Decent hardware, but in current format doesn't cut it for gaming
After a while in the mobile wilderness, Sony Ericsson is back with a splash with its new line-up of use-focused Xperia handsets. The Arc is its flashy line leader, impossibly thin and sporting a gorgeous Bravia-powered screen, the Pro its business-focused model and the Xperia Neo (read our review here) a good-quality mid-range option.
But all the hype has been about the Play, the long-mooted 'PlayStation Phone' that comes promising "real" console gaming on a mobile for the first time. Make no mistake, in the wake of the iPhone's App Store success, this is the selling point that Sony Ericsson is focusing on, and for good reason, as the Play is no more than competent in most other areas.
Sony Ericsson Xperia Play: Specifications
It has a perfectly decent 4-inch capacitive multi-touch LCD touch screen with a 480x854 pixel resolution and 16.7 million colours, and a 5.1-megapixel camera-cum-video recorder with autofocus, flash, image stabilizer and geotagging, which knocks the socks off the iPhone but doesn't set the world on fire outside Apple's camera void. It comes fully Gingerbreaded up with Android 2.3.2, which is swift and intuitive, with the usual media player offerings, customisable interface and a very nice cover flow-style integrated Twitter feed. Connectivity-wise it has the expected HSDPA-backed Wi-Fi for internet access, 3G and Bluetooth functionality, as well as A-GPS. There is 400MB of internal memory, but an 8GB microSD card is included and this can be expanded up to 32GB.
So far, so standard. But let's face it, with the frankly gorgeous and similarly priced Xperia Arc rocking a much more impressive rig, not even Sony Ericsson is expecting this to sell on these stats. This is meant to be the first Android handset to kick Apple in the joypads. So what of the all-important gaming inclusion?
Sony Ericsson Xperia Play: Controls
Well, the PlayStation controls hidden within make the handset a little on the chunky side (119 x 62 x 16mm), but less intrusive than we'd imagined. When closed, it's reassuringly solid and expensive looking, unlike the slightly plasticky Neo. At 175 grams it's by no means light, but not as pocket-denting as you might think, so its passes first impressions with flying colours. Get one out on the Tube and people will be impressed, if that's your thing.
The familiar PlayStation controls of a D-pad, four face buttons, two shoulder buttons, select and start, and the not so familiar flat analogue thumb areas, slide down on two runners, but once freed of their casing the build begins to feel a little flimsy. The Play clearly has its design foundations in the reworked PSP Go, although it's noticeable that beyond the iconic square/triangle/circle/cross buttons there's no PlayStation branding anywhere on the handset, and the slide mechanism doesn't feel like it will stand up to much punishment. It's had to be made impossibly thin so that the overall handset isn't too bulky, but the result is it appears eminently breakable under intense gaming.
When playing with the controls slid down, the handset also feels very top-heavy and not particularly comfortable to hold. We didn’t get much gaming joy from the slightly bizarre analogue thumb pads, but we can confirm they do kind of work. The shoulder pads are hidden behind the screen and not at all ergonomically designed, while the D-pad feel plasticky and not firm like we've come to expect on dedicated gaming systems, distancing you slightly from the experience. It's functional but not much more. Importantly, it doesn't really feel like you're playing a PlayStation. Or a PSP, for that matter.
Sony Ericsson Xperia Play: Games
Then there are the games. As advertised, there are more than 60 titles available for the Xperia Play at launch. But only six of these are actually purpose-built, PlayStation-certified ones, which you access through the PlayStation Pocket hub, with the rest standard Android games reconfigured to the Play's controls. But unfortunately this lack of conformity – some would say the defining issue between Apple and Android – means the standard and speed of experience varies wildly, and the button reconfiguration even more so. At present, the term 'PlayStation Phone' seems very much a misnomer.
Qualcomm's 1Ghz Snapdragon CPU and Adreno GPU processor promises smooth 60 frames per second, although this doesn't seem to be being utilised at the moment and it’s a shame it’s not dualcore. While FIFA (10, not 11, unfortunately) is palpably faster than the iPhone version, the graphics are poor and controls so unresponsive, we found it more effective to use the touch-screen's virtual stick instead - although the screen slides around a lot on the control-board's runners, so screen-based gaming is far from ideal. The quoted gaming battery life of five and a half hours also seems slightly optimistic.
Next up, the intergalactic shooter Star Battalion takes a mammoth two and a half minutes to get from app press to actual gaming. After much bashing of all the buttons trying to skip the stuttering loading screens, we found that a simple tap of the touch screen at least skipped the relentless intros, despite this not being flagged up anywhere and you being in PlayStation control mode at the time. Confusing.
The one pre-installed PlayStation-certified game, colourful 3D platformer Crash Bandicoot, is fun but the graphics disappointingly don't fill the widescreen display, with big ugly black borders either side, and while it's initially fun, it hasn't aged well over the 15 years since release. This could be a big problem, as while this is undoubtedly a PlayStation experience, it's a really, really old one. The upcoming NGP will boast PS3-quality games, while the PSP already does a good impression of PS2 titles – a focus on PS1 titles, as Sony’s PlayStation Suite intends to do, feels very regressive, especially when both Apple and Android are doing such a good job of bringing new and dedicated games to market.
Funnily enough, there's a video output that lets you play your games on a big screen if you so wish, effectively turning it into a portable PlayStation One, but you can pick the original PS1 and a bundle of games up off eBay for less than a tenner, so this seems of little consequence. It also puts the £5-£7 retail price for Play games into perspective.
The Play retails at £460 off-contract but if you shop around online, you can get the handset for free on a £25 a month contract from several providers if you're prepared to put faith in the slide mechanism lasting 24 months, though some companies, including O2, Vodafone and 3, have delayed its release for a variety of reasons, from stock delivery issues to software bugs. T3 was sent and reviewed a final boxed version of the Play, but in the light of three of the biggest operators postponing release, possible future updates may change user experience.
Sony Ericsson Xperia Play: Verdict
Despite it being rumoured for nigh-on half a decade, the 'PlayStation Phone' actually feels like it's been rush-released, and as such its compromises mean it falls between two stools. There are better and cheaper handsets for everything other than gaming, and at present there just aren't enough dedicated, optimised games worthy of people's attention for it to survive as a handheld that happens to make calls. If you’re someone who just wants to play Android games with a proper control pad, this is the best there is, but bear in mind the current crop of games weren’t designed with this configuration in mind and play as such. We'd like to reassess the Xperia Play once the PlayStation Suite service is properly up and running, and there are a range of purpose-made games to test, but right now we'd struggle to recommend it for either of the fronts it’s fighting on, although we’re sure this won’t prevent it from finding an audience.
Sony Ericsson Xperia Play launch date: Out now, link Sony Ericsson
Sony Ericsson Xperia Play price: £460-£599 online
Sony Ericsson Xperia Play Specifications
- OS: Android 2.3
- Storage: 400MB int, 8GB or 16GB card supplied Micro SD
- Screen: 4-inch 854x480
- Connectivity: WiFi 802.11 b/g/n Bluetooth 2.1, microUSB, A-GPS
- Camera: 5MP main, VGA front
- Video: 720p 30fps
- 385 minutes
- Dimensions: 119 x 62 x 16 mm
- Weight: 175g