The PlayStation phone is the device equivalent of El Dorado, in that it’s spent a long time as a golden fable to trot out when conversation slows. Now the fusion of gamepad and Android phone has emerged into the modern world in the form of the Sony Ericsson Xperia Play.
It’s a time when iPhones have permeated the globe, able to deliver tactile gaming on the go, and Nintendo’s 3DS is making waves by bringing portable 3D fun to the masses.
Even within the Sony stable, the Xperia Play has rivals to overcome. There’s the NGP, successor to the PSP, on the horizon, which will arrive boasting more processing power than Deep Blue (well, apparently a quad-core chip and graphics processor).
What’s more, it must establish itself over a selection of fast and competent Android handsets, such as Sony Ericsson’s Xperia Arc, which also have the chops for 3D gaming of the non-stereoscopic kind.
As a gaming-orientated mobile, the headline feature here is, of course, the slide-out controller section. This comes bearing a D-pad, the familiar PlayStation face buttons, a pair of touchpad ‘thumbsticks’, two shoulder buttons and some menu keys. There’s also an accelerometer on board, and the 4-inch 854 x480 multi-touch screen for getting all handsy with your software.
Powering this is a 1GHz Snapdragon processor with embedded Adreno 205 GPU graphics, 512MB of RAM and Android 2.3, or Gingerbread. While that’s competitive in terms of modern smartphones, we have to admit we were expecting more pixel-pushing oomph.
Rounding out the offering are a smattering of features, including Wi-Fi and 3G connectivity, 5MP camera, Bluetooth and a bundled 8GB microSD card.
Okay, now you know what’s on offer, let’s talk price. SIM-free, the Xperia Play will require a £480-520 extraction from your wallet, and to get the phone free on a contract will typically require paying £35-40 a month.
To put that in perspective, you could get the much-lauded Orange San Francisco and a 3DS for the same moolah as a SIM-free Xperia Play with change enough for a small library of games. For this kind of money, you’d be right to expect legendary performance.
The Xperia Play hardware itself isn’t unattractive, but it is bulky, coming in a finger-width shorter than a closed 3DS and a few millimetres less thick at 62 x 119 x 16.5mm.
It’s heavy as well and feels too plasticky in the hand, mainly thanks to the creaky, glossy backplate. Oh, and the whole device retains fingerprints better than a crime lab database.
Holding the phone upright as you would to make a call, along the left-hand side of the slide-out section is a 3.5mm headphone socket and the microUSB port. We’re not huge fans of how the jack is placed, given its location makes the provided headphones rub against the base of our thumb while playing games and gets in the way for movies.
On the top edge of the phone is another less than ideally placed button – the power/lock switch. Because it’s recessed, it requires a fair flex of the index finger to operate, which can be faffy at key moments.
The right-hand side has the shoulder buttons (more on them in a bit) and a volume rocker, which is in a great place for adjusting volume on the fly during calls, but awkwardly right behind the middle of the screen during gaming.
There’s a minimal selection of non-backlit buttons along the bottom of the screen too to handle navigating duties. These are: back, home, menu and search respectively. They’re pleasant enough to use, but we think you’ll find it hard to make them out in the dark.
One neat touch is that when you flip the phone over and take off the backplate, you can access the sim slots and microSD card without removing the battery.
Not quite the killer start we’d hoped for, but we’ve yet to venture onto the Xperia Play’s home turf: gaming.
The interface on the Xperia Play looks pretty similar to its cousin, the Xperia Arc. By default, there are five homescreens to populate as you wish, with a persistent dock-like bar along the bottom with space enough for four customizable icons and a static menu launcher.
The Contacts and Phone apps take up the right two slots, with the left two given over to the Media folder and Messaging. We fast swapped out the Media file for the Browser, given that one of the five homescreens is already filled with widgets for the Gallery and Music apps, but you can hone this bar as you wish.
Tapping the centre icon on the dock brings up a list of apps to add to your home screens and all you need do is press and hold one to drag it into a free slot. Handily, the background lines behind it will turn green when you’ve found a valid place, so organising is fast and intuitive.
One minor quibble we do have is that you’ll have to bypass this system and go via the external menu key to place widgets, folders and shortcuts, which seems a little inconsistent and caused us some early confusion.
