Monday, August 8, 2011

Sony Ericsson Xperia Play Review

Gaming on the go has been around just about as long as the cell phone itself. Naturally, people wanting to reduce the number of devices they carry around would most likely want their gaming device and phone in the same package. Recently, smartphones, especially slate/candybar smartphones with their massive screens, have been able to become pseudo-gaming devices. Unfortunately, hardcore gamers are usually turned off by the use of a touchscreen or a QWERTY keyboard for gaming and find the selection of mobile games rather underwhelming. A few years back, Nokia saw an opportunity to cater to the hardcore gamer demographic by creating the Nokia N-Gage; a gamepad wielding phone. Unfortunately, while the idea was a great one, the phone was a flop. Fast forward to 2011 and Sony Ericsson put out their crack at the gamer market with the Sony Ericsson Xperia Play.

Overall Construction
Being the spiritual successor to the N-Gage, it's only natural that the overall design be centered around gaming rather than form. From the first leak on Engadget showing mock up picture to the prototypes being handled, it was clear that the "Playstation" phone's design wasn't going to turn head... until you opened the slide out controller.

The phone itself isn't going to win any awards on looks alone and personally I'm okay with that as that wasn't the goal of this handset. That being said thinness has become a staple benchmark for the latest smartphones and unfortunately this phone certainly isn't thin. To give one an idea of the size of the device, the body and controller portion of the smartphone alone is roughly 8.7mm thick. That means take away the sliding portion of the device and you would have half a phone the is as thick as the Xperia Arc. Now of course, it is a bit unfair to compare the Play to the Arc, one of the thinnest phones in the market, but it was only natural given that they are both made by Sony Ericsson and available at Rogers.

Being such a thick device the phone also has a lot of mass to it and to be quite frank it's not a bad thing for the given device. Gamers who have used Sony PSPs or Nintendo DS are used to heft in their handheld devices and will probably forgive the Xperia Play for its heft. At 175g this phone will be a bit of a burden for some but considering this could potential replace a portable gaming device and a phone and the fact that the first Sony PSP as well as every Nintendo DS tipped the scales at over 200g, the weight (relatively speaking) is not so bad.

While the phone is unmistakably heavy, it isn't because of high end materials like metal. Most of the phone is made out of a glossy black plastic. After a few hours of gaming it literally was a mess from the oil of our grubby hands. It would have been nice to see it have a matte finish or a textured back rather than glossy to provide a better grip on the phone but mostly to avoid fingerprints.

The reason why it isn't so bad that the Play be so heavy is that it really gives the phone great ergonomics then the gamepad is exposed. The unit fits very nicely in the hand and does not strain the fingers in any way allowing users to reach most buttons fairly easily. The only one that was a bit troublesome is the volume rocker which is a bit difficult to change mid game.

While on the subject of the ergonomics, it's definitely worth mentioning that while we are disappointed in the choice of materials, Sony Ericsson did not skimp one bit on the slider mechanism. It is as solid as we've felt on any other slider phone. We certainly expect many other parts of the phone to fall apart before the slider does. The last thing worth going over is the placement of the 3.5mm headphone jack which is perfectly placed at the bottom of the game controls so that it stay out of your way during gaming session.

Sony Ericsson Xperia Play

The screen on the Xperia Play is a 4 inch LCD screen with a resolution of 480x854pixels, the usual set of specs for Android phones. But what is a quite disappointing is that the screen is really dim. Even cranked up to maximum brightness it was hard to use it outside. On the subject of brightness like the Arc the Play lacks an auto-brightness option, which is quite odd.

Side by side with the Arc (on the homescreen so the Bravia Engine on the Arc wasn't a factor) it was night and day. The Arc was far superior in brightness, contrast and color. That being said the screen on the Play isn't a complete disaster and it might have been a bit unfair to compared it to the Arc. Ideally in a perfect world the Play would have the same display as the Arc, Bravia Engine and all. But unfortunately that isn't the case.

Like with the Arc it seems like Sony Ericsson has learned a valuable and made sure the Play had a natively multitouch capable digitizer. From our tests the touchscreen was very responsive and multi fingered gestures worked flawlessly.

