Review: Sony Ericsson Xperia Play
Sony Ericsson's Xperia Play attempts to take on the gaming crowd with its dedicated gaming controls. With exclusive titles and a fast processor, the Xperia Play's gaming chops should be second to none.
Gaming enthusiasts now have access to perhaps the best gaming handset to come along since Nokia's N-Gage platform. The Sony Ericsson Xperia Play packages some of Sony's PlayStation prowess in an Android handset. Is it all fun and, er, games, or is there anything holding this device back?
Sony Ericsson clearly hopes that Xperia Play owners are a forgiving lot. It is a chubby, heavy phone. Granted, Sony Ericsson didn't have a lot of leeway with the design, as it had to accommodate the gaming controls that are revealed when the phone is slid open. But still, at 16mm, the Xperia Play is a thick phone, and your hand feels each millimeter as it rests in your palm. The back surface of the Xperia Play tapers significantly towards the top and bottom edges, but this only helps the Xperia Play slip into and out of pockets with less effort. The materials are typical for a Sony Ericsson Android handset: cheapish, creaky, and chrome-y.
The front is nearly all screen, save for the four physical buttons that form a silver-colored smile at the bottom of the face. These four buttons, thanks to their large profile, are easy to find, but travel and feedback is downright mushy and unsatisfying. They control the Xperia Play's essential Android functions.
The 3.5mm headset jack is on the left side of the phone, as is the microUSB port. The volume toggle is on the right, as are the “shoulder” gaming controls (similar to the L1 and R1 buttons you'd find on a PS3 controller). All three of these buttons are horrible. The volume toggle is placed in the middle, and recessed a bit. The action is about as bad as it gets, and the button often become lodged/stuck in the depressed position. The L1 and R1 buttons are miserable flaps that are easy to use when the phone is closed, but are at the totally wrong angle when then phone is held open for gaming. The travel and feedback is completely crappy.
The power/lock button is on top, and is the only button that didn't make me want to stomp on the Xperia Play. It has good travel and feedback.
The Xperia Play is a sideways slider. The sliding mechanism is far from solid. There's plenty of wiggling between the top and bottom halves, and the seam is uneven around the handset. Popping the top portion up is easy enough. Once open, you have the main gaming controls.
Similar to the layout out a PS3-style controller. there are two sets of directional buttons. Each set of buttons has four: arrow buttons on the left side, and the PlayStation square, triangle, circle and X on the right. These buttons are rubbery in nature and I found that it took a lot of time to get used their feel. There are also a few other small buttons for accessing the menu, and the PlayStation select/start functions. These three smaller buttons are a bit too small and recessed too far into the surface of the Xperia Play's gaming controls, but the travel and feedback are good. There are also two analog controls. They are two circles, each about the size of a nickel, that mimic what would be the dual joysticks on a PS3 controller. I found that they weren't very responsive during games.
In order to replace the microSD card, you need to remove the battery cover. The microSD card can be swapped without pulling the battery, thankfully.
The Xperia Play offers a 4-inch capacitive display with 480 by 854 pixels. It doesn't look any better or any worse than the myriad similar displays found on most of today's Android handsets. It looks really great, but doesn't dazzle; it's bright, but not blinding; it's good enough for gaming, but would be better if it stepped up to qHD resolution. Perhaps most importantly, the display washes out almost entirely when out in the sun, making the Xperia Play difficult to use outdoors.
The Xperia Play is a 3G phone, and not a very good one. The Xperia Play showed significantly lower signal strength when next to other Verizon Wireless handsets. Throughout most of my testing, it rarely captured more than two bars of coverage. Calls connected most of the time, but not all the time. It lost the signal entirely in my basement and in the NJ vault test (my local Shop Rite), and in those places, it wouldn't connect calls. Thankfully, the Xperia Play didn't drop any calls (especially the one with my mortgage broker). Data sessions were also iffy. Most often, web pages were slow to load. Speedy web performance was hard to come by.
