Life With The Xperia Play

The Sony Ericsson Xperia Play is not the PlayStation Phone we all spent years wishing for. That single expectation, for a combination of telephone and PSP, is the biggest issue the new device will face. The problem for anything that is given the mixed blessings of a PlayStation endorsement is that it has a rich history of PlayStation gaming to be judged against.

Xperia Play generally previewed poorly and was disavowed by many of it’s network partners at launch (O2 didn’t launch it on time in the UK and now don’t seem to list it at all). The Xperia Play was not off to a good start.

[boxout]At its core, the Play is a competent, though not over-powered, Android device. It runs Android 2.3 and has all the usual Android features you would expect. The ongoing debate about that operating system’s merits is one for a different time. It’s enough to say that the Xperia Play is as accomplished as most when performing Android tasks. The 4 inch screen is larger than the iPhone 4, although not nearly as crisp or vivid – even at the maximum, battery draining, brightness.

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While we’re on the subject, battery life is always something to be aware of with smartphones. I can get roughly 2 days of sporadic mixed use from my iPhone 4 if I’m lucky and keep inside a 3G area. I get a little over a day from my Android-powered Orange San Francisco in the same conditions. The Xperia Play seems, from very unscientific testing, to be roughly similar. So it seems that it will need charged every day, which is par for the course with large screened, multitouch smartphones. My advice is to buy the dock and use it as a nightstand alarm clock.

The camera is decent enough in perfect lighting conditions but fairly poor by today’s standards in artificial and low light situations. The video recordings suffer the same fate, they’re acceptable in good lighting conditions but suffer badly in poor conditions.

The unique selling point of this device isn’t really anything to do with Android though. It’s not to do with cameras or multimedia playback. It’s not even anything to so with Sony Ericsson. This device is sold as something with buttons for playing games. So let’s see how that feature works out.

Firstly, the slide out joypad provides considerable heft to the device. I like that feeling of weight and I like the curves of the design but it is noticeably less robust in terms of build quality than my iPhones have been. The sliding mechanism, for example, has a tiny bit of play in it that might potentially get worse over time. Regardless, it feels solid enough and has a nice weight to it that makes it comfortable in the palm of your hand.

One issue I had was using it as a phone. What are the shoulder buttons for a horizontal, slide out gaming device become the sharp-edged disruptions in the ergonomic feel of a vertical Android phone. When using it as a touchscreen device, holding it in my left hand, it feels perfect, my left fingers resting on the shoulder buttons. In my right hand it’s uncomfortable. This is not really a huge problem but it is a minor annoyance as they rub uncomfortably against the palm. At least I can hold it as I naturally would and not risk dropped calls.

[drop]When slid open, it’s similar in size to the PSPGo but the weight of that screen still leaves it feeling a touch unbalanced, slightly top-heavy. Something that would be easy to get used to but it does make finding a comfortable hand position that little bit more difficult. My hands are probably slightly larger than average and it was quite uncomfortable to hold for long periods of time.

The combination of having thumbs in the appropriate position on the face of it and fingers ready for the shoulder buttons feels unnatural for me. I also had the recurring problem of pressing the off button with the lower part of my left shoulder-button-finger. As noted, my hands are probably larger than average and the Xperia Play’s buttons are certainly less awkward than screen overlays for buttons on touchscreen devices.

The touch sensitive areas in the centre of the joypad section are a major concern. The two little circles are intended to emulate analogue sticks but they are so small that any sort of analogue precision is next to impossible for anyone with thumbs bigger than a child’s. I passed the device around a number of people, men, women, big and small and nobody was able to effectively get to grips with the analogue area before they got too frustrated and simply switched to using the D-pad. In many games it still feels like it doesn’t work properly, Asphalt 6 still seemed to have serious input lag using the analogue touch pads (although none at all with the D-pad).

Shooters are made more playable because of these analogue-emulating areas but the limited range of motion and the often unresponsive nature of the touch pads makes them awkward to play, even when the controls are implemented in the best possible way. It seems like the most enjoyable games are destined to be the ones that can completely ignore what was potentially the most interesting control surface.

The much touted buttons are firm, responsive and well built. They are the equal of the new 3DS and actually feel more robust and positive than the buttons on my PSP3000 or any traditional console controller. That D-Pad, while often a necessary stand-in for the under performing analogue areas, is fantastic. It provided crisp, instant response in any game I tried it with and really feels positive under thumb.

