Sony Ericsson tries for the best of gaming and phones in one device. (June 12th, 2011)
Product Manufacturer: Sony Ericsson
Price: $200 (2 yrs, Verizon), $100 (3 yrs, Rogers)
- Android 2.3 out of the gate.
- Fast in regular Android.
- Good UI tweaks like folders.
- PlayStation-like experience in the best cases.
- Solid gamepad controls.
- Reasonably good battery life.
- Unexceptional gaming performance on a phone that needs it.
- Minuscule mixed PlayStation Suite-native game library right now.
- Sub-par camera, especially knowing Sony Ericsson's other models.
- Underwhelming call quality.
Design and display
For a device that's supposed to embody the PlayStation image, the Xperia Play comes across much more as a Sony Ericsson phone that happens to have PlayStation roots than the other way around. That's sometimes a good thing: closed, you'd never know from a casual glance that it was a gaming phone. You can be a responsible-looking adult and only show your love of games when you're ready. It does maintain a slightly generic Sony Ericsson look, though, evincing the same black skin, chrome-effect swoops and other traits you'd find in the Xperia Arc, Neo, and Pro. And the need for the gamepad controls also leads to a relatively fat design.
Build quality is generally good; it doesn't feel as though anything will rattle loose or snap off, especially not the rock solid gamepad that we'll touch on later in the gameplay section. The slider mechanism is a bit mixed, though. Sliding itself is easy, fast, and reliable, but there's a slight amount of give while the phone is closed. We'd add that the classic Sony Ericsson disjunction between the look of the materials and their actual surface is still in effect: what looks like it should be all metal is really plastic, including the fingerprint smudges that come with it.
The display is more uniformly positive. In our experience, it was consistently bright and colorful, with good viewing angles that keep the colors even at fairly wide viewing angles -- an important consideration for a gaming phone. At 480x854 and four inches, it's strictly average for resolution, but the extra 54 pixels of vertical resolution do make it slightly better than other Android devices for browsing and photo proofing.
Most of the controls fall easily to hand. Sony Ericsson has a pair of smart touches knowing that the phone will often be used horizontally in full gamepad mode: the headphone jack is on the side and not the top. and the volume rocker's movement to the middle to allow for the shoulder buttons also has the upshot of making it workable during gameplay without getting accidental presses. It does leave a bit of guesswork, though; we found ourselves trying to remember which direction was up or down. The hardware Android navigation buttons also had that issue as well; we'd think the touch-sensitive, rotation-relative buttons of the HTC Incredible S would make more sense here.
Speaker quality is good for built-in: Sony Ericsson says it's stereo, and while you won't notice that from a spatial perspective, it's fairly loud and clear even in a moderately noisy outdoor environment. You'll also get a good amount of storage for games through an 8GB microSDHC card preloaded in the box, although there's no significant built-in storage to back it up: the 32GB maximum of the card slot is the best you'll get, so heavy-duty gamers will need to have multiple cards.
Android 2.3, Timescape, and Mediascape
At one point, Sony Ericsson was known as the laggard in the Android world: its devices shipped with outdated versions of Android and even released outdated upgrades. Not so the Xperia Play: it and the other 2011 Xperia phones shipped with Android 2.3 from the start and were second only to Google's own Nexus S to use the new OS. You don't get NFC (near-field communication) wireless support, but you do get the (slightly) improved performance, the multi-touch keyboarding with copy-and-paste text, and things like better app management, downloads, and official hooks for front cameras. We'll see whether Sony Ericsson is prompt in upgrading to Ice Cream Sandwich, if it can, but you can be comfortable knowing you'll be up to date for the next few months.
It's fairly fast, too. Sony Ericsson is using the same second-generation 1GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon as the HTC Desire HD (and Inspire 4G, and Thunderbolt). Subjectively, though, it feels faster and only bogs down if you're clearly working it harder than what a single-core mobile processor can handle, such as trying to stream Flash audio while you play a game. One obstacle may be the on-screen keyboard. As good as it can be and smart about word substitution, it's more typo-prone than the keyboards from Google itself, from HTC, or from the iPhone.
The custom skinning is definitely rampant on the Play, although Sony Ericsson has learned much in the year since the Xperia X10. Its home screen work is actually more extensive than it was before; thankfully, it's usually designed to be functional more than just pretty. We liked the always-on core buttons at the bottom, but loved the concept of folders that pop out their contents with a tap. There's no doubt that it's lifted directly from the iPhone, though it's a very good idea for those who want everything on the home screen but want to avoid clutter.
Widgets are steps forward and steps back. The quick settings toggles for wireless and audio are as appreciated as ever, and Sony Ericsson's widgets for media are steps up from before with a better look and usually more control. Its Timescape widget, however, is the quintessential example of the unnecessary social networking element that virtually every Android manufacturer is convinced its users want. The widget is slightly more useful in showing more updates at once, but it still only shows the several most recent updates and doesn't refresh quickly.
