Name: Sony Ericsson Xperia PLAY
Price: $200 w/two-year contract
The Back Story: Since late last year, there’s been tremendous buzz around the so-called PlayStation Phone. Sony fanboys were soon disappointed to hear that the alleged gaming device was nothing more than an urban legend. But grief turned into excitement once again after hearing the announcement of a Gingerbread-ready smartphone capable of playing PS One games and sporting a DualShock-like gamepad. Of course, we’re talking about the Sony Ericsson Xperia Play.
With touchscreen and gyroscopic functionality becoming such a huge staple in mobile gaming, Sony embraces those same smartphone principals, while mixing in a new physical gaming control complete with D-Pad and analog controls, giving mobilephiles the best of both gaming worlds with its Verizon-exclusive Android phone. So does Sony's latest set the mold for future cellular gaming handsets? Can it best the current mobile phone gaming king, the iPhone? Better yet, does the Xperia Play pack enough firepower to compete with gaming goliaths like the Nintendo 3DS or PSPgo? Here's our take.
• Awesome gamepad controls: Sony’s slide-out controller rocks the trademark PlayStation D-pad and action buttons, which are both accurately responsive and well-built. Out goes the physical analog sticks and in comes two touch-sensitive circular controls that look awkward, but work great on particular games—like Star Batallion—keeping the DualShock veneer well intact. Aluminum shoulder buttons can be found on the right side of the device. And as a bonus, users can use the gamepad instead of the touchscreen to execute non-gaming commands and browse menus.
• Verizon welcomes Gingerbread: The carrier’s first phone to ship with Android 2.3 brings an improved virtual keyboard, better download management, Internet calling, and copy and paste functionality. Most importantly, Google’s latest mobile software offers API support for third-party developers to create gamepad-based titles. Sony also stripped all Timescape skins in exchange for more interactive wallpapers, while Verizon sneaks in essential V Cast apps like Backup Assistant and My Verizon Mobile.
• Gaming benchmarks: Six titles come preloaded on the device (Asphalt 6, Bruce Lee, Crash Bandicoot, Madden ’11, Star Battalion, and The Sims 3) with over 20 downloadable games available on the Xperia Play app at the moment. It’s a noticeable stretch from the 50 that Sony promised for launch, but that’s where the Android Market comes in to pick up the slack. We're also expecting a dope PS One catalog in the near future. The device also supports wi-fi gaming for multiplayer action. Another dope feature: games go into pause mode when receiving incoming calls. Nice.
• Good call and speaker quality: With its heavy gaming focus, we didn't forget the Xperia Play was an actual phone. And a good one at that, with great call quality and minor background interference. The device also comes equipped with stereo speakers that blast loud sound when in speakerphone mode and enliven the mobile experience with communication- and entertainment-centric programs like Skype and the music player.
• Solid build: Design wise, it sports the same high-end exterior of the Xperia X10 series, while incorporating a smooth slide-out mechanism, glossy onyx shell, and stylish chrome finish. It might not bear the elegant stylings of the HTC Thunderbolt, but for a portable game-heavy phone, we find it much more attractive than the N-Gage, 3DS, and PSP-3000 models.
• No cutting-edge specs: For a phone advertised as the next best thing in mobile gaming, we were stumped to see Sony cram a 1GHz processor under the hood instead of NVIDIA’s Tegra dual-core processor. That could be the reason behind the frame-rate issues found on certain Xperia titles (Madden ’11 and Gun Bros). Other primary absentees are an HDMI port, DLNA support, and Verizon’s lightening-fast LTE service.
• Dark screen and finicky touch controls: The lack of contrast and brightness make viewing videos and playing games difficult on the 4-inch FWVGA display. Even after setting the brightness to its highest level, output was still dim. We also noticed the touchscreen controls on a few Android titles weren't as responsive as other phones. Puzzlers like Shot Bubble Deluxe struggled to recognize onscreen demands and racers like Asphalt 6 fared much better with the slide-out control pad.
• No PlayStation integration: Looks like the “World’s First PlayStation Certified Smartphone” isn't offering access to the PlayStation Network. Though considering Sony's latest calamities with the online network, that might serve as a positive. But with no real PS emulators found in the open-source Android Market, expect to drop a few greenbacks re-downloading your favorite titles.
• Weak dual cameras: Besides having no zoom functionality or physical camera button, the rear 5MP camera snaps hazy shots and the front-facing 0.3MP camera doesn't provide much visibility during video chats.
Final Say: The Xperia Play is a leap in the right direction for mobile gaming, and works well as an actual smartphone and media player. But do we consider it a replacement for the 3DS or PSPgo? Or even the reigning mobile gaming champ, the iPhone? Not quite. We’d say it's more of an alternative for wireless subscribers that don't already own a PSP or Gameboy and really want a more authentic gaming experience on their phones. Its dope slide-out gamepad, increasing exclusive game lineup, and niche features like in-game pausing during phone calls, are impressive, but we expected stronger specs from a phone hinged on its multimedia capabilities. Gingerbread integration indeed plays a vital role in determining the device's future shelf life, but for now, the phone offers enough goods to satisfy the gaming and communication needs of Android conformists. Though, for $200, unless you're really interested in gaming with an actual, physical controller, and playing Sony's exclusive gaming titles, you can find better, more powerful Android phones for the same price or less. It's a great start for Sony, but there's a lot to be perfected.