We love
Controls really do work
We hate
Screen, launch titles are just as fun on other phones
Verdict
The PlayStation Phone could certainly suck up your time, but not everyone will appreciate the pocket space it requires.
Launch Price
£Varies

sony-ericsson-xperia-play-review-1

The Sony Ericsson Xperia Play is not just the most anticipated phone of the year, it’s surely the longest awaited smartphone ever. We’ve been talking about a PlayStation Phone for years, but now Sony Ericsson’s finally got one ready to go, while SCE has hatched an ambitious plan to bring PlayStation One titles back to life via the Android PlayStation Suite.

While we wait for that to happen however, we’ll have to make do with the games other mobile developers have ported to the Xperia Play’s controls. Will they be enough to help you pass the time? And what about that phoning people thing it does? All the answers are right here in our full Sony Ericsson Xperia Play review.

Everyone wants a PlayStation Phone to succeed. And if you haven’t had the chance to plough through the stacks of top quality games on the Android Market yet, you’re in for a treat. For those that already have however, the PlayStation Suite and Pocket titles will feel a very long time coming.

Build

We're confident the slider will take two years of wear and tear on contract

Physically, the Sony Ericsson Xperia Play is atrractive enough, and it’s dressed to impress in exactly the same way as its bigger brother, the PSPgo. Contrary to some other reviews, we don’t have any complaints about the build quality of it. Sony Ericsson’s design aesthetic isn’t for everyone, with smudy black plastic and physical buttons that look like a row of embedded fingernails, but it’s sturdy, with a solid slide mechanism and parts that may scratch over the course of two years, but will never break.

See the best Sony Ericsson Xperia Play deals now

The gamepad too is everything you could hope for, with perfect response and easy button differentiation. So rarely do you have to press Select or Start in a game that their placement on the bottom right isn’t an issue, the shoulder buttons trigger just fine, and the optical trackpads for your thumbs are the perfect replacement for dual analog pads given the space constraints. They’re not quite as comfortable or responsive, but they still amount to an accurate port of the twin analog set up on a home console controller, and we suspect we’ll see more and more games make use of them.

The buttons sit down in two lowered circles, but are easy to push regardless

On the left hand side you’ll find the micro USB port for charging, plus a 3.5mm headphone socket, while the right side houses the volume rocker, which is admittedly rather inconveniently placed while gaming, but then we’re not sure where else it would go. On the inside meanwhile, a SIM card slot and microSD hideyhole sit above the battery.

Do be aware however that the gamepad adds considerable bulk to the phone. It’s 16mm thick when shut, which might be enough to put some off. Had Sony Ericsson whittled it down to the same sort of thickness as a Motorola Milestone (13.7mm, but manages to appear thinner), this would have been a non-issue, but if you’re not planning on playing games all the time, it might not be worth the excess baggage.

How Xperia Play’s PlayStation buttons transform gaming

Performance

As a phone, we can’t fault the Sony Ericsson Xperia Play. Sony Ericsson blowers have always been accompanied by crisp sound quality. Neither can we complain about the zippy processor inside: it’s the same speedy 1GHz silicon as found in the HTC Desire HD.

What is odd is the low amount of RAM for a flagship phone – 400MB, compared to the beefy 768MB on the HTC Incredible S and full 1GB on the upcoming Motorola Atrix. Now we didn’t struggle to run any games during testing, but we could see this becoming an issue down the road, as games become ever more powerful, so be aware.

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Regarding battery life: the Xperia Play was always going to struggle to beat the longevity of the HTC Incredible S, even though both use the same innards. However, we didn’t have any problems getting through a full day of use with sync and Wi-Fi on, and some sporadic bouts of gaming. It’s certainly not the worst Android offender we’ve seen for battery life recently.

Screen

The screen is sharp, but very dark

We’ve had readers asking us to allay their fears about the Sony Ericsson Xperia Play’s display, after some early reviews lumped complaints aplenty on it.

