byVlad Savov||March 28th 2011 at 12:00pmMarch 28th 2011 12:00 pm
The PlayStation Phone. We've had quite the intimate history with this gamepad-equipped slider, learning of its secretive existence way back in August and then handling a prototype unit in January, so you'll forgive us for feeling sentimental and still entertaining our pet name for it. The Sony Ericsson marketing gurus renamed it the Xperia Play when it finally went official at MWC this year, but the PlayStation connection remains as strong as ever. Aside from the D-pad, iconic game keys, and two touchpads, this device comes with a little app named PlayStation Pocket, which will be serving up dollops of classic PlayStation One gaming to all those with a taste for it. Yes, the Sony influence is strong with this one, and the Android Market will be joining the fun with Xperia Play-optimized titles from third-party developers. So all we really need to know now is whether the Android smartphone underpinning this smash-bang fusion of old and new school entertainment happens to be any good. Shall we get Started?
Gamepad works well
Good graphics performance
Dim, woeful screen
Lack of compelling content
Poor video recording (no 720p)
There's likely little point in us trying to discuss any of the Xperia Play's external hardware before addressing its literal and figurative centerpiece, the slide-out gamepad. A DualShock attached to your smartphone it is not, but you already knew that. The real question is how close it comes to replicating the console experience rather than how well it competes with it. Judged on such terms, the Play acquits itself very well. The digital directional keys are firm with a satisfying amount of travel and the same goes for the face buttons. Squeezed in between them, Sony Ericsson also throws in a pair of analog pads, which react to your input in much the same fashion as the capacitive touchscreen does -- with the big difference being that while you use the pads you're not obscuring any of the action on screen. Each pad has a handy indented dot at its center, helping to orient your thumb without the need to look down.
An Android Menu button on the bottom left is accompanied by Select and Start keys on the right (at least one of these three buttons feels perfunctory as they serve overlapping functions) and there are two shoulder buttons on the outside, where you would usually find the L1 and R1 controls on the proper console gamepad. Some among our staff have taken to calling them flippers, because they're closer to flaps or paddles in their operation than fully fledged buttons. In actual gameplay, we found them a little too sensitive, which caused us to activate them unintentionally a few times and fail almost completely when prompted by one game to press them simultaneously. We succeeded once out of every six or seven tries, such was the capriciousness of their design.
The sliding mechanism responsible for serving up the gaming controls is pretty much flawless. It's spring-loaded, meaning you only need to slide it halfway up or down to achieve the required opening or closing action and it does the rest by itself. Movement is smooth and consistent, and one-handed operation is no problem either. What impressed us most about it, though, was its sturdiness. There's no tilt to the handset, the screen just slides straight up, and that's the way it stays -- perfectly parallel, no matter the violence of our attempts to find any structural flaws. It's clear to see that Sony Ericsson spent a lot of time refining this slider and we're happy to say it lives up to a very high standard of durability -- an absolute necessity when making a button masher's device such as this.
Moving to the top half of the slider, we find a volume rocker, nestled craftily in between the aforementioned shoulder buttons, a power key, and the usual four Android buttons, arranged in yet another innovative formation. For whatever reason, Sony Ericsson opted to swap the Home and Menu buttons' positions up front, leaving our prototype unit looking desperately out of date and us wondering why it had to be done at all. While we've no complaints to proffer about the power and volume keys, we must express our deep discontentment with the Android set. They're quite spongy, meaning they can absorb a lot of pressure before registering a click, which tends to lead to an inconsistent and frustrating user experience. Even more troublesome is the difficulty to differentiate between them by touch alone, forcing you to look down, which is then amplified by the fact they're not backlit. So yeah, the Xperia Play will give you a whole new reason to be afraid of the dark.
