Here at TechRadar Mansions, we’re a jaded bunch. Internet TVs? Meh. Wi-Fi enabled cameras? Who cares? Cats with cybernetic abilities? Couldn’t give a monkey’s.
But there are some things we’ve always thought would be a good idea: jam and ham being sold together (possibly called Jham) and the PSP Phone. A PlayStation Portable with a phone inside it.
And with the Xperia Play, we’ve got as close to that as we think we’re ever going to get, as Sony’s release of the NGP is the parent brand’s attempt at a phone, with 3G connectivity built right in.
So, the Sony Ericsson Xperia Play has a lot of pressure on its shoulder buttons – does it live up to the hype? Thankfully, we managed to nab a unit to play with for a few hours, so check out our first impressions:
Early feelings are mixed – if you’re going to have a phone with a slide-out gaming pad, then you’ll need to temper your expectations of a slim device – the Xperia Play isn’t the chunkiest phone in the world, but it’s certainly noticeable in the pocket.
The 4-inch screen is a fine size, and if the rumours about it being powered by the same Bravia engine as the Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc (which were confirmed by our source) are indeed true, then this could be a really intriguing hybrid device.
The front of the phone is pretty sparse – we’ve got the same four hard keys controlling the Back, Home, Menu and Search functions as most Android phones – interesting to see the Search function pop up, as Sony Ericsson has jettisoned this key on its previous models, and the Xperia Arc too.
The charger port is still microUSB, although it’s a slightly different variation with a more angular shape than others – our generic charger still worked fine though, so there’s no need to worry on that front.
Of more concern (although that word may be a little too dramatic) is the power button – it’s seemingly hidden by the slide-out keyboard, so a little work might need to be done to the final release model to raise this up – it’s a constantly used area as it also serves as the lock switch, so making it fiddly won’t be a good idea.
We’ve never been fans of the 3.5mm headphone port being located on the side of a phone, although it is near the top on the Sony Ericsson Xperia Play – it gets in the way of the hand when trying to watch a movie.
Overall, the Sony Ericsson Xperia Play fits well enough in the hand – it’s a chunky beast, make no mistake, but not as bad you might think – we’re glad that things have moved on to the point where all this technology doesn’t need a spare bag to cart it around.
So, what about the bits under the hood? Well, the good news is we have another device running Android 2.3 – Gingerbread ahoy, and Sony Ericsson is sailing full steam ahead into the most up-to-date Android seas it can charter… or something.
We do wish that it was a dual-core chipset powering things along – instead we have to make do with a single-core 1GHz next-gen Snapdragon processor.
The reason for this seemingly under-powered hardware is the lack of anything to tax it – when the Sony NGP was announced, we also were told that the PlayStation Suite will be coming to the Android platform too.
However, it won’t be the most taxing of games that come initially – it’s only PSOne titles that are on their way, so even the iPhone 4 will be able to out-game the device at launch.
More annoyingly – we couldn’t put together a side by side test as the portal simply isn’t ready for that: as you can see, no games or content available in the PlayStation Pocket Portal – which means we can’t test out the dual touchpads in the middle and work out whether they’re a ridiculous alternative to proper joysticks or not.
But the build quality and design of the Xperia Play are still available for a thorough going over, and it’s interesting to see the direction Sony Ericsson has taken in terms of button placement.
The shoulder buttons, flanking the volume up and down keys, are the most noticeable – when the unit’s gaming controls are exposed, it feels a little difficult to rest your forefingers on these comfortably.
One solution is to lay the whole finger across them, but then this exposes the risk of accidentally pressing one during gameplay.
The slide-out pad comes with the full array of gaming hardware you’d expect, with the aforementioned touch pads actually relatively easy to access – we can’t wait to give those a proper try.
The plastic control keys on the right and left are easy to hold and use – they may feel a little cheap the first time you fondle, but the sensation is robust and in keeping with the design of the Xperia Play.
We’re happy to see that you can use the D-Pad to move around the Android screen in the same way as a small trackpad – it certainly makes entering text a lot easier when you have that much control over the cursor.
The other little tweak PlayStation owners will love is the ability to go back using the Circle key – it feels very natural and is the kind of thing we’re expecting from anything looking like the PSP Phone.
There’s also a little menu key to help you access in game menus – however, it’s odd that while most things will turn 90 degrees when sliding out the game pad, the home screen will not – rendering this menu key a little redundant at times.
We’re sure this is something that Sony Ericsson can rectify ahead of launch – other devices, like the HTC Desire Z, have managed to work out how to make Android home screens work in both portrait and landscape mode, so fingers crossed ahead of its release.
The overlay on the Xperia Play may be the element that’s stopping this though, as it’s roughly similar to the used on both Sony Ericsson Xperia X10 and the Xperia Arc – namely Timescape, but a watered down version.
Had we never played with the Xperia Arc, we would have been really worried about this, but the Arc has shown us that the overlay can be a lot less troublesome now it’s been ‘unhooked’ from the Android OS.
This means Sony Ericsson can create updates more quickly, and the lag that was present in the X10 may have been reduced significantly.
We’re not sure whether we’ll ever warm to the ‘Splines’ method of showing off Twitter and Facebook updates, but we are in love with the ‘pinch widgets view’, where pinching the screen will show off all the active widgets running and let you jump straight to them.
We’re not sure we’ll actually ever use the functionality, but it still looks pretty cool and will likely be very handy for a few people.
The rest of the OS is simple Android with a smattering of Sony Ericsson functionality thrown in to the mix – for instance, the messaging keyboard has been upgraded to be a lot more accurate in our early tests, and this should mimic both the Xperia Arc and Google Nexus S in being a lot more intuitive.
The Music Player has been given the same update as before from Sony Ericsson, except in this case the MediaScape overlay has been dialled back to give you only the widget offering, rather than the full-blown experience.
This is good, as it means users will be able to use and view their music a lot more simply than before, but will also still be able to access the same YouTube listings and the like via the infinity button to enhance the media experience.
As we mentioned above, we were unable to test out the screen resolution or see if the Bravia engine was present and working correctly, but we imagine that that large, hi-res screen will be able to pump out the video with the best of the them – and thankfully there’s a MicroSD card slot on offer too, making it much easier to hot swap content.
There are still a few elements we couldn’t properly test on our device, with things like the internet and call quality not available for test – however, we were told there will be a secondary noise cancelling microphone under the hood, so at least we can console ourselves with improved voice quality.
Let’s be clear: as with all our hands-on reviews here at TechRadar, we’re still awaiting a few tweaks and updates before the final UK release date is confirmed, so we won’t be passing final judgement until we get the finished review unit – which this very much is not.
However, there are a number of things that we hope will be sorted before the final release: the home screen orientation needs to be able to go landscape for one.
Another nice feature would the shoulder keys acting as a camera shutter, making it easy to use the function without having to activate it on the screen.
And of course, let’s get some games on board as well – but we reckon that one just MIGHT be sorted in the next few weeks.
We’ll be at Mobile World Congress 2011 and will be front and centre when this phone is announced at Sunday’s press conference – and stay tuned for our full Sony Ericsson Xperia Play review as soon as we can get our hands on a final model.
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