Unfortunately, after much testing, we simply can’t: the Sony Ericsson Xperia Play’s 4-inch 854×480 display is one of the worst we’ve seen in some time. Colour reproduction and viewing angles are certainly better than those on the HTC HD7, but the PlayStation Phone suffers from something we weren’t expecting: it has the dimmest screen we’ve seen on a top end smartphone.

Out of the box, it’s set to maximum brightness by default, but outdoors and under bright lights, it’s still not enough. We’re sorry to say but we could see this causing undue strain over the course of a contract if you have poor eyesight.

Android 2.3

Timescape is now a widget, and you can quite happily bin it if you don't like it

It’s fair to say Sony Ericsson struggled to stand out with its Android software skin launched on the Xperia X10 this time a year ago. It was running atop an already ancient build of Google’s OS (1.6), and drew heavy criticism for its laggy Timescape contact syncing app.

Fortunately, Sony Ericsson has taken the flak onboard and learned some from its mistakes. To its credit, it’s launched the only the second ever Android 2.3 phone, binned Mediascape entirely and trimmed down Timescape into a homescreen widget that’s much faster than before. You can also pinch to zoom and see all your widgets on one screen, which is a nice touch – you simply tap the one you want to zoom back out to it.

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And Android 2.3 is the same excellent Android 2.3 as seen on the Google Nexus S at its core: you get ace features like a portable Wi-Fi hotspot, Flash video and much improved text selection. It’s cutting edge and will keep you in apps for a long time to come.

Unfortunately, Sony Ericsson’s homescreen is overall rather laggy, with sometimes even delays of seconds before a menu pops up, so you’ll still want to get a dose of panacea from the Android Market by way of the supreme (and free) LauncherPro app, which solves this problem in one fell swoop.

A quick word about Sony Ericsson’s keyboard: while it predicts words well and is easy to use in landscape, the keys are a tad too narrow in portrait mode. You’re much better off using a version of the native Android 2.3 keyboard, which can be found on the Android Market.

Games

You'll find six games preloaded on the Xperia Play

The Sony Ericsson comes with six games preloaded in total – those with gamepad controls are shown in a flashy dock as soon as you pop open the gamepad. Notably missing from this is the installed version of Tetris, which for some inexplicable reason only uses touchscreen controls. Otherwise, you’ve got FIFA 10, a Bruce Lee fighter, Star Battalion and The Sims 3.

None are exclusive however, and truth be told, only FIFA 10, which makes use of the thumbpads, is worth your time with so many great Android games available on the Market right now.

Speaking of which, you can helpfully jump to a screen filled with games on the Market that support Xperia Play gamepad controls through this same dock, of which we counted 36, from big name developers. Sony Ericsson tells us there will be 50 by the time of launch on 1 April.

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Now, within this range there are certainly plenty of games to sink your teeth into – Gun Bros, Zenonia, Spectral Souls and Modern Combat 2 will give you hours and hours of entertainment. They’re fantastic. But it’s also fair to say that these are equally enjoyable on other high end Android phones, buttons or no. After all, these were all originally designed with touchscreens in mind. Until the Sony Ericsson Xperia Play starts attracting exclusive titles, this issue isn’t going to go away.

There’s also the PlayStation Pocket hub, the corner of the Sony Ericcson Xperia Play where all the PlayStation One classic titles from the 1990s (and very early 2000s reside). Except of course, you only get one title, platformer Crash Bandicoot, and there’s no ETA on any more must play games from our childhood.

Looking back, we're not sure whether we enjoyed Crash Bandicoot in the 90s, or just didn't know any better

Our bubble of nostalgia was soon burst when we rediscovered just how bland Crash Bandicoot was – mundanely linear and a poor substitute for the vast worlds of Super Mario 64, a rival release of the time. Though the game runs perfectly and controls have been ported successfully, if you make it through to the end, you’ve more patience than us.

The good news for those willing to seek them out is that emulators work just fine with controls mapped to the gamepad – we’ll be running a separate piece breaking out just how, and the pros and cons, but they’re a lot of fun with the D-pad and buttons.

