Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Sony Xperia Play Review

Sony Ericsson's long-awaited PlayStation Phone finally becomes a reality - we go hands-on to see if it can live up to the hype, and if it's a viable challenger to the iPhone's overwhelming dominance.

PlayStation Phone. Those words just roll off the tongue, don't they? The idea of fusing one of the world's most iconic gaming brands with mobile connectivity is practically a no-brainer, which makes it all the more puzzling that Sony Ericsson has waited this long to fulfil the tantalising promise. Sure, we've had devices that have alluded to the notion -- the PS3-linked Aino, for example -- but the Xperia Play is the real deal, even if it doesn't actually bear the PlayStation name anywhere on its glossy black casing.

Xperia Play as a phone

Despite the gaming focus and the vast amount of cash being spent on promoting the Xperia Play's unique controls, Sony Ericsson is keen to stress that it's a telecommunications device first and foremost, with the entertainment element being a large, juicy bonus.

The problem with this approach is that when compared to other Android-based handsets hitting store shelves right now, the Xperia Play is merely good rather than great. It's running Android 2.3 (AKA Gingerbread) so it's up to date at least, but it lacks several key features that are becoming commonplace in other Google Phones. There's no dual-core processor, HDMI-out or 720p video recording, and the 4-inch LED backlit screen is markedly inferior to the gorgeous Super AMOLED effort sported by the Nexus S and Samsung Galaxy S II.

The Xperia Play is also quite a dumpy little beast, with a girth of 16mm at its thickest point. It sags in the pocket thanks to its 175 gram weightb -- making it nearly 40 grams more dense than the already-weighty iPhone 4.

Xperia Play as a gaming device

The first thing you're likely to think of when you slide open the Xperia Play's gaming controls is 'PSPgo'. Sony's download-dependant hardware experiment from 2009 may have been beset by a multitude of faults, but its interface wasn't one of them. The same ultra-responsive D-pad and button configuration is replicated here, with the added bonus of twin touch-senstive pads which pay homage to the dual shock setup seen on Sony's home consoles.

Only the L and R shoulder triggers spoil the good impression, being too flimsy to offer truly instinctive control. Their position on the side of the phone also makes me slightly uneasy -- one accidental drop is likely to be all that's required to separate them from their housings.

Still, you need only hold the Xperia Play in your hands for a few seconds to realise that Sony Ericsson has totally nailed the control interface. This is certainly no Nokia N-Gage -- with the exception of the shoulder triggers, everything about the phone's gaming controls is fantastic. It's genuinely amazing to have such a precise and responsive degree of command on what is essentially a mobile phone, and you'll wonder how you ever managed to play Snake on a cramped alphanumeric keypad all those years ago.

The games

Of course, interface is just one part of the equation -- without solid software to play, such refined controls are about as much use as a chocolate teapot. Here, the picture is slightly less clear, but that's not to say that the Xperia Play hasn't gotten off to a positive start.

On paper at least, the launch has been a success. Sixty titles are available that support the Xperia Play's control system, and in terms of raw numbers that makes this one of the most well-stocked hardware launches in gaming history. However, further examination reveals that the stats are slightly misleading. The overwhelming majority of those games are already available on Android's app store, and have merely been optimised for use on Sony Ericsson's new device.


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