That extends to the full Timescape interface itself. Not much has changed other than slightly more usable touch elements. It works well if you only have a handful of contacts on either Facebook or Twitter, but anyone whose social networking contacts range into the hundreds or more will just overwhelm the interface altogether. Simply put, we'd skip Timescape altogether in favor of the separate but much more powerful official apps for each service.
Mediascape fares better. As basic as it is -- Apple and Google Music Beta won't be threatened in any way -- it's well laid out and easy to control if you're just looking to play an album. Photos and videos are handled by Google's regular Gallery app, though that's a wiser choice given that it handles sorting and playing videos on a similar level.
One quirk we see as a step backwards is a change in Android Market. For reasons unknown, Sony Ericsson believed that its own choice of apps was important enough to punt the My Apps section out of the main Android Market page and into a contextual menu. Given that its choices are mostly just the most popular apps on the store, all the company did was make updating apps unnecessarily harder.
Gaming: Xperia Play and PlayStation Suite
The Xperia Play rides or dies based on its gaming experience, so it's understandable that much of the design focus is on this side of things. Early impressions are good from how quick it is to jump into games. All it takes is sliding out the gamepad and it will stop whatever's going on to leap into the Xperia Play portal. Android also gets special hooks and will pause an Xperia Play-aware game mid-session so you can resume it later from the menu bar.
The experience does fracture early on. Xperia Play understandably only shows games that are considered PlayStation Suite certified -- that is, which can properly mimic PlayStation controls and the experience -- but it doesn't show all of them. While the Xperia Play portal showed five flagship games, it conspicuously omitted the copy of Crash Bandicoot visible in the oddly separate PlayStation Pocket app that itself didn't show the other games. Were they to be in perfect sync, it still wouldn't address that most games are found only in the regular Android interface; we don't think guesswork helps much. Finding games is also somewhat splintered, since you once again have to look through up to three different filters..
Once you dip in, it gets better. Games that meet the PlayStation Suite criteria get to use the Xperia Play's full gamepad, which brings a button-based directional pad, four face buttons, shoulder buttons and two optical pads that stand in for analog sticks. Comfort-wise, it's very well suited to gaming and lets most everything fall easily to hand. We're not big fans of the optical pad all the same. We understand the space reasons why Sony Ericsson had to go this route; still, in those games that used them, we found it harder to manage the difference between subtle movements (such as walking a character) and broad ones (running) compared to using real analog sticks. Having tried the PlayStation Vita first-hand, we'd rather have one of those for physical control.
The launch lineup of games is a mixed bag. Crash Bandicoot is a one-for-one replication of the original Naughty Dog 3D obstacle hopper, and will give all the nostalgia and sometimes frustration of the early PS1 title. Most everything else is a new or recent game that's just optimized for the PlayStation Suite controls. We got four of these preloaded on our device, some of which we saw in Barcelona: Bruce Lee, FIFA 10, Madden 11, and Star Battalion HD. Others like Asphalt 6 and Worms HD weren't preloaded, but were either available fairly quickly or were even free to get for Xperia Play owners.
How well these played was uneven. Some games play fairly well, so there's some definite fun to be had if you're willing to look for it. FIFA 10 feels much more like a PSP-like experience, just with a bigger, better screen. Star Battalion is your classic air combat arcade game and, in spite of its simplistic plot and over-the-top dialog, involving to play. Others, though, gave us headaches: Bruce Lee is certainly proof you can manage a 'serious' fighting game on a phone with hardware controls, but the difficulty ramps up quickly, and the controls make it very difficult to pull off advanced moves. Asphalt 6 doesn't even really need the Xperia Play controls.
Graphics may be the drag for some. The current 1GHz Snapdragon is using the Adreno 205, which while very competent for 2D is strictly average for 3D. Games look very much up to par in terms of detail and speed; frame rates aren't an issue. However, it's not coming in at the best moment. Any phone with a dual-core processor can run rings around the Xperia Play in performance, such as the NVIDIA Tegra 2 in the T-Mobile G2X, the Samsung Exynos in the Galaxy S II, and even the 1.2GHz Snapdragon in the HTC Evo 3D or Sensation. Even some single-core phones like the Galaxy S line or the iPhone 4 can at least sometimes outrun the Xperia Play; that's not good for futureproofing.
More than anything, the real issue is just the scarcity of truly optimized games. There's only a sliver of them right now. The lineup is due to get significantly larger in the near future and with fuller games like Battlefield: Bad Company 2 and even Minecraft, but that's just a few dozen games versus the tens of thousands of games on Android Market, not to mention the App Store for iOS users. You have to be very committed to the idea of PlayStation-level gaming to sign on right now.
