation controls (triangle, circle, X and square), and in the center are two round touch joystick controllers. On the rear of the sliding section (behind the screen) are left and right shoulder buttons. Sliding is smooth and solid, though my test unit’s screen did have a minor amount of wobble when the game pad was extended.
Although the Xperia Play is often called a PSP phone, games for the device are separate and apart from other PlayStation devices. You can’t play the tiny disc-based UMD games used by the the standard PSP, nor can you play games already downloaded for the PSP Go. Games for the phone are acquired through a special Verizon Wireless store on the phone itself, and are currently somewhat limited. At the time of this review there were just over 30 downloadable PlayStation titles, with several coming pre-loaded (Madden NFL 11, Bruce Lee Dragon Warrior, Sims 3, Asphalt 6: Adrenaline, Crash Bandicoot, and Star Battalion). Games range in price from $2 – $10.
Thanks to the familiar hardware controls, gaming on the Xperia Play is very natural; I had a little difficulty using the touch-based joysticks, but the buttons worked very well. Game performance is quite good, too, though the limited selection of games for the phone is a consideration. More games should be released for the phone throughout the year and, if successful, expect to see more many more games for the Play and future similar phones.
Of course, you can also play standard Android games on the phone via the touchscreen, though support for the game pad controls in these games is very limited.
The Xperia Play is one of the few Android phones available running the latest version of Android for smartphones, version 2.3 ‘Gingerbread’, and the OS runs quickly and smoothly. Aside from the Xperia Play game interface (which appears when you slide out the game controls), you’ll find the standard array of Android apps for email, calendar, contacts, maps, and media. The browser is WebKit 5 with Flash support.
There’s not much in the way of extra-OS software or bloatware other than Verizon’s selection of carrier apps. Unlike some Android phones, you can install third-party software, and so you can use Amazon’s Android Appstore as an alternative to the Android market.
Sony has fiddled with the OS very little, offering a fairly clean user experience.
Making voice calls on the Xperia Play is its only real weakness. Calls sound a bit hollow and scratchy at times, but it’s not terrible. Still, if you’re a more traditional smartphone user who actually makes telephone calls on a regular basis, grab another phone or wait for the Xperia Play 2 (should there be one). If you’re more into gaming and messaging, this isn’t a real problem.
The speakerphone feature worked reasonably well, but wasn’t great by any stretch. Signal reception was also a bit disappointing, lower than average in my area.
The 4-inch 854 x 480 touchscreen is really beautiful, and responsive, too. I would have preferred a bit more backlight at the highest setting, but it’s certainly well within usable levels. It doesn’t rival Apple’s Retina display in terms of viewing angles or pixel invisibility, but it’s one of the best non-Retina displays I’ve seen.
Battery life on the phone is satisfactory, as I easily made it through the day on a full charge. Gaming drains the battery faster than standard use, of course, and I was able to get 3 – 4 hours of gaming out of the Play before it sounded the battery alarm. Talk time is rated at over 7 hours, and the standby time is great, easily lasting several days.
Serious gamers will welcome the Xperia Play’s dedicated game controls and selection of PlayStation games (Assassin’s Creed and Spider-Man are pretty great, actually), but I can’t enthusiastically recommend the phone outside of this demographic. Of course, gamers are the target consumers here, so that’s just fine.
With phone performance being my only real gripe, the Play is a solid data and gaming device, but I can’t help feeling that this phone is more proof-of-concept than anything else. If Sony Ericsson follows up with a Play II, I think they’ll iron out some kinks and, hopefully, improve voice performance.
If you’d like to leave the PSP at home and have your Android phone be your handheld game device, the Xperia Play is your only option. I wish Sony had more games at the ready, but even with the current selection it’s an impressive first step into yet another generation of smartphone convergence.
The Xperia Play is available on the Verizon Wireless network with a direct price of $199 with a two-year service commitment, but you can get the phone free (or near free) from Amazon and WireFly with a new Verizon contract.
Matthew Nichols, Products Editor