Friday, June 24, 2011

Sony Ericsson XPERIA Play review

The Sony Ericsson XPERIA Play is one of the first attempt to make a genuine gaming smartphone. Nokia has attempted this before with the N-Gage, which ended up as a spectacularly fail. The closest convergence device I can think off that almost pulled it off was the PalmOS Tapwave Zodiac, but it wasn't a smartphone and the lack of application support killed it.

The XPERIA Play is an Android smartphone, equipped with the latest Android 2.3 (Gingerbread) with Sony Ericsson customisation. I won't dwell on this section much, and you can read my XPERIA Arc review to get a gist on what the XPERIA Play can do as a smartphone. The only difference between the two as far as I know are the camera on the Arc is superior (8MP Exmor Vs regular 5MP) and the Arc's screen is significantly brighter than the Play. Even the software is identical, right down to the recent Facebook integration update that was announced with the XPERIA mini and mini pro. The only thing missing are the XPERIA Play exclusive app store and games launcher.

Not much has changed with the design, if at all, since I first played with it in February. The XPERIA Play houses a slider that contains a gamepad, not too dissimilar to Sony's PSP Go design. Here you will find a four directional pad, dual touchpad (used to simulate the dual-analog pads on the PlayStation DualShock for PS1 games), four digital action keys (complete with classic PlayStation's now signature shapes: the triangle, square, circle and X), start/select buttons and an additional button that toggles the game menu. On the back you will find the L and R shoulder trigger keys as well as the volume rocker.

Compared to the PSP, I found the buttons on the XPERIA Play to be small, though they are about the same size as those on the DS Lite. Tactile feedback is poorest amongst the three, especially with the shoulder trigger buttons. There is no comparison, the buttons on my three year old PSP Slim & Lite are still better, but the XPERIA Play is close. It is amazing that Sony Ericsson's engineer was able to get a gamepad in a body that size anyway owing to the fact that it is still a smartphone first. It isn't the most comfortable portable console out there, though I do have to stress this is so far the only modern and mainstream smartphone with a built-in gamepad.

The Play is built entirely in plastic. Fortunately while it felt cheap, the built quality was great. The slider was solid and while the unit creaked a bit, not once I felt it was a major concern. The LCD screen looks great, though not as bright or colourful as the XPERIA Arc. The 858 x 480 resolution is what you would expect from a mid-range phone and is miles ahead of the PSP's (480x272). The new PS Vita will top it with a resolution of 960 x 544 though the Play will retain an advantage in pixel density. Below the screen you will find the XPERIA's standard Android application buttons - all hardware mind. None of those capacitive touch button nonsense.
The XPERIA Play's buttons compared to the PSP Slim & Lite
The XPERIA Play contains an ageing Adreno 205 GPU and 1Ghz Scorpion processor. While no slouch by itself, the effect of using such an outdated architecture was immediately felt when gaming. Games like Asphalt 6 was slow to boot and suffered from frame drop outs. Not only that but I took issue with how Gameloft did not optimise the interface to be used with the gamepad. At times I am required to use the d-pad to navigate and sometimes I am forced to use the touchscreen. Games optimised for the XPERIA Play, such as the bundled Bruce Lee: Dragon Warrior, do look good and work as such.

On the upside it was obvious how much the gamepad (however bad it is) improves gameplay on mobile devices. Touchscreen gaming gaining traction lately, but the lack of controls has always hindered gameplay. Even a simple Gameloft game (and people know how much I hate Gameloft games), was much more enjoyable because I do not have to resort to on-screen buttons to do tasks, or tilt the phone around to steer a vehicle. I get to see more of the screen as well as it isn't blocked by my large ugly thumbs.

What the XPERIA Play does excel in are emulators. Know where to get them and you are in for a treat. In fact I can't think of any other reason to owning it apart from emulations. Forget crappy Android games, the XPERIA Play is a dream smartphone for retro gaming fan. Most console games from the 16-bit era will work fine on the Play. In fact what smartphone out there can lay claim to offer their users complete playable Super Metroid, Super Bomberman, Yoshi's Island, Chrono Trigger and A Link to the Past? None, apart from the XPERIA Play. You will probably encounter issues playing games from more recent consoles like the 64-bit Nintendo 64 (expect dropped frame rates from intense 3D games like Goldeneye 007). I expect that emulator softwares will continue to be updated by their respective third party developers and sooner or later, even Nintendo 64 games will play well on the Play.

As the first PlayStation-certified phone, the XPERIA Play has a special app store called PlayStation Suite. While not a PlayStation branded phone, owners will have access to a number of classic PS1 games. The number of PS1 games currently available for the XPERIA Play is small and includes such titles as Naughty Dog's classic platformer Crash Bandicoot. Other games available includes MediEvil and Syphon Filter. I have said previously that a device's gaming library is what makes or breaks a gaming device, and for now the XPERIA Play is sadly lacking. Hopefully more games will be made available in the future, and more devices added to the PlayStation-certified scheme.

I like the XPERIA Play, but at it's current iteration I can't seem to recommend it. I don't game on phones much, preferring instead to use my PSP or DS Lite. But the temptation to reduce the amount of gadgets is there and I can understand why people are willing to do so. The XPERIA Play isn't a great portable gaming console, but it raises the bar of what should be expected from a gaming-centric smartphone, so I am expecting great things to come from future XPERIA Play 2 etc. Unless you are in the market for a new phone, my advice is to stick with a regular smartphone and wait for the PS Vita instead. It's due out soon for a reasonable £230/US$250.

Many thanks to Three UK and Sony Ericsson for loaning the XPERIA Play.

1 comment:

jakson0100 said...

Great review - lots of detail! I have been thinking about the Xperia Play so I can muck about with some games on my train journey home. Good to hear the battery will be up to the job. if some one wants to read motorola atrix reviews can follow