The Sony Ericsson Xperia Play – casually known as the PlayStation Phone – may be one of the most anticipated mobile devices of the past few years; rumours of such a device had been circling the internet for months before its eventual unveiling at the early stages of this year. The concept is quite simple really: take what is arguably the most successful gaming platform of all time and merge it with your everyday smartphone to give people a great gaming experience on the go. After all, if any company knows what it takes to make a successful games console it’s Sony, right?
With physical, slide-out controls and a dedicated PlayStation application alongside the Android market, the Xperia Play certainly has a lot of promise for those wanting to take their games with them, but does it live up to all the hype? Let’s take a closer look and find out for ourselves!
Before I discuss the hardware of the Xperia Play, I think it’s important to note that this is a phone which costs £480 off contract, and is available for free with a minimum £35 a month contract for 24 months on Orange or 18 months on T-Mobile. This isn’t a cheap phone, it’s in the higher end of the smartphone market. Naturally, when I first took a look at the Play, I was therefore certainly excited by the prospect of the slide out controller (more on that in a little while) and a really sleek, high quality device.
As much as I hate to start these reviews in a negative manner, unfortunately the build quality doesn’t fully live up to its expectations in this respect. My first interaction with the Xperia Play involved taking off the back battery cover to insert my SIM card, and it must be one of the most awkward, flimsy pieces of plastic I’ve seen on a phone. After clipping the side of the cover off, you have to then prise the remainder of it off the phone whilst it toys with your emotions, threatening to break without a moments notice.
Considering that this is a £500 device, the plastic material that the phone is comprised of seems a little cheap compared to some other high end smartphones. Take the HTC Desire, for example. It’s been on the market for over a year now, but it’s still a very good phone. The plastic used to create the shell is good quality, it feels sturdy in your hand and the screen is covered by a thin sheet of glass. I would have loved to see Sony push the boat out for this one and replace the plastic screen cover with high quality, edge-to-edge, glass but instead it’s protected by a thin sheet of plastic which doesn’t exactly scream ‘high-end’.
Fortunately though, the Xperia Play isn’t all bad. There are four physical buttons underneath the screen which have been finished to give off a nice chrome effect, and in many ways I actually prefer these to the capacitive buttons you’d find on a lot of other Android devices. You will find the same silver finish on each side of the phone, with the volume rocker and PlayStation trigger buttons on the right hand side of the device and the headphone jack and USB port on the left. Around the back of the device is the 5MP camera next to an LED flash.
Of course, you aren’t reading this review to hear about the camera or the positioning of the headphone jack, you’re here for the thing that puts the ‘Play’ into Xperia. The PlayStation style controller slides out from behind the screen to reveal a D-Pad on the left hand side and the four, classic PlayStation buttons that you’re used to on the right. There’s a Start and Select button which are both mapped by default for any PS1 games that have been made available for the phone, but if you have any games that don’t respond to too well to these, there’s also a secondary menu button just underneath the D-Pad.
Beneath the two gaming pads are your left and right analogue pads. As the controller slides out from beneath the screen, these pads aren’t fitted with any physical controls like you would find on the PSP. Instead, both analogue pads are flat, but they are still very much usable in a game if you would prefer to use them over the D-Pad controls.
Considering that there is far less room for the controls on a mobile phone compared to a full PlayStation controller, I’ve found all of the buttons to be good to use. They are responsive, and I’ve played games such as FIFA for over an hour straight with them with no usability issues to speak of. Depending on how you hold the phone, it may dig in to your hand a little when you’re using the trigger buttons a lot, but that depends on how you hold the phone and how big your hands are, so it isn’t a huge concern.
One cause for concern to many potential Play users has been the phone’s 854 x 480 display, which has prompted a number of complaints over its brightness, especially outdoors when any smartphone is effectively turned in to a 4-inch mirror. In this respect, the plastic protecting the screen actually has its advantages over glass because it isn’t super reflective like many glass displays, but there isn’t a lot of control over the brightness of the screen. The brightness widget included with the theme on the Play only has a dim and bright option, with nothing much in between. Even when indoors, you won’t be able to send a text with the brightness turned down, and at full brightness the situation isn’t exactly stellar. In direct sunlight, you won’t have a cat in hells chance of doing much, but I’ve found myself managing OK whilst out and about. Having said that, there aren’t many times in the UK where you’ll be in direct sunlight anyway so you might just get away with it…
The Xperia Play runs on Android 2.3.2 out of the box, and although you won’t find a stock Android experience here, Sony’s skin has been done tastefully so it doesn’t change too much about the software experience. The launch bar at the bottom of the screen has been slightly tweaked to include shortcuts for your media and messages, and you can set up folders here too for quick access which is a really great feature to have.
