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Xperia PLAY Review

The Xperia PLAY is the first gaming-centric phone since the ill-fated N-Gage. The PLAY had a bit of a troubled launch – initially released in Europe, some wireless providers even halted the launch due to some technical problems with the gaming phone. The phone was finally officially released on May 26th in the US after a round of pre-orders. After spending well over a week with this curious phone/gaming hybrid of a device, and allowing the 50+ games to actually launch for the platform, it’s time for a proper review.

The phone comes in a surprisingly small box, given how large the phone appears on the Internet. The truth is, the PLAY, while not as svelte as some other smartphones, is a lot thinner than you would guess by the beauty shots. Looking at the screen head-on, there’s a VGA front-facing camera and ambient light sensor to the right, some SE branding, a large 4” display, and your traditional four Android buttons on the bottom as on any other Sony Ericsson phone these days. The back of the device feels a bit cheap and plasticy, and is also a fingerprint haven (at least, the black version is – we were not able to test a white PLAY). There’s also a 5.1 megapixel rear-facing camera, LED flash, microphone, the iconic Sony Ericsson logo, and the typical branding of wireless carrier and the name of the phone. On the top of the phone lies the power button, which also has a notification LED. You also have an unfortunately placed headphone jack on the left side of the Play – when you put the phone in your pocket access to the headphone port is blocked, and you run the risk of breaking cords if your pockets are any bit snug.

So the design isn’t the best when considering the backside texture and a few ports. But all of that is easily forgiven the second you slide the screen up and are greeted not by yet another keyboard, but rather by a full-on PlayStation Portable layout, with two huge bonuses. I’d like to call it a PSP+ gamepad. The two analog touchpads where the single analog stick and start/select buttons normally lie on the PSP Go is admittedly weird to see at first, but once you use these puppies for a few games you really learn to appreciate them (more on that in a bit). As you grip the phone with the gamepad out, your trigger fingers instinctively move to the upper left and right corners of the phone, and they are met by the L and R triggers. They seem a bit “softer” to the touch than any traditional shoulder button you may be used to, but they have a resounding clicking feel that assures you your button press has been registered.

As you may know, one of the reasons some people–especially gadgetphiles– are deciding to pass on the Xperia PLAY is due to its internal hardware. While it’s true that Sony Ericsson went with a single-core Snapdragon processor, it is no slouch at its 1 GHz clock rate. The Play is one of the first handset to ship with the latest phone version of Google’s Android operating system, 2.3 (“Gingerbread”). My current app count is already at 140, many of which run services in the background such as Trillian, Advanced Task Killer, Facebook, Tweetdeck, Foursquare, and more. The OS has yet to hiccup. A couple of apps weren’t completely compatible at first, but now that the phone has been out those applications have been updated and other than, have not seen a force close (application hang up) in quite some time. I have yet to ever see the phone slow down to the point where it needed a reboot, and I have only turned it completely off three times since it’s been in my possession – once to upgrade the MicroSD card, again when attempting to root, and recently after I dropped it a few feet and the MicroSD card became dislodged. Make no mistakes – the Xperia PLAY runs rock solid. The fact that Sony Ericsson didn’t load the phone up with a lot of “bloatware” outside of Verizon’s VCAST application probably has a lot to do with its stability.

As a phone, the PLAY can easily last all day while handling heavy texting, web surfing, or even talking on the device. Since this is the Android platform, the variety of applications you can install without needing to “root” (think “jailbreak” in the iOS world – it enables you to install applications not officially supported by the platform) is enormous, and ever-expanding by the day. The PLAY comes with all the bells and whistles of the world of Android – Visual Voicemail, external storage, and all the Google functionality you can handle. Sync your accounts and other information to any of your Google accounts, get free voice-guided navigation via Google Maps, and utilize the incredibly impressive voice-controlled functionality to do countless things with the phone just by speaking. Sony Ericsson has even released a tool to unlock the bootloader of the GSM versions of the phone, though it is not yet available here in the States. For those unaware, this essentially enables a bit more customization options. The platform as a whole is simply a lot more open than others, though this does of course come with its own dangers which, however rare they may be, do exist. I’ve not heard of a widespread Android virus yet, but crazier things have happened. You just need to be sensible as with any other files you download from the Internet.

Ok, so the Xperia PLAY will get you through the day as a snappy, responsive, stable phone. But let’s get to what you likely came here for – the games! The second you slide open the phone to reveal the gamepad, the screen rotates to landscape orientation and the Xperia Play-branded Verizon Apps launcher loads on your screen. This of course does not have to launch every time you open the phone, which is something that is set as a preference. The application does occasionally load in the “More Games” tab that shows you games you can buy rather than the ones you already own, which seems a bit of a pushy move on Verizon’s part. Anyway, click on the Xperia PLAY Games tab and the real fun can begin. As previously showcased, the Play comes preloaded with a handful of games, but you will likely want to download more games pronto. Much to my dismay, these preloaded games are not removable, but fortunately it appears most of their data is stored on the SD card anyway – Asphalt 6 weighs in at 843 MB!