Squeaks and creaks were sadly too readily apparent with the Play, mostly owing to the poor quality of plastics used in its construction. It's a rigid device and, as already pointed out, there's little questioning its internal structure, but there's no getting around the fact that SE didn't blow the budget on procuring the most high-end of shell materials. The rear cover feels brittle, in spite of its flexibility, and the overall glossy aesthetic lends itself to picking up scuffs and scratches easily. The metallic accents aren't to our tastes, either, mostly because they're not made out of actual metal. And if you're not going to at least insert a little bit of premium material or functional utility in your design, why complicate it? Build quality is, therefore, a mixed bag. We get the feeling that after a while the Xperia Play will end up looking rather like The Terminator -- losing its soft and and pathetic outer shell, but revealing some hardcore engineering within. Maybe that'll be a good look for it.
A final note is merited about the Play's dimensions. At 16mm (0.63 inches) in thickness and 175g (6.2 ounces) in weight, this may easily be the chubbiest flagship Android device you're going to see coming out this year. That said, provided you're not too bothered by its heft (and you shouldn't be), it's actually shaped to sit very neatly in the hand. Its curved rear is reminiscent of the Palm Pre, though to the Play's credit it also manages to lie perfectly flat when rested on horizontal surfaces. When opened up into action mode, the whole device again feels nicely thought out and we doubt there'll be a hand size that won't be suited by its shape.
Allow your curiosity to drag you past the Play's rear cover and you'll be rewarded with a happy surprise -- both the SIM and MicroSD card slots are accessible without removing the battery. Not many phones make it that convenient and another rarely seen asset the Play can tout is a set of stereo speakers. They're not just two mono outputs, there's actually a tiny little sound stage created by them working in tandem. The quality of the audio they pump out isn't going to threaten a set of dedicated speakers, but it's certainly a lot more tolerable than the general mediocrity we're used to from smartphones. Considering the device's entertainment-centric reason for existence, we believe this to be a big strong point in its favor.
In terms of the hardware that makes the wheels go round, the Xperia Play relies on a 1GHz Qualcomm MSM8255 Snapdragon chip, which comes with an Adreno 205 GPU. Neither is a slouch, but it's obvious that more could, and perhaps should, have been included in this bargain. Looking around at the spring / summertime smartphone landscape, a potential Play buyer will be confronted by Motorola's Atrix and Droid Bionic, LG's Optimus 2X and Optimus 3D, Samsung's Galaxy S II, and HTC's EVO 3D -- all of whom tout dual-core SOCs and generous apportionments of RAM. Oh yes, about the RAM. There's only 400MB 512MB of it on the Xperia Play (Update: We double-checked with Sony Ericsson and found that the Play comes with 512MB of RAM, 400MB of which is available for applications to use) . It may seem overly demanding to expect every new smartphone to match up to those benchmark destroyers, but we must remember the Xperia Play is about gaming and games will make use of every last ounce of performance you can give them. As it stands, it's a healthy and sprightly device today, but do be aware of the gathering storm clouds above its future. It's simply not powerful enough for us to give you any assurances about its long-term viability.
We found battery life a little lacking. There's a robust 1500mAh cell inside this handset, but we could only stretch it to about 22 hours under our light use test. It was a day's worth of sporadic use, where checking up on things like Gmail, Twitter and Facebook updates was the phone's most regular exercise. For a comparison, the similarly outfitted -- MSM8255 with Adreno 205 -- Incredible S from HTC managed to squeak past the 50-hour mark in spite of having a battery with 50mAh less juice. Again, both were subjected to light workloads that are unlikely to be representative of everyone's daily routine, but the delta in endurance between the two phones was striking. Not to put too fine a point on it, but something tells us all those software bells and whistles on the Play (hello, Timescape!) are working against Sony Ericsson here. On the bright side, throwing some actual gaming action its way didn't obliterate the battery quite as badly as we feared it might. Our overall impression (from admittedly limited testing) is that this will clearly not be an endurance smartphone because of its software overhead, but Sony Ericsson's promises of five and a half hours of continuous gameplay seem well within reach.