Quality of the calls that went through was actually quite good. Voices were clear in the earpiece, with little-to-no extraneous noise at all. The earpiece volume left a bit to be desired, though. Set to maximum, it would work well in a quiet home, but even a TV was enough to make phone calls hard to hear. The ringers were very loud, as were alert tones, and alarms. The speakerphone was plenty loud, but the vibrate alert was hardly strong enough to be felt in my pocket.
When the Xperia Play is used only as a smartphone, I was able to eke a full day's use out of it consistently. When I say use it as a smartphone, I mean you have to completely ignore the gaming functions. If you use it for calls, email, SMS/MMS, Twitter, Facebook, and light browsing, you should get through a day no problem. Extended gaming sessions, however, will chew through the battery in what feels like moments. Playing Crash Bandicoot, I was able to destroy the battery from a full charge in just three hours. Ouch. Game on, but only with the charger on.
The Xperia Play runs Android version 2.3.2, though I wouldn't be surprised if you couldn't tell. It has been given a light skin by Sony Ericsson that leaves functionality intact but gives everything the same vibe as found on Sony Ericsson's earlier Xperia-branded devices.
Sony Ericsson's treatment of the home screens is typical for an Android device. There are five panels to the home screen, which are littered with a mish-mash of apps and shortcuts. The main app menu is the same alphabetized grid of icons, and the settings menus are identical to those of other Android handsets. Sony Ericsson has given them a hint of color, but otherwise they are left mostly alone.
The five home screens can be adjusted per individual tastes, but the main menu is stuck in the alphabetical grid. No rearranging it or shifting it to a list-style view.
One thing worth pointing out: when the Xperia Play is opened (but not necessarily being used for a game), the arrow keys on the left side of the game pad help with on-screen navigation, and the secondary keys can be used for faster access to the menus than reaching up to hit the four standard Android controls.
The Verizon CDMA version of the Xperia Play is slightly different from the GSM one. The look and feel have been updated slightly, and the user interface elements I've mentioned here take place of what was a stock Android build on earlier models we've handled.
Sony Ericsson makes use of a mostly-stock Android calling application on the Xperia Play. It's colored differently than on other handsets, but the base operation is identical to most other Android devices. The software dialer works well and offers haptic feedback when the keys are pressed. The Xperia Play has the typical tabs at the top of the screen for accessing the call log, contacts list, and favorites.
From time to time, I noticed that the speakerphone didn't want to activate even though I pressed the button to turn it on during calls. The button would light up, but the call wouldn't switch from the earpiece to the speaker. At press time, Sony Ericsson and Verizon hadn't been able to provide an explanation for the problem.
The Xperia Play did a fine job synchronizing my contacts. The phone can sync with Google contacts, Exchange servers, Facebook, and Twitter. From your contact list, tapping a picture brings up a small row of icons so you can quickly make a call, send a message or email, or even start a navigation trip, if you have a postal address listed.
The messaging options on the Xperia Play are standard Android fare. SMS/MMS messages are displayed in a conversational, threaded format. It’s easy to attach media and information to your messages, including pics and videos, as well as navigation coordinates and contact info.
For instant messaging, the Xperia Play comes with Google Talk. Like many Android phones, there are no other IM apps on board, but there are good options available from the Android Market.
For email, there is Gmail and then there is the app for everything else. Everything else can include Exchange accounts, with support for multiple Exchange servers, as well as POP3 and IMAP4 mail accounts. The Gmail app is superior in my opinion, with more features for managing, organizing, and labeling messages. The generic email app for Exchange and other accounts does a fine job, too.
I wonder if Sony Ericsson is making a subtle jab at its perceived market, given the lack of any social networking software on the Xperia Play. Does Sony Ericsson think mobile gamers are a socially inept and awkward lot? Does Verizon believe gamers to be lacking in the friend department? Whatever the reason, it stinks that there are no social networking apps on board the Xperia Play out of the box. You have to go to the Android Market and download them yourself.
