What's hot: Great gaming controller, sharp display, excellent speakers, atttractive and solid build.
What's not: No dual core CPU and no 4G LTE.
These days, multi-function consumer electronics products are the norm. Your printer is your fax and your scanner, while your smartphone is your web browser, shopping list and mobile gaming machine. Sony Ericsson, with heavy emphasis on the “Sony” part, has taken things even further and made the first Playstation Certified Android smartphone. The Xperia Play is a fine, though not remarkable phone in its own right; but the PSP controller grafted onto the chassis brings mobile gaming to a new level. Let’s face it; playing with virtual controllers on a touch screen just doesn’t cut it for serious 3D action and FPS games. Your finger wanders, and with no tactile feedback, your character has turned from ace commando to sitting duck in a heartbeat. That won’t happen with the Xperia Play, as long as the game is controller-aware.
The Xperia Play, available on Verizon Wireless in the US, has a remarkable facsimile of a Playstation controller that slides out for gaming fun. All the buttons are here except L2 and R2: it has circle, square, triangle, right and left shoulder buttons, select, start and both a traditional d-pad and dual optical d-pads. The optical d-pads work better than their on-screen equivalents thanks to a center raised dot and a raised outer border so you can keep your fingers on target. This is a phone with a 4” display, and that means this controller is smaller than the console controller, but we found it manageable enough (fellows with really large hands might not).
When pre-release reviews came out, Sony Ericsson and Verizon hadn’t gotten their downloadable titles out yet, and the reviews were based on 6 games only. Happily, on release day, 50 titles hit the V Cast Apps store, and the Xperia Play has kept us all too “busy” testing a bevy of tier one titles like Crash Bandicoot (currently the only PS franchise game), Modern Combat 2: Black Pegasus, Assassin’s Creed HD, Zenonia 2, Brothers in Arms 2: Global Front, Splinter Cell Conviction, Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock, Madden NFL 11, Star Battalion, Sims 3 and Avatar HD. While many of the V Cast Apps games are controller aware, some aren’t, nor are standard Android Market games (not that the Market is overwhelmed with top 3D gaming titles). Clearly, the controller-aware titles are the phone’s selling point, and Sony Ericsson has been hard at work partnering with game developers like Gameloft and EA to get titles out. Rather than using the Android Market, you’ll get Xperia Play titles from Verizon’s App store. You can redownload games you’ve purchased to your phone if need be, and it seems like you’ll be able to download them to other Verizon Android smartphones in the future, but if you switch carriers, say goodbye to your games. Of course, the Xperia Play isn’t offered by another US carrier, but if the platform is successful, who knows what might appear in another carrier’s lineup if SE comes up with new models. Weeks after release, we noted that the App store for game downloads was still a bit slow and quirky—we’d like to see that experience improved.
While the controller sets the Xperia Play apart from other game-worthy Android smartphones, including those powerful Nvidia Tegra 2 dual core phones, you need a good display and sound. The Xperia Play scores high marks with its extremely sharp 4” capacitive display. Contrast is very high and blacks are deep; though it’s not the brightest display we’ve seen, it’s excellent for gaming. The Xperia Play’s larger display gives it a leg up against the iPhone 4 and its large selection of high end games. The speakers are remarkable and put the iPhone 4 to shame: they’re full with clear and sharp highs and very good bass for small speakers and volume is very loud. Very.
If you’re interested in the Xperia Play, you’re a gamer. Why else would you consider a thick Android phone on Verizon that lacks 4G LTE or a dual core CPU—the two hot specs for smartphones these days. But it is a phone too, so let’s take a look at the Sony Ericsson as a handset. The phone has 3G EV-DO Rev. A for data, a second generation single core 1GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon CPU with Adreno 205 graphics, a 5 megapixel main camera that takes decent shots and video and a front VGA camera that’s good for grainy video chat. Like all Android smartphones these days, the phone has WiFi 802.11b/g/n (you’ll need it for those 200+ meg game downloads), Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR and a GPS.
The Sony Ericsson Xperia Play runs the latest phone OS version of Android: 2.3 Gingerbread (but not 2.3.4 that adds Gtalk video chat support). Sony Ericsson hasn’t heavily customized the UI as they have for some other Xperia models, and that keeps things moving along quickly. The Xperia Play has a 1GHz second gen Snapdragon CPU with Adreno 205 graphics. That’s a very capable chipset and the phone feels fast. The smartphone scores 1593 on the Quadrant benchmark, which puts it in the same league as other second gen single core phones. It’s absolutely able to handle demanding games (its prime directive, after all) and we didn’t pine for the dual core Tegra 2. That said, Nvidia has been aggressively getting Tegra 2 optimized titles out, and you obviously won’t be able to play those on the Xperia Play.
Call quality is excellent, Sony Ericsson has always done well with voice, and the speakerphone is excellent thanks to those impressive speakers. Reception is average on Verizon Wireless’ network and we had no problem with dropped calls. Download speeds averaged 760k and upload averaged 540k according to the Speedtest.net app, which is decent for an EV-DO Rev. A phone in our area. That falls far short of the speeds we get on Verizon’s LTE 4G network, and that’s something to keep in mind. LTE might not be everywhere now, but a year into your 2 year contract, you might feel left out.
The phone is thick, though attractive with a modern, curved design that’s unique. The controller slides out with a springy click and it feels very durable. When you open the slider, the phone automatically opens the games portal where you can scroll through a graphical list of installed games and shop for more. The Xperia Play is predominantly gloss black, yet it doesn’t get as mucky with fingerprints as other piano black phones. The volume controls are in the middle of the right side rather than being near the top which takes some getting used to; and they couldn’t be near the top because of the L1 and R1 shoulder buttons. The power button (up top) has an LED for notifications and the phone has 4 slim chrome mechanical buttons rather than capacitive buttons on the front. These are a good idea because when gaming (particularly when using the touch screen), it’s easy to accidentally press capacitive buttons.
Battery life is a tough call on a serious gaming phone. If you use the Xperia Play like a phone, it lasts the same amount of time on a charge as other 1GHz Android smartphones on Verizon with 3G. That means we had no problem making it through the day with 30 minutes of calls, a healthy smattering of web browsing, email and streaming music for an hour. If you use this phone for lots of gaming (that’s why you bought it, right?), then you’ll need to charge the 1500 mAh Lithium Ion battery during the day. There’s nothing wrong with the Xperia’s battery life; rather 3D games are demanding, and a good gaming experience means you’ll be playing longer than you realize.
The first Playstation Certified phone is off to a good start. The game selection is certainly the most impressive we've seen on Android, with several enticing titles, and the promise of more. We'd love to see more Sony franchise games on the Xperia Play, but Sony's not sharing details. The controller makes a world of difference for gaming, and the hardware is both sturdy and attractive. We don't mind the lack of a dual core CPU, though gamers tend to be specs-hounds and the abscense of dual core seems less than forward-thinking. We suspect that Nvidia's heavy involvement with Tegra 2 gaming might not have jived with Sony Ercisson's desire for secrecy and control over the platform. Still, it's odd to be excluded from Tegra 2 Zone games on this flagship gaming phone. As a phone, the Xperia Play delivers very good voice quality, solid though not industry-leading reception and 3G rather than 4G. We see that as more of a hurt because you'll be locked into 3G for 2 more years while other Verizon Wireless customers are touting their obscenely fast 4G connections.