Sony Ericsson Xperia PLAY review

Sony Ericsson’s Xperia PLAY is the company’s first smartphone focused on bringing serious gaming and a powerful handset to the masses. The slide-out PlayStation-style game controller is innovative and it enables you to interact with games on your smartphone in ways that just aren’t possible on a touchscreen-only device. With that said, there are some obstacles in the way — PlayStation Suite offers limited games, and there are some pretty big bugs even on the stock Android handset. Do the positives outweigh the negatives, though? Jump past the break to find out.

Hardware / Display

The Xperia PLAY’s hardware is, for lack of a better word, interesting. Closed, the device feels like a reasonably thick Android handset. With glossy black plastic and glossy chrome finish, the PLAY doesn’t exude high-end fit and finish, but it doesn’t feel cheap either. It’s deceptively well-weighted, even when opened, and the only complaint I have about the hardware when holding and using the phone is that the left and right triggers on the top of the handset can get in the way when the device is being held one-handed.

The display on the Xperia PLAY is great. It’s crisp, it’s clear, and the colors seem to accurately display anything I can load up on it. It’s one of my favorite displays, to be honest. Sony Ericsson has a beautiful screen with a touch sensitivity that can almost rival Apple’s perfected digitizer and screen. I really can’t say enough about this touch display, it’s probably my favorite of any Android handset, even more so than any qHD displays I’ve seen and used. It’s something Sony Ericsson has just got right, and it’s really refreshing to see.

The Sony Ericsson Xperia PLAY doesn’t fall short in the button department, either. On the front of the device you’ll find the four traditional Android menu keys, and while these are meant to serve as the primary navigation keys for the device, I can’t help but think Sony Ericsson could have implemented something better. Besides being difficult to press in some scenarios, they are ridiculously close to the display itself, and I’ve found myself accidentally tapping the display when I’ve been trying to hit the back button, for example. The layout isn’t ideal, but that’s more of a personal preference.

On the left side of the handset, there’s a 3.5mm headset jack and a microUSB port for syncing and charging. On the top of the device there’s a power on / off button, but the button isn’t on the display part of the sliding mechanism, it’s on the main middle frame. It’s a little niggle, but it would have been great if the power button was on the display piece as it would make it much easier to press when using the device one-handed. A nice touch is that there’s a notification light built into the power button that will let you know of any unread message or alerts, however. On the right side of the PLAY you’ll find left and right trigger buttons with a volume up and down rocker placed in between them.

Something that’s been truly irritating is the lack of an ambient light sensor on the Xperia PLAY. It’s one of the only smartphones in the last few years I have ever seen that lacks this feature, and while it’s not a show stopper, it’s inconvenient to have to go into the device’s setting to manually change the brightness level of the display in different lighting environments.

UPDATE: The Sony Ericsson Xperia PLAY does in fact have an ambient light sensor, it’s just not user-controllable in the settings, and it doesn’t perform too, too well, thus the reason for mistaking it’s existence.

PlayStation Controls

There isn’t a bunch to say here… the Sony Ericsson Xperia PLAY is the first smartphone to feature an actual gaming-grade gamepad, and it’s pretty close to being amazing. There’s enough tactile feedback on every button to make it feel fantastic while playing games, and the button layout is perfect. Compared to add-on third-party attachments for the iPhone or Android devices, the Xperia PLAY really sets the mobile smartphone gaming bar. One of the best parts is the ability to take a third-party app and assign the gamepad buttons to the game or emulator.

Phone / Battery

I have had serious connectivity issues with the Xperia PLAY on Verizon Wireless. I’m not sure if it’s just this review unit in particular, but in places that normally have 3G reception, I was stuck on 1X, and the phone kept on holding a 1X signal instead of switching back to a 3G one. Additionally, the signal level reported by the PLAY was much lower than other Verizon Wireless devices in the same room on the same desk. While this isn’t a scientific method by any means, it’s a little frustrating to see just one or two bars on a Verizon handset in and around New York City — especially when other Verizon phones were getting full signal just a few inches away.

Battery life is pretty decent despite the reception issues, and were completely acceptable for a CDMA smartphone. The Xperia PLAY powered through a day of moderate usage including emailing, web browsing, light calls, and hours of game playing. Your mileage will obviously vary, but all in all the battery on the Xperia PLAY should suit most people’s usage just fine.

Conclusion

The Sony Ericsson Xperia PLAY is one of the most enjoyable game-focused smartphones I’ve ever used. With a solid slide-out hardware gamepad, a fast processor, and stock Android 2.3 Gingerbread, the PLAY is truly in a league of its own. That’s not to say I haven’t had my share of frustrations with the handset. The power button seem glitchy as far as the software is concerned — the phone just won’t turn back on sometimes after the screen is locked, and it’s incredibly frustrating. Verizon’s solid voice and data network didn’t agree with my particular unit, and while I’m not positive this is an across-the-board issue, signal reception and connectivity were probably the worst of any Verizon handset I’ve used in recent memory.

I like the overall concept of the Xperia PLAY — one of the only companies in the world that could pull off a pure gaming handset is Sony Ericsson — and this is a valiant first effort in the space. But in the end, the Xperia PLAY is a little chunky and it feels like it needed a little more time in the oven. If Sony Ericsson decides to introduce a follow up handset, I have no doubt it will be a formidable mobile gaming smartphone that few if any devices could rival. The current iteration is more a concept than a full-fledged gaming device and platform, though if you’re a hardcore gamer, you probably won’t be disappointed with the Xperia PLAY. For general consumers, I’d probably recommend waiting for the follow-up version, however.

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