Video chatting software? Also missing. At least visual voicemail, Skype, and Latitude are on board, but that's not saying much.
In sum, only the basics are present and accounted for. If you want more than that, you'll have to forage for it on your own.
The Xperia Play uses the stock Android music player. From what I can tell, it hasn't changed a single line of code, nor added a single feature to it. It's the same-old, same-old.
The Xperia Play has no music services pre-loaded. No Amazon MP3, no Slacker, no Pandora, not even Verizon's crummy V CAST Music Store or Rhapsody. Finding and purchasing music and adding it to the Xperia Play are all on you.
The Xperia Play does not include a separate video player application, though plenty are available in the Android Market. It does include the Android YouTube app, which is great for snacking on bite-sized videos. There are no movie rental or purchasing options on board.
I was easily able to sideload video content. That content is found in the main gallery app, and the gallery software will play it back no problem.
The crux of the Xperia Play is, of course, its gaming chops. How does it work? Slide the Xperia Play open to get at the gaming controls, and the Xperia Play automatically launches the game console. From the console, you can select one of the games and start playing. The device comes pre-loaded with a handful of titles, such as Asphalt6, Bruce Lee, Crash Bandicoot, Madden NFL11, Star Battalion, Tetris, and SIMs 3.
I found that all of the games - save for Tetris - were exceedingly slow to load. Star Battalion, for example, took a full minute from the time I selected it to the time it was ready to let me play. That's a bit long in my opinion. Each game has its own set of controls and functions, although you can learn by trial and error fairly quickly.
Game play itself was great. The games played smoothly and without stuttering or crashing. I really enjoyed Asphalt6 and Crash Bandicoot. The graphics looked outstanding on the display, and the sound quality was superb. Attached to a set of real speakers, you wouldn't know that the sound was coming from a phone and not an actual gaming console.
Several of the games offer multiplayer modes. You can play others within your direct vicinity via Wi-Fi, or worldwide via 3G. For the best results, I'd recommend you stick to Wi-Fi for multiplayer gaming. Given the choppy network capabilities of the Xperia Play, I wouldn't want to rely on it for a serious session of multiplayer gaming.
There are 28 other games available for download from the Verizon/Sony gaming store. They run the gamut from first-person shooters, to racing games, Guitar Hero, Assassin's Creed, Pac-Man, and so on.
But the real question is, is the Xperia Play a better gaming handset than any other regular Android phone? That depends a lot on what type of gaming you do. If you're a casual gamer, don't care about Sony-specific titles, and the gaming control pad, then you will probably be happy with any Android phone with respect to gaming chops.
If you're more serious about gaming, are invested in Sony's catalog, then perhaps the Xperia Play's hardware is enough to make the decision an easy one. My concern is Sony's commitment to bringing new titles to the Xperia Play platform. How long will it take to ramp up more than the few dozen titles that are available? Will it get its own exclusive content? Will the titles be different enough from what's available to standard Android phones to make a difference? These are all unknown at this point.
The Xperia Play has a 5 megapixel camera. Camera features include auto-focus and an LED flash.
The camera controls and user interface are more or less stock Android. The left side of the display is empty, but the right side has five icons floating next to the shutter button to quickly adjust certain settings. Simply press the icon, and then swipe up or down to cycle through the options. It’s nice and easy. The Xperia Play doesn't offer as many imaging options as some high-end Android phones, but it offers the right ones, including: focus mode, exposure control, scene modes, white balance, and flash control. The Xperia Play doesn't, however, offer touch-to-focus.
The Xperia Play focuses in about one second, and then takes about another second to capture and process images. Once captured, images can be sent, shared, deleted and fired off in pretty much every way imaginable.
The gallery is the stock Android option, with its neat 3D look and feel. Thankfully, the gallery application performed fluidly. I was worried it might be sluggish, but it was speedy and didn't let a sizable photo album slow it down.
Sadly, editing options are severely limited. Crop and rotate are all you get. At least the sharing options are solid.
