Less than five years ago, the bar for mobile gaming was set so low and the quality of mobile games so unpredictable that almost nobody took the concept very seriously. But now with the emergence of the Apple iPhone and its repository of thousands of good games, mobile gaming is now the largest form of gaming out there. This is probably what gave Sony Ericsson the confidence to launch the Xperia Play, an Android handset with a singular focus on gaming bolstered by dedicated gaming controls.
The Play's hardware controls add an extra dimension to the gaming experience that mere touchscreen controls can't.
One look at the Play makes you salivate at the potential that it has to revolutionize mobile gaming but lest we forget, it is still a smartphone. Let's take a look at whether it manages to properly balance the firepower of a gaming device with the usability and utility of a smartphone.
Like other smartphones at this price range, the Sony Ericsson Play is quite stocked with high-end features. It is powered by a 1GHz Qualcomm processor, a dedicated Adreno 205 GPU and 512MB of RAM. The Play also has 400MB of internal memory that can be expanded to 32GB through its microSD slot. The phone also comes bundled with an 8GB microSD card and a carry pouch.
The Play has a 5MP auto-focus camera complemented by an LED flash that can shoot WVGA (800x480 pixels) videos. It supports Wi-Fi, GPS and 3G and uses a microUSB port to charge and connect to the PC (it can charge over USB).
The Play runs Android 2.3 (Gingerbread) and has been heavily skinned by Sony Ericsson to include its Timescape interface. An LED back-lit 4-inch capacitive touchscreen serves as the Play's display and it has a resolution of 480x854 pixels.
Apart from all the regulars from the Google Mobile Services stable (Gmail, YouTube, Google Calendar and Contacts), the Play comes pre-installed with a bunch of other apps, the primary of which is the Xperia Play Launcher that functions as a library for all your installed games. The review model came with six free games- Bruce Lee: Dragon Warrior, Tetris, Crash Bandicoot, FIFA 10, The Sims 3 and Star Battalion HD. You will have to download the games and install them before being able to play them and I would suggest using Wi-Fi to do so since each game is about 100MB or so. The Xperia Play launcher also provides a button to search the Android Market for games that have been optimized to work on the Play.
Gaming is obviously the Xperia Play's raison d'etre and fortunately the handset lives up to its name. The Play's hardware controls add an extra dimension to the gaming experience that mere touchscreen controls can't. Plus, the controls are the same that you find on a PlayStation Portable (including a touch pad area that acts as the dual analog sticks), so if you're a fan of Sony's portable gaming device, then the Play is an ideal device for you.
The Xperia Play's graphics are about the same as you can expect from a PlayStation 2 and they look very good on the 4-inch display. There's also a number of Xperia Play certified games available for download (33 at last count with an average price of Rs. 50-60).
The gaming controls are well-built and have good tactile feedback. After downloading, most of the games loaded quickly and load screens within the games were also brief. At no point did the games cause issues during gameplay and the frame-rates were quite crisp. I did come across some problems when trying to download and install the games though. The Bruce Lee game needed to be re-downloaded and re-installed for no perceptible reason but thankfully my progress level wasn't deleted. Also, Star Battalion HD just refused to get downloaded over different Wi-Fi networks. While the current games available for the Play look to be of good quality, the library needs to grow by leaps and bounds before it is able to challenge the iPhone.
The battery life is of absolute import on a portable gaming device and I tested the Play's battery extensively. My initial experience with the battery life was shockingly bad as the Play took ages to charge over my PC's USB and then ran out almost within an hour of gaming. I figured something was wrong, so I drained the battery completely and then charged it fully through a regular power output. The charging happened much faster this time around and after gaming for about two and a half hours, there was still about 40% battery power left which was I had initially expected. You can expect the battery to last about four and a half to five hours of continuous gaming (although that figure really depends on the game you're playing). I still wish though that the Play would charge properly over the PC USB.