By default, the centre screen is almost entirely given over to the Timescape widget, which acts like a Rotadex of postcards each presenting Facebook and Twitter updates as well as text messages. Much like the Friend Stream system we’ve seen on recent HTC models, each of these acts as a slick starting point for finding the content you want.
Other screens tend to be more open, but notably there’s one screen dedicated to gaming, with a half-screen widget for the PlayStation Pocket app and a link to the Android Market to buy more games.
All you need do to navigate between screens is swipe left and right, but there’s also an exploded view of all your widgets that you can access by pinching. Tap on a widget and you’ll be taken to its resident home screen.
We’re not huge fans of this system, since it neglects to show you apps as well, making it selectively useful, but if you’re a widget-fiend then it’s perfect.
Scrolling left and right between homescreens is generally quick and fluid, though. However, we’ve found it can be jerky just after waking the device from its slumber in the mornings. On the flip side, we were impressed by the speed of the scrolling Rotadex-type widgets (as well as the PS Pocket, there’s one for the Gallery too), making them eminently usable.
Taken as a whole, the system doesn’t quite gel together as we’d like, but its not hard to learn to work around its quirks.
This is what you came for, right? How does the Xperia Play hold up as a gaming device and can it compete in the same league as the portable big boys?
Well, controls are the lifeblood of any console, dictating how the software experience plays out (if you’ll excuse the pun), and the Xperia Play’s are a real mix.
The D-pad and familiar PlayStation face buttons (circle, square, triangle and cross) are excellent, delivering a definite click and a really pleasing action. They’re nicer on the fingers than the 3DS equivalents too and a refreshing change from onscreen controls.
The dual thumbpads are far less laudable, though. The degree to which they worked varied a fair bit depending on what we were playing but the core problem we had with them was always the same – they’re too picky and there’s not enough feedback.
Yes, there’s a little metal circle at the dead centre of each one to help you orientate yourself and they’re set in a dimple in the face of the device to let you know when you’ve strayed beyond their bounds, but even with those aids we found accurate control a struggle.
We’d often strike out at an angle slightly off what we really wanted, walk when we’d meant to run or overshoot the pads with half our thumb, causing plenty of confusion.
We have a few theories about why this is, but part of it is that the pads are quite small, meaning every little movement is a big deal. Also, they’re not good at understanding quick changes of pace. As we said, picky.
We’ve found dual-stick shooters on the iPhone far more forgiving, perhaps because you can see where your thumb is in relation to events. And the thumbpads can’t hold a candle to the circle pad on the 3DS.
Then there’s the shoulder buttons, which are a wee bit mushy for our tastes. Of even more import is that your digits are prone to rubbing on the back edges of the screen. This made us hold the Xperia Play awkwardly at first, but we did find a comfortable position after a while.
The start and select keys are good, as is the dedicated menu button. However, the latter seems a little superfluous, given it only replicates the function of other buttons on the device.
The slide mechanism is an unqualified success, though. It’s rock solid, moving the pad up or down with a satisfying snick. The screen stays put with no wobble or flex too.
The dual-personality nature of the Xperia Play is continued in its gaming software. There are two apps that serve as launching stages: the confusingly titled Xperia Play, which is effectively a housing point for Android Market games that work with the device, and the PlayStation Pocket, which handles the honeypot PS One ports we were actually excited to play.
Bizarrely, it’s the Xperia Play app that starts by default when you slide out the pad – the PlayStation Pocket is found in a homescreen widget and lurking in the menu. We’ve yet to find a way of switching them over and the inconsistent approach is cumbersome.
Our test handset came with five games preinstalled: Crash Bandicoot as the sole PS One offering, with FIFA 10, Bruce Lee, Star Battalion and The Sims 3 apps to finish the package. The latter barely benefits from being on the handheld at all, but some of the former will make good showcases for the hardware come launch day.
We’re conflicted about the Xperia Play as a gaming package. The controller section, while far from perfect, is a significant step up from playing on a touchscreen phone. But with so many niggles and the higher barrier to entry of the price, it’s hard to see who this will suit.
If gaming on the go is important to you, we reckon you should wait for the NGP or go grab a 3DS. Having tested the Xperia Play and Ninty’s console side-by-side, we can safely say the latter offers a better gaming experience, even if you never turn the 3D effect on.
With the Xperia Play, obviously the main media concern is the gaming side of things. However, that’s not to say that other multimedia options are left in the cold and the device proves more than capable when it comes to music and movies.