For many, the most important part of the review will fall under this section since it is what sets the Xperia Play apart from the crowd.

As far as the Android buttons are concerned; Back, Home, Menu and Search (which is omitted on most Sony Ericsson devices) are an okay size but are a bit wobbly. The same can also be said about the power button which is a bit oddly placed and even more odd is where the charging notification light is found.

Underneath the sliding section of the phone you will find the classic Playstation stylized D-Pad, 2 touch sensitive analog sticks, an additional menu button, a start and select button as well as the iconic Ex, Square, Triangle, Square Playstation buttons. The D-Pad and Action Buttons felt very good and for games optimized to used the controls it was extremely refreshing to have the level of control only dedicated gaming controls could offer.

The analog sticks take a bit getting used to and are not as prevalently used in games as the D-Pad which is understandable as the analog sticks require game developers to use the more complex NDK rather than the Android SDK to program the controls. They certainly will not match the fine tuning of the Dualshock analog stick but given the form factor they are a very good substitute.

There are also L and R shoulder buttons found on the right side. They are perfectly functional but unfortunately feel a bit flimsy. They aren't buttons per say and feel more like "flaps" but again they worked perfectly in games and did not cause any problems.

Lastly, nested in between the shoulder buttons is the volume rockers. The increase and decrease side of the rocker felt great and needed the right amount of pressure to trigger but is placed a little oddly when needing on the fly volume changing. It would have probably been a better idea to have the rocker (or even a volume scroll wheel instead) at the bottom of the device next to the 3.5mm headphone jack.

Battery Life
Like the Arc, the Play has a 1500mAh battery. Like its launch brother, it will get you through a day's usage without worry. But when doing some heavy gaming the battery life is, as expected, much shorter. Fortunately, Sony Ericsson's claim of five continuous hours is certainly not as farfetched as most other manufacturer's battery claims. Depending on the games, we got a solid three and a half to four hours of solid Playstation action.

Internal Hardware
When the Play was first leaked as the mythical Playstation Phone, many were hoping that it would be a spec behemoth (like the Playstation 3 in its debut), unfortunately that isn't the case and the Play only sports mid-range specs by today's standards.

- 1 GHz Qualcomm 2nd Generation Snapdragon Processor
- 512MB of RAM
- 1GB of Internal storage (400MB for apps) expandable with microSD card by up to 32GB
- Adreno 205 Graphic processor
- 14.4Mbps HSPA+ capable chipset
- WiFi b/g/n
- 5 MP camera with auto-focus and 480p video capabilities

Being the inaugural (and still only) Playstation certified device, the Play had to deliver in the gaming performance department. Boy does it ever, blowing away similarly equipped smartphones (even the Arc) in synthetic gaming benchmarks and really delivering solid gaming performance.

Since it beats out phones with the same hardware setup it's clear that Sony Ericsson has done a great deal of software optimizations to get this much 3D rendering performance out of this middle of the road chipset.

Whether it comes to your run of the mill handheld games like Angry Birds to the most graphically demanding game like Dungeon Defenders or Asphalt 6 there was nothing that could really dent the performance of the Xperia Play which was really nice to see.

For your regular multimedia needs such as video and music, the Play performed as expected of a phone with similar specs. So when watching the casual YouTube video or listening to your favorite album there should be no problem.

As far as network speeds are concerned, the Play is capable of HSPA+ 14.4mpbs speeds we were obtaining speeds hovering around 4mbps which is pretty good for a phone that isn't touted as a 4G phone.

Speaker and microphone
The earpiece for calls was status quo and the microphone has the nice addition of the secondary microphone for noise cancellation during call but that's where the ordinary ends. Unlike most Android smartphones available on the market the Xperia Play is equipped with stereo speakers for a more immersive gaming experience. Unlike the mono speaker setup found on competing manufacturer's phones the Xperia Play delivered the best sound experience we've heard on a smartphone.

Being the launch partner of the Arc on Rogers, it's only fitting that it be pitted against it when comparing the cameras and really there is almost no contest. The Arc outclasses the Play in every way, from the picture quality to the video quality (which maxes out at a paltry 480p) to the camera/video software.

