If you place an Android smartphone and a PlayStation controller into a George Foreman Grill, you might cook up Sony Ericsson’s Xperia Play.
The Xperia Play is Sony Ericsson’s latest bid to regain relevance in the U.S. Once a thriving handset manufacturer, the company was late in adopting Google Inc.’s Android software and didn’t manage to capitalize on the early success of the smartphone market. As a result, it has been forced to play catch-up around the world, and particularly in the U.S.
The Xperia Play’s buttons allow more control than a touch screen over Eli Manning on ‘Madden NFL 11.’
With so many Android handsets in the market, Sony Ericsson had to go the extra mile to set itself apart. The Xperia Play, which Verizon Wireless began selling a week ago for $199.99 with a two-year contract, does just that.
The big selling point: a slide-out bottom half that mimics the trademark PlayStation-controller layout. It includes a direction pad, physical control buttons on the upper corners and face, and two circular touchpads in the center that take the place of the twin thumbsticks found on Sony’s Dual Shock controllers.
It’s an eye-catching feature, and one that quickly hooked some of my friends who own PlayStation 3s.
I spent several hours a day for a week using the Xperia Play, and as an avid gamer, I enjoyed it immensely. It comes preloaded with six games, including Electronic Arts Inc.’s “Sims” and “Madden NFL 11,” plus Sierra Entertainment Inc.’s “Crash Bandicoot.” The games ran smoothly thanks to a 1 gigahertz processor and an extra graphics processor.
I appreciated the option of physical buttons instead of a touch screen when playing Madden. They gave me more precise control over the virtual version of Eli Manning, as well as an improved ability to handle a spaceship in “Star Battalion” from Gameloft S.A. Another benefit of physical controls over virtual ones: I wasn’t covering the screen with my fingers, allowing a full view of the game.
The controls aren’t perfect. I found the circular touchpads to be clumsy and unresponsive, making games such as “Brothers in Arms 2,” from Gameloft frustrating to play.
While the games carry the PlayStation-certified label, they are related to Sony’s videogame system by name only. PlayStation 3 or Playstation Portable games won’t work on the Xperia Play. Instead, Sony Ericsson is encouraging developers to take existing mobile games and add support for its control pad, something the company says is easy to do.
The Xperia Play
It’s a smart move that opens up the device to a wider array of games.
If Sony Ericsson had insisted on exclusive titles or games that only work for the Xperia Play, it would have greatly limited the customer base and discouraged developers from even looking at the phone.
Sony Ericsson said the Xperia Play launched with a respectable 60 titles that are compatible with its controller. It expects to have 150 games by the end of the year.
Still, the open philosophy means that aside from the specialized controls, there really isn’t a good reason to choose the Xperia Play over a cornucopia of rival smartphones. All of the games available on this phone are already found on other Android phones and Apple Inc.’s iPhone.
As a result, I can only recommend the phone to dedicated gamers, particularly ones who are tired of lugging around a phone and another portable gaming device. This is perfect if you own a PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360 at home, and look to spend a fair chunk of time on the road playing games. And there’s no shortage of hard-core gamers: Analyst Michael Pachter of Wedbush Securities estimates 40 million people in the U.S. have bought a sophisticated, mature-rated title, or play 10 hours of games a week.
But if all you care about are some casual games, the Xperia Play probably presents too many sacrifices. The phone is bulky, primarily because of the extra, bottom half for gaming. Sony Ericsson says the controller has to be substantial enough for gamers to properly grip the device.
If you’re not into gaming, there are thinner phones and devices that can tap into the super-fast 4G wireless network. At 4.7 inches high, 2.4 inches wide, 0.63 of an inch thick and 6.2 ounces, the Xperia Play outsizes and outweighs the 4.8-ounce iPhone 4.
The Xperia Play works decently as a phone, though I had a difficulty hearing callers properly in loud public places. The speakers, however, will loudly broadcast a game or voice call.
The smartphone runs on Gingerbread, the latest available version of Android for smartphones. The phone feels zippy when you swipe from screen to screen, browse the Internet and open applications.
Rather than follow the trend of placing illuminated touchscreen keys at the bottom of the phone, Sony Ericsson opted for a thin set of physical keys for the home, back, menu and search functions. Unfortunately, those keys are hard to find in dim light, and there are no lighted icons, leaving me fumbling for the right key in the dark.
Battery life is acceptable. Sony Ericsson claims five hours of game play, though in my test, in which I played a game nonstop, it was closer to four and a half hours before I got the low-power warning. The company says the Xperia Play is rated for seven hours of talk time.
The Xperia Play is a major gamble for a company that hasn’t had a hot device in the U.S. since the Walkman phone, launched in late 2005. But in making something so unique with the Xperia Play, Sony Ericsson may have carved out too narrow of a niche for itself.
This phone is a solid choice if gaming is your No. 1 priority.
But if your definition of gaming is a quick round of “Angry Birds,” look elsewhere.
Write to Roger Cheng at email@example.com