8GB of card-based storage plus the 400MB of internal memory provides plenty of room to get you started, and you can swap in a card up to 32GB in size if your media collection is sizable.
The Music player is minimalist, but none the worse for that. You can either control it via the handy homescreen widget, or access the app via the main menu. Upon entering, you’ll see the current track’s album artwork front and centre, with a large play/pause buttonand smaller track skipping keys to either side.
At the lower edge is an easy-to-access slider that allows you to scrub through your track, handily displaying a prominent time reference in the upper portion of the screen as long as your finger’s on the slider.
Below that sit three icons to access your music collection, get online information about your currently playing track and see a list of what currently playing.
It’s all exactly as we’d expect, pleasingly responsive and well thought out.
Press the Menu key and you’ll be able to access a set of equalizer presets (no custom option, unfortunately) as well as set the playing track as your ringtone. Neat.
Special mention must also go to the handset’s two built-in speakers, which give clear, enjoyable stereo sound without the tinniness that accompanies most mobiles. We weren’t big fans of the included earbuds, though, given that they seemed to contrive to communicate every cable movement and rustle directly into our cranial tissues. We’ll try the other rubber tips soon and see if that improves matters.
Movies also benefit from the great stereo sound, and we found the four-inches of screen real estate put to good use. Again, the player itself is simple yet efficient, with simple skip buttons, the obligatory play/pause key and a timeline appearing on a grey bar when you tap the screen.
There’s none of the jerkiness that can accompany fast panning, but some of the images are a little fuzzy when in full screen mode. We’ll be doing more testing on this soon, and will let you know more details as we have them.
Aside from the weight of the unit, it’s comfy enough to hold in the hand for a while too, so watching an episode or two on the train is entirely feasible if you’re all gamed out.
Finally for now, let’s touch on the Gallery. This is another slick-looking app that’s clearly been the focus of attention. Enter the main screen and you’ll see files for your pictures and movies laid out in pleasingly messy stacks.
Tap one stack of, say, pictures and you’ll see it expanded out into a wall of thumbnails. From here, you can select one to see all up close and personal, or use as the starting point for a slideshow. You can also access basic editing and sharing options by tapping the menu key.
One issue we did have is that the Xperia Play got confused when we took new photos with the camera, showing us the same folder of shots twice instead of the folder of images on our memory card and the new one. It had us worried for a moment until we quit out and returned, although we couldn’t replicate the problem again.
With Google’s might behind the Xperia Play’s OS, it’s surprising that we’ve found the web browsing as mediocre as we have.
On our test unit we had the option of connecting via Wi-Fi or 3G/HSDPA. Getting our Wi-Fi set up was simple, and handled neatly the Xperia Play’s set-up wizard. All we had to do was enter our password and we were away.
So far, so good, but once connected we found the stock browser hardly blistering in pace. Sites are accessed quickly enough, but scrolling around the full BBC homepage proved prone to stuttering. The pinch to zoom functionality was decidedly jerky too.
In a similar vein, text reflowing is merely okay, requiring a double tap to make the device get the job done once you’ve zoomed in.
Using the little plus and minus zoom keys on the screen worked far better for reading a news site in both regular a mobile formats, reflowing text as we zoomed. But these can be annoying too, and we had an issue where one key disappeared behind website content.
That said, Flash support has been promising, with our few test sites loading quickly and playing well.
The bookmarks system is praiseworthy as well, offering a little icon by your entered URL to log your favourite sites. Enter the pane accessed by the menu key and the top-left square of the screen is dedicated to a creating a bookmark of the current site, while all the other entries show the sites in your collection in handy thumbnails. You can opt for a list instead if you prefer.
Similar lists exist for your most viewed pages, a handy secondary jumping-on point, and recent history.
It’s by no means awful, but the jerky nature of what we experienced is a far cry from browsing on the iPhone 4 or other Android phones such as the LG Optimus 2X. It’s disappointing and really impacted how we felt about the browsing experience.
What we will say is that the Xperia Play is no knock-out punch set to revolutionise mobile gaming. It’s better than playing on a touchscreen, but you have to weigh that advantage against the cost and the competition. Regardless of whether you’re a Sony fanboy or Nintendo freak, we reckon you could do better for your cash. Plus, we’d caution waiting to see what happens when the NGP hits.