I didn’t really know what to expect from the Xperia Play. It seems like one of those concepts that has been whispered about for years among PlayStation fans. Even more so as the iPhone and latterly the Android platforms took a big bite of the pick-up-and-play mobile gaming pie. Now the device is finally out in the open and Sony Ericsson invited me to have a look and let you all know what I think.
First impressions when the device was rested in my eager hands were extremely good. The unit fits, satisfyingly, into a palm and feels solid and well constructed. The touch interface is responsive and even with SE’s custom user interface overlaid on the latest version of Android (2.3 or “gingerbread”) it zips along without any hesitation.
The multitouch screen handled all of my prodding without a fuss and the thin line of physical buttons along the bottom of the device form a firm and tactile thumb rest between swipes and taps, as well as giving access to key features.
You’re most likely not so interested in the ‘phone-like aspects of the Play though, they are much the same as in any other Android device and, in fact, almost identical to the gorgeous camera-and-video-focussed Xperia Arc which was also on display. You probably, like me, want to know about the gaming aspects.
I rotated the ‘phone ninety degrees, into ‘landscape” proportions, and with a firm but gentle push I slid the screen upwards. It settled with a satisfying spring into its fully open position and revealed the famous PlayStation button configuration and the new touch-sensitive thumb pads.
Now I had something in my hands which was really quite similar in size and dimensions to the PSPGo. Unfortunately the grid of applications on the screen remained locked in the portrait proportions and the D-pad could not be successfully used to navigate them. So I was forced to close the device, rotate it back and touch-navigate to one of the game applications which are sprinkled through all the other applications rather than in a dedicated hub.
Quite why the Play doesn’t automatically throw you into a “game hub” style menu when you pop it open is a mystery to me, and everyone else I talked to. Perhaps this is a feature which can be coded into the final release software. It certainly doesn’t make much sense not to auto-load a game selection screen because those buttons aren’t much use for anything else.
Once I had successfully navigated the game selection process and managed to get Asphalt 6 loading, I quickly returned the screen to its upright position and let my thumbs fall on those familiar buttons again. X to accelerate, Square to brake, I know this. No screen-overlaid pedals for me, this is how games are meant to be played – with buttons!
Unfortunately, that initial few seconds of being impressed with the machine soon turned to disappointment as the frame rate stuttered slightly every time I tried to turn a bend, eventually seeming unplayable when I later saw it in the hands of another tester. It is pre-production software though, so perhaps I shouldn’t be too harsh.
Next, I tried the new touch thumb “sticks”. They feel surprisingly pleasant under thumb, with the tiny central depression just enough that you can instinctively feel where you’re thumbs are on the little pads and make adjustments accordingly. Unfortunately, it didn’t seem to matter much what adjustments I was making, my car wasn’t turning right anymore. The thumb pad, for whatever reason, just wasn’t translating input data to the game. I should stress that in later attempts, with different games, it worked perfectly. I also saw others playing Asphalt 6 later on and they didn’t seem to have the same problem with the input, although the frame rate when turning still appeared to be crippling.
I tried several other games, with FIFA probably the standout title of the night. The visuals seemed to me to be somewhere between the standard iPhone “look” and the lower end of the PSP’s capabilities but I’m sure there will be comparison videos out there soon enough.
Button placement feels comfortable enough for short gaming sessions but, for my slightly larger than average hands, the two shoulder buttons were uncomfortable to get to and made the already slight-feeling device seem even more precarious in my hands. While we’re on that subject, the screen seems a little heavier than the control section so when the device is open it does need to be carefully held and feels like it’s slightly unbalanced.
I was told that it would be expected to be sold on eighteen to twenty-four month contracts (on all UK networks) and that if you were hoping to get the phone entirely subsidised (free on contract) you could expect to pay around £40 per month (that’s, very roughly, €50 or $65 and will be decided by the networks). There is no confirmed sim-free price for the device yet.
I was also told that the Play would be pitched at the very upper end of Sony Ericsson’s smartphone roster, making it more expensive than the much more desirable (gaming buttons aside) Arc.[boxout]Generally, it was a night of mixed emotions for me. I finally got to hold something I’ve been hearing rumours of for years and it felt well made and solid and desirable. Then I used it and it felt cheap, half finished and unwanted. I also have real trouble seeing where this device fits in with the wider landscape of gaming-on-the-go and even where it fits among Sony’s portable strategies for the future but I’ll save those thoughts for another time.
We will be trying to get our hands on a review unit as soon as possible so we can bring you a more considered and rounded opinion on the Xperia Play when it’s a little closer to being ready for release on April 1st.