The Sony Ericsson Xperia Play aims to combine the power of an Android smart phone with the gaming prowess of Sony's PSP line of handheld consoles. With a slide-out game pad, 5.1-megapixel camera, 4-inch touchscreen and Android 2.3 Gingerbread running the show, the Play is a kingly device on paper.
But, in practice, it's a jack of all trades, and master of none. It's not as slick as rival smart phones, nor as engaging and usable as a portable console. Hampered by confusing software, it's hard to recommend the Play over its more competent rivals.
The Play will be available on a contract from about £30 per month when it hits shop shelves in April. It's also available SIM-free now for between £375 and £500.
Come out and Play
The Play's headline feature is its slide-out game pad. It slips out from beneath the screen just like the Qwerty keyboard on plenty of other smart phones.
There are direction buttons on the left of the game pad, while the four iconic PlayStation buttons -- square, triangle, circle and cross -- sit on the right-hand side. Two touch-sensitive pads reside in the centre, and there's a couple of shoulder buttons on the back of the phone as well, which your fingers can rest on during gaming sessions. Start and select keys complete the line-up.
Inside the Play, there's a 1GHz processor, which does a fine job of keeping everything ticking along. We didn't find any games running slowly. Other phones offer nippier processors, but we think the Play's chip is fast enough.
The 4-inch display isn't as bright as the screens on rival mobiles, like the Samsung Galaxy S or Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc, so it won't fare well outdoors. But its resolution of 480x854 pixels is good, and means games, photos and videos all look sharp.
Assembling a fine stack of hardware is all well and good, but reliable software is the mortar that holds those bricks together, gluing them into a compelling, entertaining gaming device. To stretch that already-stretched analogy further, the Xperia Play feels like a brick wall held together by toothpaste.
If you can get to the stage where you're actually playing a game on this phone using the slide-out controls, and the buttons intuitively correspond to the on-screen action, it's possible to have a great gaming experience on the Play. But due to confusing, fragmented software, actually finding, purchasing and downloading titles is difficult.
For instance, sliding out the game pad launches the 'Xperia Play' app, which is divided into 'Xperia Play Games' and 'More Games' sections. It's not exactly clear, but the former section hosts games that are already installed, and the latter section takes you to a sliding menu of titles that you can download. Tapping on titles in this menu enables you to buy them, and here the first problem becomes clear -- there's no single store from which to download games.
All over the shops
Tapping on half those titles takes you directly to the Android Market, where you can pay for and download games using Google Checkout. But titles by developer Gameloft will take you into the browser, where you'll have to sign into PayPal and enter your credit-card details, or opt to pay via your phone bill using a service called Payforit. Most of the publicised launch titles, including Avatar, Let's Golf 2, Assassin's Creed and Spider-Man, are developed by Gameloft, so get used to seeing that PayPal screen.
Classic PlayStation games can be found in yet another app, 'PlayStation Pocket', but, when you browse for new titles from there, you'll be redirected to the Android Market. Bafflingly, games you've purchased via PlayStation Pocket won't show up in the 'Xperia Play' app that launches when you slide out the controls. To find those games, you'll have to fish about in the phone's main menu -- a process made tiresome by the fact that the Play's main Android interface doesn't switch into landscape mode when the gaming controls are open. Dipping out of a game and into the menus means you'll have to tilt your head to see what's going on.
In the Android Market, we expected to see clear differentiation between games built with the Play in mind and the horde of regular touchscreen titles. But there's no icon or badge to identify Play games, and no way of searching for titles that are made for the Play's physical controls.
We noticed that several apps in the Android Market had two separate versions -- for instance, Millionaire City had a double in the form of Millionaire City - Xperia Play. That's handy in this instance, but it seems that making such a distinction is left to individual app developers, so don't expect these naming conventions to occur consistently.
What's missing is a single PlayStation app, separate from the rest of the operating system, with its own payment system and registration process. Such an app would collate games built for the Play in one place, categorising them by genre, price and popularity. It would also assign you a gamer tag, track achievements, and act as a gateway to online gaming.
Separating the game-browsing and downloading process between several different apps with different log-ins makes for a sluggish, tiresome and confusing experience that will see you bounced from Web page to Web page, back to the phone's menu and into different app stores. Comparing the PlayStation 3 or PSP's gorgeous, minimalist interface with the Play's offering makes us ache with disappointment.
Hard to port
Not every game is optimised to use the Play's slide-out controls. Indeed, few games are, and we found a number of cases where either the controls didn't work at all, or only some of the controls worked. In the latter instance, you might find, for example, that the circle button works as a 'back' key and the arrow keys move up and down menus, but you're otherwise forced to use the touchscreen.
These inconsistencies aren't confined to random Android apps either. In the pre-installed FIFA 10, we were amazed to see an early on-screen pop-up advising us to press the 'A' button to shoot. But there is no 'A' button on the game pad. Sure enough, though, one of two on-screen keys is labelled 'A'. It's clear that the game is a lazy port, thrown clumsily at the Play's hardware in the hope that something would stick -- and this is Sony Ericsson putting its best foot forward with a pre-installed title. It's not encouraging.