The Xperia Play's shooter does an excellent job at taking pictures. In challenging shooting environments, with a full-force morning sun, it still managed to capture a lot of detail without letting the bright spots become completely blown out. Color representation and white balance were perfect in every shot. I noticed that exposure was off in one shot, but the rest were all good. My only complaint is that some of the images were a little soft with respect to focus, though most were nice and sharp. You'll gladly want to share the images you capture with the Xperia Play.
The Xperia Play shoots video at a maximum resolution of 800 x 480. That means no HD video for you, and that's a shame.
The quality of the video was not nearly as good as that of the camera. While color, exposure, and white balance all looked good, focus and clarity were way off. There's plenty of digital noise, and detail is lost throughout with the blocky appearance of the footage I capture. It's not terrible, and will surely get the job done in the pinch, but so many other Android phones can snag HD video that this is a bit of a let-down.
The Xperia Play runs the stock Android browser. When first opened, it jumps to Verizon's landing page, which offers shortcuts to content assembled by Verizon. While the controls of the browser are identical to other Android handsets, the performance was not. It what appears to be a result of the Xperia Play's poor signal capabilities, browsing performance via 3G was spotty. Pages often took more than 30 seconds to load (under optimal conditions), which is just way too long for a modern smartphone. Flash video played, but in fits and starts. The Xperia Play's browser performance is truly disappointing.
The Xperia Play is slightly less customizable than some competing models. While the home screen panels can be fully adjusted, it's a shame that the main menu can't be rearranged into a more suitable order, or even into a list view. Sony Ericsson also is behind the competition when it comes to themes, device profiles, and so on. Sure, you can change up the wallpapers and ringtones, but HTC's Sense phones, for example, allow you to do a whole lot more.
If you discount the games included on the Xperia Play, Verizon Wireless actually restrained itself from overloading the device with unnecessary apps. In fact, there's almost no bloatware. As always, you're more than welcome to add as many apps as you like from the Android Market.
The Xperia Play supports the usual bunch of Bluetooth profiles, including mono and stereo headsets, phone book access, and object push. Pairing with headsets and other smartphones and/or PCs was easy to set up. Call quality through mono headsets was OK, music and gaming quality through stereo headsets was not that great. Sending files back and forth to other devices wasn't too troublesome.
The Xperia Play doesn't break any new ground in the clock department. It has the same lock-screen clock behavior that most Android handsets do. The time is displayed in a large, white, digital read-out when the display is woken from sleep. There is also a separate clock app if you need to set an alarm, or time how fast your friends can chug a 2L bottle of root beer.
The Xperia Play comes loaded with both Google Maps and Verizon's VZ Navigator service. Both pieces of software are great for navigation purposes. Google Maps, in particular, has added a few great features lately, such as tighter integration with other Google services like Places and Latitude. VZ Navigator is excellent at routing directions, but costs $10 per month; Google Maps is free. In terms of GPS accuracy, the Xperia Play was able to lock my approximate position (within about a half-mile) in a few seconds. It zeroed in on my exact location (to within about 20 feet) in seven or eight seconds.
The Xperia Play is an interesting beast. The hardware is unfortunately typical of Sony Ericsson's recent handsets, which is to say not that great. I had real issues with the buttons and controls, and the overall quality that I like from a handset just isn't there.
Further, it doesn't perform up to par on some of the basic tasks, such as signal quality, browsing, messaging, and battery life.
If you can overlook the hardware and basic performance issues, the Xperia Play is a good gaming device and serves as an excellent camera. While not a lot of software is preloaded, the Android Market makes up for that deficit a bit, and the Xperia Play is a solid multimedia phone.
Bottom line? If you're a hardcore gamer, like the idea of the dedicated gaming controls, and are willing to forgive the Xperia Play's hardware missteps, then the Xperia Play is at least worth demoing at your local Verizon store. If you're only a casual gamer, though, there's nothing about the Xperia Play that really makes it a worthwhile pick over a standard Android handset.
The real question...