Hands On with Xperia Play

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.

solid and well constructed

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.

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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.

similar to the PSPGo

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.

wasn’t translating input data to the game

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.

expect to pay around £40 per month

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.

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38 Comments

  1. Disappointed, but at least that’s my mind made up. I’d have loved for this to be balls-out brilliant, but it’s going to be a combo of iPhone and NGP for me this year (or, you know, whenever NGP comes out).

    • Same here, I’m glad someone from here was able to go along and investigate this for us.
      I’ve been burned by poor Sony Ericcson phones, once too many. The k850i had constant software problems, and I bought the Aino for remote play and that turned out to be pants.
      Iphone or HTC for me. This just seems like a sub par pspgo with a phone

      • I also attended and was disappointing, my mind was changed from the Play to the Arc, and thankfully the Arc should be cheaper seeing as it’s not the top model.
        Now all I need to do is see where I can get a cheap(ish) one to replace my dying Aino.

      • They’d lost me at “you cannot transfer your PSN content”.

    • Yep, NGP for me :)

  2. The early leaked prototype videos seemed to show the device autoloading the PS Suite style software when you opened the controls….worries me that this is not on devices being showed now. Has sony put any PSX/Minis/PSP games on the device for show yet? Or is it all adapted Android titles?

    I really want to like this phone, more than just playing the games Sony provides I want to use the controls to play with the various old school emulators (I miss you Robocod and Zool). Impressions so far are making it sound like people may end up sacrificing quite a lot for the additional buttons, perhaps it is worth waiting for the Play 2 so they can fix the gripes with the first.

    There is still time to change things before launch and I hope final release reports will be closer to my expectations. I just hope this doesn’t end up an N-gage :(

    • To be fair, Android is so easy to mess with I’m sure an app like Tasker could easily be set to open the games hub on flicking out the pad.
      On keyboard devices it can do a similar thing so even if they don’t add that themselves, it will be simple to do

    • Crash Bandicoot was in the grid of apps but every device I tried to open it on told me it wasn’t on the SD card. It was the only game that wouldn’t load, although several times the others crashed on start up but I assume that’s just buggy early software.

      • Last i heard it is supposed to starting hitting shelves next month, one month to go and games still regularly crashing?The code been used at such an event at this stage would not have such early code on it but the near retail code, not looking good for this phone :(

  3. 40 pounds per month? It’s definitely gonna be an i-phone for me I think. The expected price per month and the fact that you have to rebuy all your media is just completely barring. No matter how well conttructed or prety the product looks. I’ll cary on lugging round my PSP I think!

    • We don’t even know how much of the current PSN media will end up on the device (safe to assume most of the PSX stuff I would think). I think I am right in saying though that the PS Suite stuff is compatible across all the devices? So in future if you buy a PSX game on PS Suite it will work on everything…(I bet I am wrong and actually it wont work on the PS3 :( ) Fingers crossed

  4. Well, I can’t say I expected it to be brilliant being made by Sony Ericcson, and you’ve probably just confirmed that for me. Their build quality usually is quite good, but my old SE was horribly unusable after just a few months. I was probably never going to get one of these anyway, and like you said, I too struggle to see where it fits into the market. Too expensive for kids, not good enough specs for the price.

  5. I was originally very interested in swapping up my desire hd for one of these, but after updating my gf’s x10 mini via SE’s update service it’s put me right off. She lost all of her pics, apps and contacts, despite backing up with SE’s atrociously slow backup manager.
    Whereas HTC is just an OTA update that doesnt delete anything and works perfectly.

  6. Still want one!
    ^Sony Wh*re!

    • I don’t and I’m a Sony Fanatic, hence my website, which is how I got to get a hands on myself.

  7. £40 x 18 months = £720. Uhm, think I’ll go for the NGP.

    • That’s about standard for a higher end smart phone.
      To get the iPhone free on an 18 month deal, even now, you need to be paying at least £45 a month

    • That said, iPhone is not a great example, it’s massively overpriced

      • Iphone isn’t really overpriced at all. it may be in terms of the spec, but there’s huge demand for it, which drives up the price. if it was massively overpriced, nobody would buy it. the fact its very popular means its priced just about right.

      • There’s a few cheap shots people throw at the iPhone and this is one of them. Thing is, if someone can afford the extra fiver a month (for an iPhone contract instead of something else) then they know what they’re getting with the likes of the iTunes store. Something that is unrivalled and will be until Amazon can gather momentum with it’s embedded Android Marketplace..

      • Oops. Might have accidentally trolled a bit there, lol

      • You’ve got a big book of “takedowns” on a variety of topics, haven’t you. ;-)

      • For what its worth, I don’t think people do necessarily “know what they’re getting”. I know a couple of people who bought iPhones purely because they bought the hype and actually found them to be a poor fit for their needs. That’s ultimately their own fault of course but the point I was clumsily making is that iPhones are priced very high for what they are.

    • Yes, I think I will keep my existing phone and save for NGP too.

      Really wanted this to be good but Peter’s initial impression has left me a little disappointed. Looking forward to hearing your thoughts again when you get the review unit.

  8. April 1st release……. Not sure that this might not be a massive April fools prank lol

    • I thought the same, this has N-Gage written all over it IMHO.

  9. Just as I suspected from more unofficial hands-on, sad to hear it’s still the case.

    The problem I have is you’re going to have to have this on a 24m deal to get the best price on it but the specs aren’t sufficient to last 24m

    Phones releasing now have dual-core CPUs/GPUs and 1gb or RAM this sounds like it’s been gimped so as to make the NGP seem much better than just a mobile and with it jerking away now in 6m time when EA etc have backed Android (they’ve said it’s their goal this year) the games will run like sh1t in 12 & especially 18-24m time it could be unusable.

    • I think 24 month contracts are a joke anyway. Mobile phones are easily the fastest developing segment of the fastest developing industry in the world. Two years is a very long time in that world and I personally think the network know that and just use it to make the priced sound low initially knowing there is a good chance you will pay off your contract early to get a new one or upgrade your phone later which you pay over the odds to do.

    • Yeh the hardware is outdated on this thing, not surprised seeing as its a Sony Android.

      I hear the Galaxy S2 has a dual core CPU and a Quad Core GPU.

  10. iPhone + NGP + Sony S1 = \o/

    • That’s exactly what your credit card issuer is thinking

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