Sony Ericsson is looking to take mobile gaming to the next level with the Xperia Play Android smartphone. The Xperia Play features a slide-out gamepad for gamers who want more than touchscreen-only controls. Here's our review.

Sony Ericsson Xperia Play: A bulky but unique design

I have to hand it to Sony Ericsson for trying to add some class to the Xperia Play. The piano black finish and chrome trim make the phone shine - until you pick it up and get fingerprints all over it. The phone's look and feel are very reminiscent of the PSP Go, and the Play's 4in capacitive touchscreen does a good job of displaying colours and text. At 119x61x15mm, the Play is a bit bulky, though no more so than other phones we've seen that come with slide-out full qwerty keyboards. The Play weighs 176g, so it feels heavy but sturdy in hand.

The phone's power button and notification light sit at the top of the device; along the left spine are the headphone and charging ports. The volume rocker and gamepad shoulder buttons occupy the right spine, and on the back of the Play is a 5Mp camera. On the face of the device you'll find the four standard Android buttons (Back, Home, Menu, and Search), as well as a VGA front-facing camera for video chat.

Sony Ericsson Xperia Play: The gamepad

The slide-out gamepad on the Xperia Play is definitely the phone's coolest feature. Although not as good as gamepads on dedicated portable gaming systems, the Play's worked reasonably well with several games I downloaded from the Android Market.

The gamepad is set up much like Sony's DualShock controllers, albeit with a few differences. For starters, two touchpads are set up in the place where you'd find the analog sticks on the DualShock. I couldn't find many games in the Android Market that use touchpads, which in any case were not sensitive enough for most twitch-based first-person shooters.

Both the D-pad and the face buttons (X, Square, Triangle, and O) were very responsive, but they felt stiff and a bit too sunken in, making them hard to press. The Start and Select buttons are awkwardly placed below the face buttons, and there's a Menu button under the D-pad as well. More often than not, when I tried to quickly pause the game I was playing, I ended up pressing the Select button instead. Also, the shoulder buttons were too spongey and flimsy for my taste; I wish that they had had a little more resistance.

GamePro

Android 2.3, aka Gingerbread (finally!)

The Xperia Play is the first Verizon phone to ship with Gingerbread (Google Android 2.3). In a display of regrettably rare restraint, Sony Ericsson didn't mess with the OS too much.

The phone comes with some preloaded software and a handful of games to show off the Play's game-playing prowess - but nothing I would classify as bloatware. The seven preloaded games are Madden NFL 11, Bruce Lee Dragon Warrior, Tetris, The Sims 3, Star Battalion, Crash Bandicoot, and Asphalt 6: Adrenaline. These are all the full versions, and (with the exception of Tetris) they've all been optimised for use with the Xperia Play's slide-out gamepad.

Oddly, although the Play runs Gingerbread and has a front-facing camera, our review unit didn't include the latest version of Google Talk. As a result, the phone lacks a native video calling app, but I hope that Verizon will push out the up-to-date version of Google Talk for the Play in the near future.

Sony Ericsson Xperia Play: Performance

Unfortunately, the Xperia Play carries some rather outdated specifications. It is a 3G-only phone in a world that increasingly embraces 4G and LTE-enabled devices; and it has only about 400MB of internal storage, which severely limits the number of apps and games you can download and store. The Play compensates for this deficiency by including an 8GB MicroSD card, but the limited onboard memory is still disappointing.

The 1GHz Snapdragon processor does an admirable job of keeping the phone and games running smoothly. Even high-definition games like Cordy played without a hitch. A dual-core processor would have been nice for game performance, but its adverse effect on battery life might have been severe). The screen was nice and responsive, and the UI felt fluid as I swiped around the homescreen and navigated through the phone.

Call quality was reasonably good. Voices came through clearly, and I didn't notice any static or hissing. The Xperia Play managed to last almost an entire day of phone use on a single charge, though playing games on the device will significantly deplete the battery. After an hour of playing Crash Bandicoot, I saw that my battery had dropped from 75 percent charge to 50 percent. If you plan on using this device as your primary gaming handheld, you would do well to carry a charger with you.

Sony Ericsson Xperia Play

Sony Ericsson Xperia Play: Games, games, games

When it comes to playing games, the Xperia Play is without equal among smartphones. Having a physical gamepad instead of a virtual one gives the user much better control when playing games. And because the Play is PlayStation Certified, you can download and play classic PlayStation games from the Android Market; the Play is also the official mobile handset of Major League Gaming.

All of the preloaded games made good use of the slide-out touchpad, though not all were fun to play. Madden NFL 11 looked terrible and wouldn't let me use the touchpad to select plays or navigate some of the menus. Bruce Lee Dragon Warrior was another disappointment, due to a significant lag between when I input a command and when my fighter actually performed the instruction.