So the Xperia Play is a decent Android touchscreen device with that slide out controller which offers the standard range of, very good, buttons. The analogue stick substitutes are tricky to get a handle on but overall they’re not very impressive. Perhaps that’s something which could be improved with software updates. Perhaps its even something that the user could largely adjust to over a period of time but in the few weeks I’ve been using the phone, I’ve only ever used them when there was no alternative.

PlayStation Pocket is the store area that gives access to all those PlayStation Classics when they become available. There are currently only 5 titles in that area – Cool Boarders 2, Destruction Derby, Jumping Flash, MediEvil and Syphon Filter. Crash Bandicoot came pre loaded on the unit but aside from that, games cost £3.99 each and you would have to hope that the service sees a rapid increase in titles fairly soon in order to remain relevant. Certainly, the combination of those button controls and the prospect of Metal Gear Solid or Final Fantasy VII on the bus is an exciting one.

Perhaps the most exciting thing about the Xperia Play is not listed as a bullet point feature in the press releases though. Perhaps the most exciting thing is the possibilities it opens up for emulation. As an experiment (and because I own the original carts so can do it legally), I downloaded the free version of Genoid, an Android emulator for the Sega Mega Drive/ Genesis. I found the game images for Sonic and Sensible Soccer online and put them on the Xperia Play. It works beautifully and the buttons can easily be configured to operate just like the original controller.

[drop2]With emulation still a legal grey area, this might not be a feature that is worth exploring for many people but imagine the possibilities if Sega could be brought on board. Perhaps they could sell packs of games capable of being run on an Android emulator so that customers could enjoy them without any legal ambiguity. It’s difficult to see Nintendo doing something similar for the SNESoid emulator (Super Nintendo) as they wouldn’t want to support someone else’s platform but Sega are a software company now so it’s a plausible option.

The Xperia Play, then, is a strange beast. It has its good points and there is definite potential in the future of PlayStation Pocket and the tailoring of Android applications to suit the button layout. Whether that future becomes a reality is another question with stated downloads of PlayStation Pocket titles seemingly quite low. At the time of writing, the highest rated – Syphon Filter – sits in the “100-500 downloads” category and Jumping Flash is stated as having “<50 downloads” so it’s difficult to see that avenue being profitable.

The slide out control system is partially extremely good and partially awkward and unwieldy. It seems as though some developers are already getting to grips with the platform. Gameloft, in particular, supported the launch very competently with a number of the best games available coming form that one publisher.

What it all boils down to, though, is the value of a device which is little more than average as an Android phone and barely competent as a gaming platform. There are better options available if you want a portable gaming device, with Sony currently marketing the PSP and gearing up for the release of the NGP – which should blow all other mobile gaming devices out of the water in terms of sheer power. The Nintendo DS range, including the newest 3DS are all more competent as a stand alone gaming platform, too. It’s very difficult to see where Sony Ericsson is going to be able to squeeze the Xperia Play into the handheld games console market.

Disregarding the dedicated gaming aspect, as an Android device it is outperformed by many existing models and will soon be eclipsed by a whole new range of touchscreen powerhouses running the same operating system. Even the other devices in the newest Xperia range seem like more enticing prospects, with the Arc in particular looking gorgeous.

The Xperia Play has grown on me a little in the time I’ve spent with it. I can certainly see some potential. I don’t see where it fits in any of the markets it attempts to converge and I fear that its underwhelming appearance onto the scene might be a worrying sign that it simply won’t be able to sustain the numbers needed to make sustained investment in the software library a viable business opportunity for many. It’s not a terrible device but it’s a long way from being a particularly good one and at that price point, I would expect a lot more.

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29 Comments

  1. I have an Xperia Play and after having Iphones and BB I feel like its a breath of fresh air. Your points raised on weight and button layout are spot on and it can be a tad uncomfortable, but with a little fussing about you can find a comfortable grip for the little monster.

    Analog pads work well for me and its how I enjoy bouts of Fifa 10, which I might add is great [and i dont do footy games really, I loved Super Soccer though on the SNES].

    Everything else with the XP for me is a joy and I really do love android, its great. As a little gaming phone its even greater.

    I also think you are on the money with where it sits in the market, but if they push great games [MGS/Street Fighter/GT] it will attract a decent audience.