Camera

You’re not going to buy a PlayStation phone for the camera, let’s face it. But the five megapixel sensor produces satisfyingly sharp stills in daylight, with admittedly plenty of typical phone noise in darker conditions. If we have a complaint, it’s that Sony Ericsson hasn’t provided the bevy of camera options and easy to use settings controls as it has on the Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc’s camera app.

Video on the other hand is rather disappointing. You can’t shoot in 720p HD rather than standard def, which is a little odd given the power inside the phone. See for yourself in the clip below, shot on a bright day in central London.

Verdict

And so, Sony Ericsson finds itself at an impasse. This is a phone for hardcore PlayStation fans prepared to put up with the extra bulk of a slide out section that provides nothing except a gamepad. And yet, some of these very people will know that its paltry memory won’t help much with new games towards the end of their contract – and more importantly, they know how to run a PlayStation emulator on their phone too.

The ideal solution would be Sony rolling out the PlayStation Suite as soon as humanly possible. That’s not going to happen for months at least, but this phone needs to hit critical mass to attract new titles well before that. Do you want to help it? Go right ahead, but know that a safe return is not guaranteed.

  • Anonymous

    Good review, Ben.

    Although the 400MB of RAM seems odd, there are a few other online sources claiming the 400MB is ROM and the actual RAM is 512MB.

    It’s a shame the screen sucks, but I’ll still get it when O2 are finished fixing theirs. Who knows, they might improve the screen *fingers crossed*. It would be great if you can put up some pics comparing the screen to those of other phones.

  • http://www.facebook.com/obeyeddonkey Steve Anderson

    be mint phone sod my old iphone 4 now

  • http://www.facebook.com/obeyeddonkey Steve Anderson

    be mint phone sod my old iphone 4 now

  • Soulkiss

    I dont see the RAM being an issue – the main point of this is going to be emulated PS1 games on the official Sony Emulator (or by getting the now pulled from the Marketplace one via an APK download…)

    The Original Playstation One had the following specs

    CPU: 32-bit RISC (33.9MHz)
    RAM: 2MB, 1MB Video RAM
    Graphics: 3D Geometry Engine, with 2D rotation, scaling, transparency and fading and 3D texture mapping and shading
    Colors: 16.7 million
    Sprites: 4,000
    Polygons: 360,000 per second
    Resolution: 640×480
    Sound: 16-bit 24 channel PCM

    So is well within the specs of this unit – even with just 400MB of RAM.

    The PSP only has 32MB or 64MB of RAM, depending on model, and it can run emulated PS1 games from dumped disks.

    Also consider that SNES emulators will be excellent on this with the physical pad, that gives the possibility of classic Mario and the original Final Fantasy/Chrono Trigger games.

    Thats probably enough games for the next 2 years WITHOUT new releases.

    I wonder is Nintendo will finally get with the program and start selling Emulator compatible ROMS for the SNES for a couple of pounds each.

    Yes, I do expect to see an Xperia Play2 in 12 months, with a dual core CPU and a better GPU, but thats what happens,

    The NGP is what to wait for if you want serious gaming on the move – or dig up a PSP.

    If you dont want to carry those, then the Sony Ericsson Xperia Play (or S.E.X Play :p) will have to do for now…

    • Anonymous

      Just to let you know Soulkiss, I’ve tried out all the Yongzh emulators, which map buttons to the controls perfectly. As you guessed, they run perfectly with the controls, and if you haven’t had a retro gaming phase yet, you’ll lose hours to this. Personally, I burned through all the SNES games etc I wanted to play when emulators first hit the PC – but as I said, a niche audience will love it for this reason.

  • likesonynintendo

    Reminds me too much of the PSP GO, which was a failure.

    • Soulkiss

      PSP Go failed because the games they released for it were rubbish and it couldn’t be hacked to do other things.

      Not to mention that there was no real upgrade paths from the PSP-Phat, PSP-Slim and PSP-Brite units as their peripherals and games didnt work with the Go.

      Oh and it was too expensive for what it was.

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