Another thing that's taxing the Play's battery unduly is its screen. The default brightness setting for it is at the very maximum and once you use it for a while, you realize why. It's very dim. We're not talking about it being mediocre or some way short of the best, it's so lacking in brightness that it's borderline dysfunctional. Taking the phone out for an afternoon outside, we couldn't play Crash Bandicoot even on the bus, never mind out in the direct glare of the sun. It's not an unqualified disaster, as viewing angles are pretty wide, the 854 x 480 resolution is decent, and under the right circumstances you can obtain some pleasantly vibrant images from it, but it's still one the worst screens we've seen on a review phone -- hell, review hardware of any kind. This was most apparent to us outdoors when we used it side by side with Sony Ericsson's own Xperia Arc, the latter handset giving us better contrast, saturation, and of course, brightness. Both phones lack an auto-brightness option in their settings, which is a weird omission on Sony Ericsson's part, even if in the case of the Play it'd just be kept at max anyway.
Speaking of omissions, has anyone at SE HQ heard about the little trend of making 720p video recording a de facto standard feature in high-end Android smartphones? Because, well, the Xperia Play doesn't have it. We know full well that the hardware's capable of it -- a 5 megapixel imager sits round the back, so more than enough pixels can be pulled together to saturate a 1280 x 720 frame, and the 1GHz Snapdragon under the hood pretty much snorts with indignation at the routine task of processing such workloads at 30fps. What gives, we don't know, but the video you do get, recorded at a maximum of 800 x 480, isn't all that great anyhow. The recordings produced during our testing tended to be very soft, with noise suppression algorithms seemingly working overtime to ensure the smudgy appearance. That issue was compounded by poor microphone performance, which muffled and straight up distorted some of the sounds it picked up during recording.
Things look much brighter on the still imaging front, however, where we churned out some highly satisfactory results without requiring an excess of effort. Options on Sony Ericsson's custom software are a little limited, but you can adjust exposure, white balance, and focusing mode, which should still be sufficient for most users. Especially praiseworthy among those controls is the Macro mode on the Play, which allowed us to get seriously up close and personal with some of our subjects. On the downside, the Play's camera struggles to focus in low light and noise is no less an issue here than on most other smartphone sensors. One fanciful idea we had, in the absence of a dedicated physical shutter button, was that Sony Ericsson could have used the right shoulder key to double up as one. It's in just about the perfect location for the task and we can't see anything preventing SE (or some enterprising hackers, perchance?) from hooking it up to the picture-taking software. Overall, it's a decent to good camera with some disappointing video recording tacked on.
As with the hardware section, we'll get straight to the PlayStation meat of the Xperia Play software matter. Two apps will be of foremost interest here: the not at all confusingly named Xperia Play, which serves as a showcase for Android Market games compatible with the Play's controls, and the PlayStation Pocket, which houses the hallowed PS One games that this new smartphone is so primed to enjoy. For the moment at least, we should probably narrow that down to the singular game, since the Play ships with just the one preloaded classic title, Crash Bandicoot, and the rest of the PS One library is still en route. That puts the Play's launch, coming up on April 1st across Europe, into a rather precarious position. It's supposed to be the bringer of great new entertainments to the thumb-equipped masses and yet we're staring at just one original piece of content upon its release. Bruce Lee, FIFA 10, Star Battalion HD, and The Sims 3 do come preloaded to soften the blow, but they're not exclusive to the Play, and in the particular case of The Sims, don't even benefit very much from the physical controls. Still, they're there and the means to accessing them is actually pretty swish. Opening up the slider kicks you straight into the Xperia Play app, where the games you already have on the device are split out from the list of purchasable compatible titles, meaning you're never more than a slide and a tap away from leaping into action.
Loading times for the games aboard the Play were quite tolerable indeed -- nothing was instant, but only the most impatient of gamer would find them a nuisance. In-game performance also gave us no cause for complaint, with smooth frame rates throughout. The basics look to have been well taken care of. One drawback we should highlight, however, is the fact that most, if not all, PS One games were coded for displays with a 4:3 ratio. That means either zooming or stretching the game in order to fill the widescreen panel on the Xperia Play. Both options are available to you in the settings, but Crash was already looking pretty aliased without us zooming in for a closer inspection. Not an ideal situation, but that's where we find ourselves. At least until Sony decides it's a good idea to drop its vast catalog of PSP games atop this device, then we'll have no such worries.