We could go on -- and we will. Almost no effort seems to have been put into the classic PlayStation titles that are available to download. For instance, when saving our progress in Crash Bandicoot, the game informed us it was scanning for our PlayStation memory card -- the thing you plugged into the original console all those years ago -- and asked us to choose a 'block' to save our game to. We chose a block and presumably the game saved, but we've no clue how to access that saved game, where it's stored, or whether we even needed to save in the first place.
Answering a call while you're playing a game will have various effects. At best, you'll be forced out of the game, but able to pick it up where you left off after your call is finished. At worst, you'll be ejected from the game and have to resume from the point at which you last saved it. It's like your mum pulling the plug out of your console so she can use the vacuum cleaner.
Similarly, some games support multi-tasking and some don't. Consistency is not the Play's forte.
Polygon to seed
Original PlayStation titles look ugly on the Play to boot. No effort has been made to improve the games' appearance, and you'll be confronted with large black bars on the left and right sides of the screen, as well as control instructions built for a system with different buttons to the ones you're using. You'll even get the scary piracy warning from the '90s that flashes up at the start of every old PlayStation game. When you're face to face with the chunky, retro graphics, you'll remember why your original PlayStation is gathering dust in the attic.
We might tolerate all of these inconsistencies and flaws if the games on offer were cheap or free. But they're not. We wound up paying about £4 a pop for many games, and they were just carbon-copy ports of ancient titles. Given the wealth of free games in the Android Market, and the abundance of excellent, cheap titles for Apple's iOS platform, the Play's games can't justify their price.
There's no reason that Sony Ericsson couldn't fix these problems with a software update. But, as things stand, finding and downloading games is like falling down a well full of spider webs -- you'll feel tangled up and confused, wondering 'How did I get here?'
Back to basics
Set the gaming stuff to one side, and the Play is a capable Android smart phone, albeit a very bulky one, measuring 62 by 119 by 16mm. Four physical buttons sit under the screen -- back, home, menu and search. You'll frequently use these to navigate the Play's interface, even when holding the phone in landscape mode. Most Android mobiles arrange these standard buttons in a different order, so they might take some getting used to on the Play.
Atop the Play, you'll find a lock button. On the left side, there's a 3.5mm socket for connecting your headphones, and a port for plugging in a USB cable so that you can charge the phone or hook it up to a computer. A microSD card slot is hidden underneath the back cover, just above the battery.
The lock button is poorly placed. When you're holding the phone in gaming mode, your left index finger may press against it, so you might find yourself accidentally locking the screen mid-game, which is just as annoying as you'd imagine. Conversely, the headphone socket is well placed for gaming, but, when you're using the Play as a mobile, your headphone jack will stick out to the left, taking up extra space in your pocket. We can't think of a better place for the socket to go, but it's a design hiccup worth bearing in mind.
Sony Ericsson hasn't gone overboard with its skin for the Android 2.3 operating system. In fact, it's rather impressive. Gentle blue hues and translucent windows lend the interface a classy sheen, and the ability to drag apps on top of each other to make folders is valuable. If you pinch any of the five home screens with two fingers, you'll zoom out and see all five screens at once, which makes skipping between them much easier.
The only downside to the interface is that some pre-installed widgets are graphically intensive and run very slowly, in particular the Timescape app, which collects your social-network profiles together and shows you what your friends are up to.
Sony Ericsson says it's separated the operating system from its custom user interface. The interface has also been trimmed down compared to the version on the company's previous Android phones. All this should mean that Android updates can be rolled out faster, which is good news.
Installing apps via the Android Market is as simple as it is on other Android devices, and the whole interface is fast and responsive. The browser is standard Android fare, but that's no bad thing at all, especially as Android 2.3 supports Flash, so you can enjoy videos on the Web. The Play is fine to use as an actual phone too, offering decent call quality.
On the back, there's a 5.1-megapixel camera with an LED photo light. The camera takes good, clear pictures. The video produced by the camcorder mode looks rather blurry, but at least it's very smooth.
The Play's battery life is pretty average. We found it lasted no more than a day with constant usage. Admittedly, that day was filled with downloading apps and playing games, but we'd be surprised if the Play managed more than a couple of days of standard use before it was gasping for its charging cable.
On the smart-phone side of things, then, the Play is a respectable device. But any number of other Android phones offer similar or better specs, and equally engaging user interfaces.
The Sony Ericsson Xperia Play's hardware is good. But its fragmented, unintuitive software quickly sucks the fun out of gaming, leaving the Play little more than a porky Android phone with nothing to offer over its slimmer, lighter brethren.
Sony Ericsson's failed to embrace what made iOS and Android gaming so popular in the first place -- the availability of a broad selection of affordable games that are conveniently arranged and easily accessible. Instead, we're offered a sparse selection of undesirable and expensive titles, and expected to cough up on the premise that gaming with physical controls is better than gaming on a touchscreen. It may be better, Sony Ericsson, but it's not that much better. We'll stick with Tiny Wings, thanks.
Edited by Charles Kloet