Asphalt 6: Adrenaline and Crash Bandicoot were the games I ended up playing the most because they took full advantage of the hardware. Asphalt 6 is a great-looking racing game with responsive controls and a wide variety of game modes. Crash Bandicoot was just the way I remember the original version on the first PlayStation, and it played buttery smooth.

Smartphone reviews

Sony Ericsson Xperia Play: Camera

The rest of the phone, unfortunately, is lacklustre on the multimedia front. The 5Mp camera on the rear of the device does an average job at capturing images and uses the stock (and somewhat underwhelming) Android camera software. Images weren't especially sharp, and colours were slightly darker than they appeared in real life. Videos looked better but were a bit on the quiet side.

Sony Ericsson Xperia Play sample photo

The Play's sound quality was weak. The external speaker popped at higher volumes, and bass-heavy songs lacked emphatic sound.

Next page: Our original review of the Sony Ericsson Xperia Play gaming phone, from 14 February 2011 >>

Sony Ericsson has revealed its Xperia Play gaming phone. We got the chance to play awhile with the much-hyped new 'PlayStation phone', and came away impressed. This is our original review of the Sony Ericsson Xperia Play gaming phone, from 14 February 2011, by PC World's Mark Sullivan.

Sony Ericsson hopes the long-awaited and much discussed gaming phone will wedge the company back into relevance in a smartphone market that's been dominated by HTC, Motorola, and Apple phones. "This is the best smartphone ever and will open up new possibilities for entertainment," said Rikko Sakaguchi, VP and "chief creation officer" at Sony Ericsson at the event.

The Xperia Play is powered by Android 2.3 (Gingerbread). It features a slide-out panel containing the Sony gaming D-pad (for in-game direction control) on the left side, the four symbol-etched game control buttons on the right, and a set of circular touchpads in the middle, which act like analog joysticks for operating certain games.

If you're used to on-screen gaming controls as I am, the physical gaming controllers on the Xperia Play may take some getting used to, but it's a much better experience. The controls were very responsive to the touch and their placement and functions seemed intuitive to me in the several games I played.

The phone packs a 1GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon processor, and the display is a 4in Bravia (480x854 pixels FWVGA) touchscreen with an Adreno GPU graphics processor inside.

The combined effect of these things is actually pretty impressive. The games I played here showed clearly defined 3D dimension and bright, vivid colours. Sony says the phone can do this while still going easy on the battery, but we'll have to test that later.

The user interface of the phone has the familiar Android feel, but Sony Ericsson has built some of the function areas, like the music player. I was impressed with the onscreen keyboard, and had no trouble banging out some error-free text.

I didn't much care for the curvy design of the phone, and I noted that some of the buttons on the side of the phone looked a bit cheap and plasticky. Nor did the phone feel solid in the hand in the way upper echelon smartphones feel.

Sony Ericsson Xperia Play

However, the phone weighs about as much and is about the same size as an HTC Nexus One.

Xperia Play owners will get their games from a Playstation store. Games from several key titles will be available, such as EA's Need For Speed, Sims 3, and a world-first multiplayer version of FIFA 10 for mobile. GLU Mobile/Activision will be bringing Guitar Hero to the Xperia Play, Sony says. Gameloft brings Assassin's Creed and Splinter Cell. The games are downloaded to the phone, not played from the cloud.

The Xperia Play is a CDMA phone (not LTE as I had hoped), so it is not likely to produce the upload speed and low network latency that's conducive to playing online games. Sony says it will begin selling the new gaming phone this Spring. Pricing information has not been announced.

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See also: VIDEO: first look at the Sony Ericsson Xperia Play

NEXT: our expert verdict >>

Sony Ericsson Xperia Play: Specs

  • 1GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon processor
  • 4in (480x854 FWVGA) Bravia multitouch touchscreen
  • Adreno GPU graphics processor
  • Google Android 2.3 OS
  • 512MB RAM
  • 400MB internal storage
  • micro SD
  • 5Mp camera
  • VGA front-facing camera for video chat
  • GPS
  • USB
  • Wi-Fi
  • 119x61x15mm
  • 176g
  • 1GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon processor
  • 4in (480x854 FWVGA) Bravia multitouch touchscreen
  • Adreno GPU graphics processor
  • Google Android 2.3 OS
  • 512MB RAM
  • 400MB internal storage
  • micro SD
  • 5Mp camera
  • VGA front-facing camera for video chat
  • GPS
  • USB
  • Wi-Fi
  • 119x61x15mm
  • 176g

OUR VERDICT

The Sony Ericsson Xperia Play will appeal to mobile gamers who are sick of poor touchscreen controls and are looking for a more fulfilling gaming experience on their phone. Currently, only a handful of games are optimised for use with the gamepad, but more game developers may support it in the future, since the APIs for physical game controls are included in the Android 2.3 SDK. Users who aren't big into gaming, however, should look elsewhere. The Play's relatively outdated hardware, microscopic memory, and lack of 4G support are enough to keep most smartphone buyers away.

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