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Review: Will Sony Ericsson's Xperia Play satisfy hardcore gamers?

Hardcore on-the-go gamers tired of toting around both a PlayStation Portable and a phone have spent years pining for a device that combines their two favourite mobile gadgets. Such a gizmo finally exists in Sony Ericsson's Xperia Play, the first "PlayStation certified" smart phone, which arrives in Canada exclusively through Rogers on April 28{+t}{+h}.

The Play is essentially the progeny of an Android phone and a PSPgo, the most compact version of Sony's handheld gaming system. A high-resolution four-inch display covers its surface, giving it the appearance of a traditional touchscreen phone. However, push the phone's undercarriage to the left and out pops a gamepad with directional buttons on one side, action buttons on the other, and a pair of analog touch pads meant to mimic the thumbsticks found on most modern game controllers in the middle. Place an open Play beside a PSPgo and the two devices appear to be brother and sister.

That said, the Play's controls are much more comfortable. The two touch pads provide excellent analogue control while keeping the player's thumbs from smearing and obscuring the screen. Satisfying sensitivity combines with a raised orientation point in the centre of each pad to make these two circles the next best thing to an analogue joystick I've encountered.

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The directional keys and symbol buttons have nice give, but are on the small side. I was worried that even my average-sized thumbs might unintentionally depress two at a time, but that turned out not to be a problem. Meanwhile, a pair of shoulder buttons hidden behind the screen rest directly under the player's index fingertips, decreasing the likelihood of accidental depression that sometimes comes with buttons placed squarely on a handheld's corners.

Like any portable gaming device, the Play lacks the full body and ergonomic contours of a standard game controller designed to fill a player's hands. Consequently, long play sessions may well result in cramped fingers and sore tendons (my thumbs stiffened up a little after about 30 minutes). However, I experienced nothing worse than I have with a PSP or Nintendo DS.

Upon sliding out the gamepad, the screen automatically orients to landscape mode and SE's Xperia Play game menu pops ups. It's a simple design with just two tabs: one to display games currently installed, and another that lists games that can be purchased. Versions of all of the games shown here are also available through the Android market, but these have been optimized to make use of the Play's unique physical controls. About 60 such games will be available at launch, with several -- including the fighting game Bruce Lee and space flight sim Star Battalion -- pre-installed and others, such as The Sims 3, available free for download to Play owners.

While these optimized mobile games can be fun, serious gamers will likely be much more interested in PlayStation Pocket, Sony Computer Entertainment's new mobile content platform, which is given its own Android home screen on the Play. The classic PlayStation One game Crash Bandicoot comes pre-installed, with others including Wild Arms and MediEvil scheduled to follow.

Unfortunately, not much is known about PlayStation Pocket beyond these few PlayStation One titles. Will Sony eventually port PlayStation 2 games? PSP games? Develop original titles just for PlayStation certified phones? If not, then hardcore gamers looking for the latest in deep and immersive portable gaming will still need to tote around a dedicated system.

Sony Ericsson, meanwhile, has made a few component decisions that don't necessarily bode well for the device's longevity as a gaming platform. Its 1 GHz Snapdragon processor, Adreno 205 GPU, and 512 MB of RAM are sufficient to render a modern racing game like Asphalt 6 without a hitch. However, the mobile space is rapidly moving toward phones with multi-core processors and RAM measured in gigabytes. You'd think a gaming device like the Play would be leading the charge toward more powerful handsets, but it's not.

Plus, the Play's lack of onboard storage -- it ships with an 8 GB SD card, which users can swap out for a beefier 32 GB unit -- may prove problematic for avid gamers who want to purchase and store dozens of titles over the phone's lifespan. Indeed, if PlayStation Pocket eventually begins hosting larger, PSP-sized games, which can be up to 1.8 GB in size, the included card will hold only a handful of these titles.

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It should be clear by now that the Play isn't intended for people uninterested in interactive entertainment. You can find smaller, lighter, and prettier looking phones than this relatively chunky handset, which -- thanks in large part to its sliding gamepad -- tips the scales at a hefty 175 grams and measures 16 millimetres deep. Still, its smart phone functionality oughtn't to be dismissed.

It runs Gingerbread, the latest version of Google's mobile OS, which delivers improvements in everything from menu navigation to text entry and manipulation. Sony Ericsson has added a number of distinguishing features and apps without cluttering up the base Android experience.

Out of the box, the main home screen plays host to a widget-ized version of Timescape -- SE's hub for collecting and scrolling through calls, messages, tweets, and Facebook posts -- that can be easily moved to any home screen. The four other home screens are initially configured to host games, a simple but effective media browser, a clock, and Android settings. Make a simple pinching movement and you can see all of these widgets and functions shrunken to fit on a single screen.

As has become common in smart phones, the Play features a five-megapixel camera on the back and a lower-resolution sensor and lens on the front for video calls and self portraits. Still images are nice, but the rear-facing camera does not support HD. Consequently, video clips lack detail and appear a little smeary. Don't recycle your Flip.

Perhaps surprisingly, playing games didn't suck the Play's 1500 mAh lithium ion pack dry instantly. I spent much of a lazy Saturday afternoon working through half a dozen games, and I still had a small orange bar left come supper. It also lasted through nearly a full day of casual use -- a couple of calls, checking messages, browsing the web, snapping pictures, playing a few games -- dying only when I was scrolling through my e-mail at around 9:00 p.m.

Despite its relatively large size, it's worth noting that the phone feels great in your hand. A slightly curved back lets it rest comfortably on your palm or fingers. Regardless of your hand size or whether you're holding it for calls or to browse the web, it seems like it wants to fit into your hand rather than slide out -- a problem with some modern angular handset designs.

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As a first stab at the long-awaited "PlayStation Phone," the Xperia Play is a mixed bag. The game pad is well designed and a boon for anyone who wants to play games with traditional controls, but it lacks the sort of cutting-edge horsepower you'd expect from a gaming device. It's not an issue in games that are currently available, but it could become a problem should more advanced titles come via PlayStation Pocket. And PlayStation Pocket is still a big question mark. With just one title available at launch, it's hard to say whether it will become the kind of game platform that PlayStation fans have been longing for. Simply put, it's not a replacement for your PSP. At least not yet.

Rogers is selling the Xperia Play for $100 with a three-year contract, $550 on its own.

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