Sony seems to be pushing its ‘Timescape’ widgets almost as hard as HTC pushes their Sense UI these days, but I can’t say it’s a particularly enjoyable experience, at least not right now. Timescape pulls all of your social networking feeds together into one scrollable widget, so you can see all of your Facebook and Twitter updates at once. Unfortunately, the user pictures behind the posts look incredibly pixelated and just detract from what could otherwise be a decent experience. Admittedly, there isn’t a lot that Sony can do here, but the widget was one of the first things that I removed from the home screen of the phone when I turned it on. The auto-update feature works well, so if you can put up with pixelated images of your friends’ faces on your home screen then by all means knock yourself out.
For the most part, the widgets included with the custom skin on the Play are actually quite useful. If you haven’t bought into apps like Beautiful Widgets on Android yet (you should), there are a few nice toggle widgets that will manage functions such as wi-fi, brightness and bluetooth. You will also find a music player widget if you want to keep your library on your phone, and there’s a neat little camera roll which shows all of the photos in your gallery.
The skin includes a nice, subtle pinch gesture similar to the home screen overview on HTC Sense. It doesn’t, however, allow you to see all of your home screens for quick moving between them, as you can only see your widgets spread out on the page. Again, this seems like style over substance to me, and I would much prefer an overview that simply cascaded all of my home screens on the display for easy access.
As far as gaming on the Play is concerned, you have two options. If you slide out the PlayStation controls, you’ll be taken to the main Xperia Play menu, where you can see all of the games that you have installed which are compatible with the phone. These include titles such as FIFA 10 and The Sims 3, so you won’t be left stuck for choice. If you’d prefer to stick with the classic titles, there is a PlayStation pocket application which allows you to emulate the original PlayStation. Performance here is great, and I had lots of fun reliving Crash Bandicoot on the go, but I would have liked to see more options available for other games. When I searched for more games from the app, I was given a list of 8 titles including Everybody’s Golf 2 and Destruction Derby, but there are so many other incredible titles that could be played in the app it’s a shame that we’re limited to these for now. PlayStation titles are priced at £3.99 on the Market, which is a very reasonable price for all the game time that you’ll be getting.
Despite their obvious age, the ported titles actually look quite good on the Play, and hold up well to current mobile titles which are available. I’m sure you could find smoother graphics than you can in Crash Bandicoot, but when you’re reminiscing about the old days and thumbing away on the controller pad, game graphics is the last things you’re thinking of. To some degree, the same applies to other Play compatible titles. Take FIFA 10 for example; the gameplay is smooth, but I’ve seen better graphics on the iPhone version of the game. Does it really matter to me, though? Not really. You see, I’ll take a hit in graphics performance for some D-Pad action anyway, and FIFA with a D-Pad beats the hell out of covering up half the screen with your thumbs whilst you control your players.
In many ways, the immersive gaming experience on the Xperia Play helps you to forget about the niggles I mentioned earlier. Do I care if the phone has a plastic covered screen when I’m battering the CPU at FIFA? No. Do I care that the plastic used to make the phone feels slightly cheap when I’m enjoying a game of Crash Bandicoot? Of course not! There’s no doubt that Sony could have done more with the Play, made it feel better in your hands, made it feel like it was a £500 phone, but if you want to play games on the go, as soon as you slide out the controller the phone has already sold itself to you 100 times over.
If you aren’t going to be using the Play as a games console on the go, and you would rather be phoning and emailing people whilst playing the occasional game on the side, then this phone probably isn’t for you. There are lots of phones out there capable of playing a plethora of Android titles from the likes of Gameloft without a D-Pad in sight, and they all offer pretty good experiences. If you’d rather be ignoring texts whilst you battle your way through Star Battalion, and can see yourself gaming a good deal on the go, then this phone is a no-brainer, because it’s just so much fun!
There are definitely improvements that can be made to both the design and build quality of the Play, and I’m looking forward to seeing more PlayStation certified devices in the future, with this phone being the first.
If you’d like to check it out for yourself, then you can buy it from every major carrier in the UK including Three Mobile, with contracts starting at £35 a month with the phone for free. If you’d prefer a cheaper monthly contract, you can choose to cough up for some of the cost of the phone first to reduce your payments. All of the information for getting the phone on the various networks can be seen over at Carphone Warehouse.
Have you got an Xperia Play yourself? Are you thinking of getting one in the future? Let us know what you think about the device in the comments below!