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
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.