It's understood that the Play wasn't supposed to be a powerhouse multimedia device so we can forgive the 5MP sensor instead of the 8.1MP Exmor R found on the Arc. But for Sony Ericsson to omit adding the custom camera software or the drivers for 720p recording which we are sure the Play's sensor is capable of achieving, we can't help but be disappointed.

One moral victory that the Play can claim is in its front facing camera which is notably absent on the Arc. Of course the front facing camera isn't good for anything other than video chat and vanity pictures but it's still great that it included.

Sample Pictures


Sony Ericsson's Custom UI - Xperia Play Application
Since the Play's custom UI is just about identical to the Arc's which was already explored we will simply leave a link to the Arc review for a more in depth overview of the UI elements so that the unique addition of the Play can be highlighted.

The Xperia Play when slid opened automatically takes you to the Xperia Play application. Unlike the Playstation pocket application which features PS1 games, the Xperia Play app is a showcase of some sorts for games on the Android Market that are optimized for the Xperia Play's hardware controls. The more games section will also lead to even more Xperia Play optimized games on the Android Market.

Playstation pocket - Playstation Suite
It seems like the Playstation pocket hub will be where you will find all the PS1 ported games. As of the writing of this review, the offerings were pretty sparse. Included with all Xperia Plays is a copy of the classic Crash Bandicoot with other games available like Siphon Filter through the Android Market.

Being the first (of many hopefully) Playstation certified devices it is understandable that there is a hesitance on from both developers and consumers to take the plunge leaving the potential for a vicious cycle of non-commitment.

Sony did however promise that the entire library of PS1 would be available via the Playstation Suite, whether or not this is true or even applies to the Play is still unknown but is certainly something we wish Sony had done at launch.


This is the mythical Playstation phone, whether the Sony Ericsson marketing team want you to believe it or not. Unfortunately it didn't enter with the bang that most people expected. Like the handheld gaming consoles it is inspired from, launch titles are an integral part of a successful launch (as we've seen with the Nintendo 3DS) and the Xperia Play is lacking specifically in titles.

While the execution of the hardware isn't perfect it is more than a suitable launch platform for a device of this kind. Sadly enough it seems like Sony isn't as invested in this device as its mobile division Sony Ericsson. Knowing the amount of influence Sony has in the gaming industry it's hard to believe they couldn't convince or entice more developers to port their PS1 titles or even create more original content for the Play.

With that being said, the announcement of Playstation Suite did bring the promise of more PS1 games but will probably need more Playstation Certified devices to pick up steam and as the Playstation Suite picks up steam so will the Play. For those ready to gamble on more games coming later the Play is certainly a phone that will satisfy a lot your gaming needs but if you are on the fence about the Play I personally would recommend waiting for the game library to expand a bit and possibly will coincide with the next iteration of the Play should Sony Ericsson decide to make a second version. Personally, I do hope Sony Ericsson does not abandon the idea of the "Playstation Phone" as the Xperia Play is a good first try.

Final Verdict
Overall Appearance: 7 /10
- Bulky, thick and too plasticky but has fantastic ergonomics for gaming and normal use.

Screen: 6.5/10
- Really dim screen, wish it had the Arc's screen.

Buttons: 9/10
- Slightly small and wobbly Android buttons, awkward pressure for power button and volume rocker hard to reach. FANTASTIC game controls although shoulder L and R buttons feel a bit flimsy.

Internal Hardware: 8/10
- Like the Arc, it isn't top of the line hardware, and is easily overshadowed by the Dual Core craze. Provides solid overall performance and has GREAT gaming performance.

Speaker and Microphone: 10/10
- Status quo on earpiece but BIG win on loud and clear stereo speakers, nice inclusion of noise cancellation mic.

Camera: 6.5/10
- Really lackluster performance in both stills and especially video (480p only no HD).

UI Changes: 8/10
- Great job launching with the latest version Android 2.3 and UI modification less obtrusive

Addition Enhancements: 6.5/10
- Playstation Suite/Store/Pocket still in infancy, could have used more launch titles. Hopefully will get promised PS1 titles by end of 2011

Included Apps/Bloatware: 6.5/10
- Several Rogers apps pre-loaded and cannot be uninstalled

Final Score: 7.5/10

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