Photos and videos: capturing and image quality
Grabbing imagery on the Xperia Play involves a fairly simple and yet fairly deep interface. The basics are kept obvious, but you can delve into settings such as white balance, exposure compensation, and focus priority without many steps. We were disappointed that settings like ISO sensitivity were kept out of the mix, though. Likewise, there's no tap-to-focus, so you can't get your exposure, focus, and white balancing off of a specific point like you can on a few phones, most notably the iPhone 4.
Image quality is decidedly mixed. Among still photos, we could get sharp details in macros and other close-ups, but we got very mottled, soft images from landscapes. The Xperia Play's rear five-megapixel camera didn't handle a bright but overcast sky very well and both blew out the highlights of the sky while also inducing some chromatic artifacts on the trees above it. Colors were generally accurate but muted. The front VGA camera, as you might expect, isn't any better, and it's both too low resolution and low quality to be used for more than video chat or a Picplz self-portrait. Neither is especially good in low light without the flash.
If we're honest, it feels like Sony Ericsson was cutting corners to reach a price. Even the 'entry' Xperia Neo has an eight-megapixel camera that we know performs better: we tried it in a dimly lit nightclub and got good results. We're not sure why the 'halo' phone for the company would get what's generally a poor camera, but for now you'd want to look to the Arc, Neo, or Pro if you like the Sony Ericsson formula but want good photography.
Video quality does redeem the Xperia Play somewhat. Generally, it produces clean video (up to 720p) without any artifacts noticeable enough to be distracting. We also liked that it adjusted exposure quickly and could handle subtler audio cues, although we didn't have the luxury of taking it to a concert or another loud scene to gauge the opposite. We'd like it if the video settings had more than than general presets.
Call quality and battery life
Buying a phone these days often makes call quality a secondary feature, especially on a gaming phone like the Xperia Play, but we came back disappointed. Both incoming and outgoing audio were tangibly muddled, and while we didn't have problems with the conversation on either end, it didn't match the better experiences we've had on the iPhone 4, Nexus One, or even the Acer Liquid E. It's something of a letdown given that earlier Sony Ericsson phones we've tried have had great quality
Longevity depends entirely on your tasks. Gaming, like on any phone, drains the battery much more quickly than normal duties. Just using the phone for a moderate number of typical Android tasks, the battery indicator showed the phone lasting for just over 18 hours before it needed to be plugged in. That's strictly average, and while not terrible, it does mean you'll be plugging in at the end of each day, especially if that day involved an hour of Madden. Verizon subscribers may still want to consider this over one of the current 4G phones if they're looking for a phone with a similar processor but willing to drop to 3G for a longer lifespan.
It's a truism that that you never really want to get exactly what you ask for because you don't really know what you want. That's not entirely true here: if you're looking for more PlayStation-like gaming on a phone, the Xperia Play might be your only pick but can be a good one. As an Android device, too, it's on the sunnier side in terms of experience and features.
And yet that trope does still prove true here. While you get good hardware controls and PlayStation-like titles, the truth is that there's a number of aspects that really needed to be improved for this to stand out as a gaming experience. It's not something the PS1 or PS2 had, but a dual-core processor would have led to visibly better-looking games than elsewhere and given it a lifespan as a game system that it really needs. It also wasn't just enough to have a console-like launch lineup; it needed to feel like the PlayStation experience was always an option, not a rarity amidst all the other, ordinary Android games.
And while the basic gaming interface and Android 2.3 are both pluses, the sense exists that Sony Ericsson sacrificed other aspects of the phone to make sure that gaming experience came through -- the camera and the voice quality being the two glaring factors. While we doubt many dreams of the PlayStation phone involved actual calls or taking photos, it's safe to assume that most were anticipating a good experience; they don't really get that here.
The real question is whether or not it's worth dealing with these quirks to pick the Xperia Play over another phone. If you live in a thoroughly PlayStation- or Sony-focused universe, the answer is yes. It's the closest you'll get. Sony Ericsson's problem, however, is that most don't. Many of us get a phone for communication first and gaming second, and many of us aren't so concerned about having physical controls that we need a phone built around them.
Moreover, we're not sure the particular hardware and software mix of the Xperia Play is worth the leap right this moment. Phones with its processor mix were available in early fall 2010, and arguably summer if you count the iPhone 4 and possibly the Galaxy S. An LG Optimus 2X (G2X), Galaxy S II, or just waiting for the 2011 iPhone refresh could be wiser if you're looking for visual prowess in games this year. And with a relatively tiny software catalog, there isn't a huge advantage to jumping in right away if you like the concept. A few months by itself will help substantially, though it remains to be seen how much sustained development is enroute.
The best way of seeing the Xperia Play right now is as a foundation. We suspect the sequel will take many of the lessons from the current model and roll them into something that's faster and more well-rounded. If you're buying in mid-2011, though, it's hard to buy just a foundation when Apple and other phone makers already have four walls and a roof.