Sony Ericsson is looking to take mobile gaming to the next level with the Xperia Play Android smartphone. The Xperia Play features a slide-out gamepad for gamers who want more than touchscreen-only controls.

I have to hand it to Sony for trying to add some class to the Play. The piano black finish and chrome trim make the phone shine, that is until you pick it up and get fingerprints all over it. The overall look and feel of the phone is very reminiscent of the PSP Go, and the Play's 4 inch capacitive touchscreen does a good job at displaying colours and text.

At 4.7-inches by 2.4-inches by 0.6-inches, the Play is a bit bulky, though no more than other phones we have seen with slide-out full QWERTY keyboards. At 6.2 ounces, the Play is definitely heavy, but feels sturdy in hand.

The power button and notification light are located at the top of the device, and along the left spine you'll find the headphone and charging ports. The volume rocker and gamepad shoulder buttons occupy the right spine, and on the back of the Play there is a 5-megapixel camera (more on that and the shoulder buttons later). On the face of the device are the four standard Android buttons (Back, Home, Menu and Search), as well as a VGA front facing camera for video chat.

The gamepad

The slide-out gamepad on the Xperia Play is definitely the coolest feature of the phone. While not as good as gamepads found on dedicated portable gaming systems, it worked reasonably well with several games I downloaded from the Android Market. The gamepad on the Xperia Play is set up very much like Sony's DualShock controllers with a few differences. For starters, two touch pads are set up in the place where one would normally find the analogue sticks on the DualShock.

I couldn't find very many games in the Android Market that used the touch pads, but when I did they were not sensitive enough for more twitch-based gaming like first person shooters. Both the D-pad and the face buttons (X, Square, Triangle and O) were all very responsive, but felt stiff and a bit too sunken in so they were hard to press. The Start and Select buttons are awkwardly placed bellow the face buttons, and there is a Menu button under the D-pad as well.

More often than not, I ended up pressing the Select button while trying to quickly pause the game I was playing. I also found the shoulder buttons to be too spongy and flimsy, and would have preferred them to have a little more resistance.

Android 2.3 aka "Gingerbread" (finally!)

The Xperia Play ships with Gingerbread (Android 2.3). Sony Ericsson thankfully did not mess with the OS too much, something that is rare these days. There is some pre-loaded software on the phone, but nothing I would really classify as bloatware. The seven preloaded games are Madden NFL 11, Bruce Lee Dragon Warrior, Tetris, The Sims 3, Star Battalion, Crash Bandicoot and Asphalt 6: Adrenaline. These are all the full versions and, with the exception of Tetris, they have all been optimised for use with the Xperia Play's slide-out gamepad.

Something I found odd is that although the Play is running Gingerbread and has a front-facing camera, the one we got in for review was not running the latest version of Google Talk. This means that the phone currently does not have a native video calling app, but hopefully that update will be pushed out in the future.

Performance

Unfortunately, the Xperia Play is relatively outdated when it comes to specifications. It is a 3G-only phone in a world that's increasingly embracing 4G and LTE-enabled devices. The Play also only has around 400Mb of internal storage, meaning you are severely limited in the amount of applications and games you can download and store. This is slightly remedied by the fact that the Play comes with an 8GB MicroSD card, but is still disappointing.

The 1GHz Snapdragon processor does an admirable job and keeps the phone and games running smoothly. Even high definition games like Cordy played without a hitch. A dual-core processor would have been nice, but I understand why Sony Ericsson went with a single-core processor instead (battery life). The screen was nice and responsive and the UI felt fluid as I swiped around the homescreen and navigated the phone.

Call quality was pretty good. Voices came over clear and there was no noticeable static or hissing. The Xperia Play managed to make it almost an entire day on a single charge, though playing games on the device will significantly deplete your battery. After an hour of playing Crash Bandicoot, my battery dropped from 75 percent charge to 50 percent. If you plan on using this as your primary gaming handheld, it would be wise to bring along a charger as well.

Games, games, games

When it comes to playing games, the Xperia Play is without equal. Having a physical gamepad instead of a virtual one allows for much better controls when playing games. The Play is a PlayStation Certified phone, meaning you can download and play classic PlayStation games from the Android Market, and is also the official mobile handset of Major League Gaming.

All of the preloaded games made good use of the slide-out touchpad, though not all were fun to play. Madden NFL 11 looked terrible and wouldn't let you use the touchpad to select plays or navigate some of the menus. Bruce Lee Dragon Warrior was another disappointment. There was significant lag between inputting a command and having your fighter actually do it.

Asphalt 6: Adrenaline and Crash Bandicoot were the games I ended up playing the most, because they took full advantage of the hardware. Asphalt 6 is a great looking racing game with responsive controls and a wide variety of game modes. Crash Bandicoot was just like how I remember the original on the first PlayStation, and played buttery smooth.

Camera

That being said, the rest of the phone is lacklustre on the multimedia front. The 5 megapixel camera on the rear of the device does an average job at capturing images and uses the stock (and somewhat underwhelming) Android camera software. Images are not as sharp as they could be and colours are slightly darker than they appear in real life. Videos were better, but a bit on the quiet side.

Sound quality on the Play was weak. The external speaker would pop at higher volumes and bass heavy songs didn't sound that great.

OUR VERDICT

The Xperia Play will appeal to mobile gamers who are sick of poor touchscreen controls, and are looking for a more fulfilling gaming experience on their phone. There are only a handful of games right now that are optimised for use with the gamepad, but hopefully more game developers will support it in the future since the APIs for physical game controls are included in the Android 2.3 SDK. For those who are not big into gaming, look elsewhere. The Play's relatively outdated hardware, microscopic memory and lack of 4G support are enough to keep most away.