The gamepad is not abandoned completely once you stray outside the gaming arena, as you're able to navigate through lists with the D-pad and select and cancel things with the X and O keys. It's a somewhat inconsistent affair, as this integration doesn't permeate everything on the Play, but we found it useful in the browser and messaging apps.
Android à la Sony Ericsson
The OS underlying SE's new hero device is of course Android. Version 2.3.2 (aka Gingerbread) is shipping out on retail devices, marking this as one of the first non-Google handsets to come preloaded with Mountain View's latest and greatest. That means much-improved text manipulation thanks to the addition of new selection anchors, a general sprucing up of visuals, and a set of extra APIs with a gaming bent. Wonder why Sony Ericsson wanted to run its gaming device atop this platform, eh? Nonetheless, the company's UI designers haven't been sitting around exercising their thumbs and there's a vast amount of aesthetic tweaking done on top of Android. Almost all of it is for the better, in our opinion, as the whole UI benefits from a look of sophistication and maturity that Android has generally lacked. The phone interface is spacious and welcoming, while the contacts and messaging interfaces are extremely attractive, sensibly laid out, and utterly delicious to scroll through. Talk about optimization! The contacts section can also be navigated more rapidly just by initials and, if you have Twitter accounts associated with your buds' numbers, it shows you a snippet of their latest update, very handy. Moreover, entering individual contacts' pages shows their profile pictures nicely blended with the background, reinforcing the overarching theme of refined design. Thankfully, Sony Ericsson's alterations all look to be skin-deep, giving us some cause to believe the company's pledge that it'll be quick in responding to new Android rollouts from the Google mothership. Time will only tell.
There are some downsides to the skinning efforts on the Play, however, as might be expected. One is the aforementioned issue of the battery seemingly running down quicker than it ought to, which you can always offset by making your own adjustments, but obviously that's no great consolation for those hoping the device would just work like it should straight out of the box. Another thing we noticed was that Timescape, albeit a mere removable widget now instead of the overwhelming leviathan it was on the Xperia X10, was still susceptible to slow performance and even the occasional freeze-up. It remains an extremely graphically demanding tool, what with all its overlays and three-dimensional animations, so that's no surprise, but we still enjoy our user experience more without it than with it. It wasn't entirely alone in showing slowdowns, we experienced a few, very minor, hangups and delays while using the Play, but couldn't find any repeatable bugs to report. It feels a mostly solid build, though it's a little disappointing that the aforementioned smoothness of operation in the customized messaging and contacts apps doesn't carry over to the rest of the UX.
Browser performance is mostly decent, but we've definitely seen faster, whether you're talking other Android devices, Windows Phone 7 or iOS. Pinch-to-zoom and scrolling commands are executed, but in a slightly labored fashion. Aliasing is also apparent when zooming out from pages, not unlike what we saw on the Incredible S recently. Finally, SE's onscreen portrait keyboard is a little too cramped for our liking, with the letters being tall but not altogether wide enough to make for comfortable typing. Sony Ericsson might have done well to just stick with the default Gingerbread provision here.
We've reached out to Sony Ericsson asking for a roadmap of when we can expect the PlayStation Suite and more PlayStation One titles to roll up on the Xperia Play bandwagon and make it worth joining. As it stands today, on the day of review and the precipice of its launch, the Play is looking out on a pretty barren gaming landscape. The Android titles up for grabs are not exclusive to the device and don't necessarily benefit all that greatly from its unique control scheme, whereas the catalog of classic PlayStation content stops after just one entry.
So with almost no differentiating software of its own, the Play is really relying on the strength of its gamepad to round up willing participants in its gaming revolution. We concur that that's indeed the phone's main strength, with good ergonomics and an extremely durable sliding mechanism. Nonetheless, the poor quality of the screen and good, but not great, hardware spec force us to be reluctant about recommending it as a sage purchase at present. Perhaps it picks up a loyal following, from both developers and fans alike, and within a few short weeks, we're all looking at a device with a rich ecosystem of compelling tailor-made content and a ton of reasons to own it. But as for today? We'd rather spend our cash elsewhere in the Android cosmos and hold out hope for the PlayStation Phone 2.0.