We get touchy-feely with the PlayStation phone, the Xperia PLAY

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Since the inception of the Sony Ericsson brand there been calls for, and rumours of a PlayStation Phone – the perfect union of Ericsson’s phone sensibilities with Sony’s long gaming heritage. The company always shot such rumours down, saying no such device existed – but that changed when prototype images  of the device started cropping up online.

Later dubbed the Xperia PLAY, it’s the first Android-based smartphone entirely focused on bringing serious gaming and a powerful handset to the masses – sporting a slide-out, PlayStation-styled game controller. Released internationally in March this year, it’s finally coming to South Africa. Is this union of a handheld console  and mobile phone  the holy grail of gaming?

The Xperia PLAY is a surprisingly well built and solid device. I say surprisingly, because by all accounts, it looks like it’s cobbled from some nasty, cheap plastic. It doesn’t quite feel like a high-end device – but doesn’t exude the cheap tackiness of the low end either.  Closed, it’s sleek and shiny, encased in glossy black and chromed silver plastic (perhaps a little too shiny, because it’s a fingerprint magnet) and smaller than expected – it’ll happily reside in your pocket without being too bulky or weighty. It’s thicker than your standard touch-screen smartphone, but for good reason; Much like the bona-fide handheld console, Sony’s PSP Go it has a slide that reveals not a keyboard, but a familiar PlayStation-styled pad, with the famous triangle, square, X and circle buttons you’re well acquainted with. It’s nigh impossible to include analogue thumb sticks on a slide, so SE opted instead to use two sensitive circular touchpads in their stead. The gamepad also has select and start buttons, as well as an Android settings button for easy access when you’ve dot the device in landscape, ready to get your game on. Left and right bumpers are included as well to round out the controls – but they’re slippery and feel like they have little too much give.

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On the front of the Xperia Play you’ll find the four traditional Android menu keys of back, home, settings and search. They’re traditional buttons (also a tad too spongy) where tactile, backlit ones would have suited the aesthetic better. There is, of course, also a power button, and a volume rocker between the bumper buttons.  The other side of the handset features a standard 3.5mm headset jack and a microUSB port for charging and synching .

The Xperia Play’s incredibly responsive capacitive 4 inch-screen, despite its sub qHD resolution of 480×854 is wonderfully vibrant, crisp and clear – with excellent colour reproduction. It might not be HD, but it is a lovely 16:9 aspect ratio so you wont have to deal with too many black bars when you’re watching your movies. It’s also got a adequate 5 megapixel camera on the back, and a front-mounted VGA camera for video calling.

It has a decent battery life; official marketing material reckons you can get over five and a half hours worth of gaming from a full charge – and it’s not far off at all.  The Xperia PLAY will happily stay powered all day long through moderate usage; a bit of gaming, some  emailing, web browsing, and a few light calls. As with most smartphones, you’ll find yourself charging at least every other day.

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It’s all powered by the combination of a Qualcomm Snapdragon SII single-core processor, the Adreno 205 mobile GPU, 512Mb of dual-channel RAM and a mostly vanilla implementation of Android 2.3 (Gingerbread). To make Android a little more visually interesting, it comes with a live wallpaper that simulates the wavy-lined PSP and PS3 home screens; a nice touch. Many new Android phones are sporting the newer dual-core chips – but that’s not to say the PLAY is sluggish. Far from it, indeed. Games for the most part run like a dream. Where it does falter is the paltry 400MB of available storage space, though the included 8GB microSD does mitigate it for the most part. The PLAY supports up to 32GB, so you’ll hardly be left wanting for space. As it’s vanilla 2.3 with a slight Sony Ericsson twist, there’s not a lot more in the way of surprising app additions, bar two – Xperia PLAY Games and the PlayStation Pocket

Xperia PLAY Games is your portal to videogames, giving you a game’s specific marketplace where you can buy Android games tailored to the PLAY, many of which have been updated to fully support the gamepad. The PlayStation Pocket app gives access to one of the devices big draws; its ability to emulate PlayStation 1 games, coming pre-installed with Naughty Dog’s classic action platformer, Crash Bandicoot. I’m happy to report that emulation is slick and smooth and largely faithful – and it was a nostalgic blast to spin through boxes of TNT again. With the phone displaying at a 16:9 resolution and original PlayStation games operating at 4:3, you’re given the option of zooming, stretching, or playing with black borders down the side. It would have been nice if the games were remastered for widescreen, but with the work involved it’s wholly understandable they aren’t. At the time of writing there were no other PlayStation classics available to download and play – but I suspect that might be a regional thing.

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The phone does come pre-installed with a handful of other games, each showing off the strengths of the system. Bruce Lee is a story-driven, Tekken-styled fighter following a fictional account of the famed martial artist. It controls quite well with the gamepad, but it’s not a technically deep fighter – instead being something to button mash your way through while you’re commuting or waiting in a queue. Star Battalion, Gameloft’s more serious and wholly devoid of personality take on Starfox controls like a dream – using either the touchpad or accelerometer based controls. It also came pre-loaded with a few EA favourites; FIFA 10 for football enthusiasts, The Sims 3 and a particularly good, touch-screen port of Tetris. Performance of the touch-pads was hit and miss. They’re awfully sensitive, and its seems its up to developers to implement properly. Star Batallion worked well, but scrolling around the screen in The Sims 3 was a nightmare.

The gamepad came in to its own when I discovered a slew of (mostly free) emulators on the Android marketplace. Pushing aside the morally and legally grey area of emulation for a moment, the Xperia PLAY is perfectly suited for the retrogamer who likes to keep a library worth of games with him at all times. NES, SNES, Mega Drive and even N64 titles on the go – with a decent controller to boot? Yes please! Sure, other mobile phones are capable of running emulators – but without proper controls, none of them emulate old-school games well enough.

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So is the Xperia PLAY the best gaming focused smartphone available? As it’s the only one, I’d say yes, but in truth It’s hard to figure out who this device is really marketed towards. Thanks to its delayed local release, Android and smartphone enthusiasts would likely be eyeing bigger and better available phones, while hardcore gamers would rather wait for Sony’s next dedicated gaming handheld, the PlayStation Vita. That aside, as one of the aforementioned retrogamers I’m quite taken with the PLAY and when playing games, the controls make the world of difference.

No price or release date has been given for the device in South Africa – but we’re expecting that information later this week.

Specs at a glance :

  • 4-inch multi-touch display (854 x 480 resolution)
  • 1 GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon II processor
  • Adreno 205 GPU
  • Internal phone storage: 400MB + 8GB microSD (supports up to 32GB)
  • 512MB RAM
  • Android 2.3 Gingerbread
  • 5-megapixel rear camera with autofocus and LED flash
  • VGA front-facing cam (960 x 640)
  • Gamepad with D-Pad, four face buttons (X, O, Square, Triangle), L/R shoulder buttons
  • Accelerometer + Proximity Sensor
  • Wi-Fi: 802.11 b/g/n
  • Bluetooth 2.1 with A2DP
  • Height: 4.69 x 2.44 x 0.63 inches (119 x 62 x 16 mm)
  • Weight: 6.17 ounces (175 g)
  • Rechargeable 1500 mAh lithium-ion battery (swappable)

Last Updated: September 7, 2011

Geoffrey Tim

Editor. I’m old, grumpy and more than just a little cynical. One day, I found myself in possession of a NES, and a copy of Super Mario Bros 3. It was that game that made me realise that games were more than just toys to idly while away time – they were capable of being masterpieces. I’m here now, looking for more of those masterpieces.

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