June 7, 2011 | by Andrew Kameka
The beauty of Android smartphones, aside from offering an unmatched level of choice, is that they can replace the primary function of other devices. An Android smartphone is as much MP3 player and alarm clock as it is a mobile phone.
With the Sony Ericsson Xperia Play, Android attempts to graduate from being a mobile gaming device and become the mobile gaming device. The Xperia Play is a dedicated shooting, racing, and block-building machine designed to be good enough to make you never reach for that Nintendo DSi or Sony PSP again. While Sony just announced the more powerful Vita as its flagship portable gaming solution, the Xperia Play is for people who want more fun but prefer not to carry a second device. Is this the Gaming God to deliver those people from boredom or just another clunky cell phone?
The Xperia Play is pitched as a gaming device that happens to be built into a phone. Don’t run back to those dreaded memories of the Nokia N-Gage. The Play actually works respectably on both fronts and doesn’t feel as awkward as the last mobile device that failed to marry the worlds of phones and play.
There is a noticeable un-phone like feel to the Xperia Play physique, however. While Android phone makers are trending towards sleek curves and thin, pocket-friendly slabs, the Xperia Play is a bit chunkier. That’s because the 4-inch screen with 854 x 480 resolution slides-up to reveal a controller that enables more options than touchscreens. It has a directional pad, dual analog control pads, and the classic buttons familiar to anyone who has spent hours in front of a PlayStation One: square, circle, X, and square to go along with the rear L and R buttons. The phone feels great when in gaming mode, but as a phone, touching the Xperia Play is not as enticing. The heft and unique design that makes it ideal for gaming also makes it awkward as a phone.
With its unique layout and a second-gen 1 GHz Qualcomm processor, the Xperia Play provides PlayStation One-quality graphics and ports of classics like Crash Bandicoot. The processor is single-core, but the Xperia Play has dual-channel architecture. Without getting into a long-winded explanation, suffice it to say that it’s a more efficient way of managing memory and data management. That enables a smoother experience capable of handling the demands of high-level gaming. Battery life was very good when in standby mode, but a long session of gaming will obviously consume a great deal of energy. There may be some extended-life batteries sold by third-party companies, but it would probably be best to avoid adding even more bulk to an already thick device. Heavy users may want to invest in a back-up 1500 mAh battery that comes standard with the Xperia Play.
And those games are awesome. The number of games optimized to work with the Xperia Play’s unique controls is relatively small, but it’s rapidly growing and already strong out of the gate. Sony Ericsson has aggressively courted indie developers and the industry-leading Gameloft, so there’s no shortage of stellar choices. (Sony also has a special portal that lists Xperia-optimized games in the VCast Apps store).
Sony gifts Xperia Play buyers with a few stand-out titles by pre-loading Asphalt 6, Bruce Lee Dragon Warrior, Crash Bandicoot, Madden NFL ’11, Star Battalion, Tetris, and Sims 3. Crash Bandicoot adds a jolt of PlayStation fun as the first PS-certified game, with many more to follow; however, Bruce Lee is the true shining example of why someone would want a Play. The precision controls necessary for a fighting game of this caliber hasn’t been seen on Android unless you count emulators. In fact, this review would have been posted last week were it not for the extra “research” that I insisted on having as I fought my way to Jeet Kune Do supremacy.
It’s not all fun and games when it comes to the Xperia Play. This is a phone after all, and Sony Ericsson has done some surprising things with its first Android phone on Verizon. The Timescape user interface in the European version has been chucked out of the window in favor of a stock version of Android 2.3 (Gingerbread). While we normally welcome companies releasing unmolested Android phones, there are certain elements of Sony’s proprietary software that would have been better. The media player is better than the stock Music app and Sony Ericsson’s camera app would have been a welcome upgrade over the default app that ships with the Xperia Play. Then again, you probably would have ditched either in favor of DoubleTwist and Google Music or Camera 360. No biggie.
It’s a small trade that seems well-worth the price. The intrusive Android customizations that HTC, Motorola, Samsung, and Sony Ericsson make can often lead to phones locking up or failing to keep pace. The Xperia Play did not suffer from any of those problems that typically plague Android releases. The stock launcher is incredibly boring, but you should be running ADW, Go Launcher, or LauncherPro anyway.
A few early glitches caused problems when I first began testing, but a factory reset lead to a better experience for browsing the web, using apps, and making phone calls. The only remaining annoyance I’ve found is that some games must be exited when the user finishes playing. While Android typically manages memory and kills apps on its own, the Play sometimes had trouble unlocking when games were left open, and an annoying pop-up in the Notification tab reminds users that a game is still active in the background.
Overall, the Xperia Play provides the low-frills that someone expects from Vanilla Android. It’s not as pretty as the skins but it’s not as bogged down, either. There’s pre-loaded bloatware taking up some of the 512 MB ROM, but at least most of it serves a legitimate purpose. Other pre-loaded software and features include: DLNA video streaming, mobile Hotspot data connection, My Verizon Mobile for account management, OfficeSuite, Skype, VZ Navigator, and the VCast Apps store.
While the Xperia Play is very capable of replacing your portable gaming option, the 5 megapixel camera is barely good enough to replace your previous camera phone. Despite settings to change exposure or shooting mode, the Play takes indoor photos that are either mediocre or unusable. The LED flash provides no noticeable benefit either because images are noisy and dark when taken inside, but nice when taken outdoors in natural light. The same holds true with the VGA front-facing camera.
As for video quality, that’s not much better. The Xperia Play doesn’t shoot high-quality HD video and images seem to always be cloudy or out of focus. Considering the parade of 720p-filming phones pass through Androinica HQ in recent weeks, it’s rather disappointing to see the Xperia Play fall well-short of the competition. This is rather unfortunate considering that cameras on other Sony Ericsson phones are much better. Below are some of the few good samples I could get from the Xperia Play.
The Bottom Line
There’s no such thing as a perfect phone, so anyone interested in the Verizon Xperia Play must decide what’s most important to them. Do you need a good camera? Do you worry about signing a two-year contract for a device that lacks 4G LTE? If you answer “Yes” to either question, the Xperia Play is probably not for you. The camera is mediocre, the physical design is clunky when not in gaming mode, and there’s no support for Verizon’s LTE network.
There’s still one question to ask when purchasing the Xperia Play that may make the outlook brighter. Are you a hardcore gamer? The Xperia Play is one of the leading choices for Android gamers because of its unique hardware and growing list of optimized games. However, optimized is not the same as exclusive. Someone could rely on the powers of the HTC EVO 3D, T-Mobile G2X, or Motorola Atrix and still have more gaming options than they will ever be able to enjoy. It all boils down to whether Android users place such a premium on gaming that they are willing to overlook better phones that can be good enough for entertainment.
The Xperia Play is a great gaming device and a good phone. There are better options out there if you don’t plan on spending large chunks of your day playing Dungeon Defender; however, if you are a button-masher who cares most about how well a phone handles games, you may want to play with Sony Ericsson’s new toy.