There’s no denying it, playing games on this phone is wonderful. It will make you hate all other phones that much more when it comes to gaming. You will never want to go back to touchpad-only gaming on a phone after using this. As mentioned before, the Xperia PLAY does not use the latest and greatest processing hardware, but regardless, games look phenomenal on the 4 inch LCD. From classic Android games like Zenonia, Reckless Racing and Gun Bros to newer (and even timed-exclusive) games such as Dungeon Defenders: Second Wave run like a champ here. Thanks to these games utilizing the gamepad, your fingers never get in the way of the action, and you are able to view an unobstructed field of play. Just as Sony promised, there are as of this writing over 50 games available to play which are optimized for the Xperia PLAY’s unique control scheme. Some of these games are even free, being supported by ads or in-game purchases. However, consumer beware – Verizon doesn’t really tell you this for games such as the aforementioned Gun Bros – a completely free version of the game, touting PLAY compatibility and all, is available for free on the Android Martketplace; the link to the game in the Xperia PLAY app only offers you the paid version of the game for $6.99. While it’s always good to support a developer, not giving the customer the option of an available free version seems pretty shady. On the flipside, however, some games are available slightly cheaper on the Verizon App Store than the Android Market – Age of Zombies, for instance, is $3.20 on the Android Market and $2.99 on the Verizon App Store. Either way, it’s frustrating for the average user.

But it’s games like Gun Bros and the preloaded Asphalt 6 that show off just how accurate the touchpads really are. At first, you may be tempted to use the virtual sticks as you did the analog nub on the PlayStation Portable, which was not really renowned for its accuracy to begin with. With these touchpads, finesse is the key. Whether drifting in Asphalt 6 or capping some poor schmuck in Gun Bros, even a minor tilt of your thumb that you yourself barely notice is accurately reflected in the game. Other games, such as the included Star Battalion, seems to treat the analog pads as an eight-way directional pad, in which case you are better off using the excellent directional pad anyway. It definitely boils down to the game, as the hardware is quite accurate. So yes, it takes a bit of adjustment to get used to, but there isn’t really that large of a learning curve to get comfortable with the touchpads. In games such as Reckless Racing where control is digital and the iconic PlayStation face buttons (X, O, Square, Triangle) are used, everything feels right. The buttons are properly spaced, and have just enough give for button presses. You can easily manage to hit all buttons at once should you choose to for whatever reason.

But wait! We haven’t gotten to one of the most important areas of the phone – the battery life. This is where I believe Sony Ericsson’s decision to use “lighter” hardware really paid off. The battery on the Xperia PLAY has thus far performed well above expectations. Just using the phone portion for a day without touching any games yielded around 25% battery usage, leaving 75% at the end of the workday. But more impressive is how the phone seems to sip power when playing heavy games. Asphalt 6, as mentioned before is a hefty game, which uses all kinds of fancy-looking special effects and can give the impressive stereo speakers on the Play quite the workout. So you’d expect a game like this to suck up power, right? Dead wrong. In my testing, a ten minute session with the game nibbled up three percent of the battery. Assuming it kept that pace, you could play for an hour and have only used 18 percent of the battery, meaning you could net around 5 hours of continuous play on a single charge. Yes, the Xperia PLAY can give you all the phone you need while delivering all the gaming you can handle.

So it’s not a so-called “super-phone.” Fine. The elitist early-adopting crowd will likely forever look down their noses at this “modestly-powered” phone. But for those of us who can take a chance, we will be treated to gaming bliss on a phone. Finally. Yes, the phone has its share of flaws, and PSN support is non-existent, but these are software issues and will likely be patched in due time. Plus, the PlayStation Suite is on its way. Some may also argue that with the NGP supposedly just around the corner, they will have all the gaming on the go they’ll ever need on that. That’s all well and good, and the NGP is certainly going to be a major competitor in the handheld space soon, however – it’s not a phone. I don’t know about you, but I always have my phone on me. My PSP? Not so much. So take it from someone who’s had the phone for well over a week now – if you love gaming on the go but don’t want to lug around both your phone and your handheld console, get the Xperia Play as soon as you can.

PlayStation LifeStyle’s Final Score

+ Unparalleled gaming experience on a phone, period.

+ Android 2.3 absolutely screams, can run for days without needing a reboot.

+/- Not the highest-end internals, however this may be the reason battery life is great.

8 out of 10