    With apple and BB dropping new phones quicker then I can eat Space Raiders I think people may just give the little XP a go.

    Your review is excellent, my verdict would be try it, if you fancy a good alternative and love your Sony Gaming, give it a go.

    Nice Read Peter, your helping wash away this pointless work day :-)

    • ‘With apple and BB dropping new phones quicker then I can eat Space Raiders’

      I laughed :P

      • look im all for gadgets and new things bbut 500 pounds for aphone with gaming are you people all crazy???its been compaired to the iphone4 as competition and i hear looks shelf life functions quality everything it falls short of the iphone which is fair enough im not on the iphones side like its a person but a slim ps3 is like 189 in tesco an iphone 4 is how much?you must be able to buy both instead of the xp phone and both on there own are miles ahead id neveer get one it would have to be able to make me a good cup of tea tidy up and make my dinner for me to buy it and my girlfriend cant do those things so ihave no chance with a new phone doing that for me

  2. For me i think it’s a bit too expensive here it cost around 600€ if they shaved a few hundred from that it could sell allot but i would want it because it has real games and buttons you need buttons to play games

  3. I was very excited about the Play when it was first rumoured but slowly got turned off from the idea as launch approached, and its hardware appeared to be out of date even before it launched alongside the dual-core competition.

    Phone tech moves extremely fast, and while I’d love to have buttons to game with, I find that I don’t actually like to game on-the-go very much so I had a decision to make.

    As such I’ve ended up going for the Galaxy S 2 and will pick it up next week. the Xperia Play is definitely a push in the right direction, but the perfect combination of qualities just doesn’t seem to exist.

  4. £600 quid for a gaming phone? Your having a laugh?

    • I got the phone FREE on contract.

      £30.00 per month, unlimited text, internet and 900 mins!

      Bang Tidy!

      • 24 months though?

      • Nice, and I do imagine it is 24 month contract. I am on this contract at the moment but not with this phone or price :)

        I’d like to get this but I will only be looking for a new phone next march and by then I hope it’s cheaper or I’ll be going for a newer phone for that year [as it would be a similar price and more up to date]. Gaming on the go is a treat but it’s not high on my phone requirements

  5. How longs the contract?

  6. Speaking to people at carphone warehouse, their view was that o2 couldn’t get their own software working on it and were having problems locking the phone to only their network.

    I wonder how much of the issue with the analogue pads is down to software being rushed for launch or devleopers not yet get to grips with them. It took a long time for developers to get to grips with replicating buttons on iphones.

    • Well, the review unit is unbranded, naturally. I’m using it with an Orange PAYG sim (my O2 SIM is the micro one for iPhone 4) and it is still a little crash-happy at times. Nothing too worrying but definitely not what I would want if I’d spent £600 on it. Price is plummeting though, just saw it for £475 on Amazon…

  7. I would love to get something like this, but the specs are nowhere good enough to last 24 months.

    The real win is in emulators…. hundred & hundreds of amazing NES, SMS, SMD, SNES, GC & PS1 games, all with proper controls. It’s a shame for that as a smartphone its ndt sufficiently specc’d to keep up with other phones already on the market, nevermind all the one’s being imminently released so getting stuck in a long contract with it is a bit of a false economy.

    but they’ll be an Xperia-Play 2, right?

    • NGP will likely be cheaper, massively more powerful, run all those same Android apps (emulators) and not have the phone bit attached (so no danger of having to talk to a human when you’re trying to play something). Win-win.

      • NGP is a day one for me, even if it was £999.99 – I would be getting it day one!

        Cant wait for it, XP is fun and fills those 10/15 mins of boredom here and then for quick gaming blast, the web browser is also a joy.

        Love it when someone sees it and their reaction. Always impressed by the joypad popping down and seeing the bruce lee game is full flow!

        Splinter Cell and Spiderman will be my next investments :-)

        XP is a phone for those who are bored with iphones and bb. Each to their own tho ;-)

  8. £500? I’ve seen it for £400.

    • RRP is £599.99 but I have seen it heavily discounted by retailers. Amazon had it at £475 this morning. Still far too expensive but moving in the right direction, I suppose.

  9. I was defo getting this untill my mate did, played around with it for a half hour just didnt like it, the feel was wrong both for gaming and as a phone

  10. kind of ironic the battery lasts for longer than a psp

    • How so? It’s less powerful and therefore draws less current.

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