How the Sony Xperia Play Works

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Not long after Sony released the third edition of its PlayStation Portable handheld game console, rumors and leaked images of a successor began circulating the Internet. This device was supposedly the PlayStation Phone, Sony's stab at a next generation gaming system and phone rolled into one. Through months of image and video leaks, Sony remained silent, never officially acknowledging the device existed. Finally, Sony Ericsson -- not Sony Computer Entertainment, the gaming subsidiary responsible for the PlayStation brand -- announced that the phone was the Xperia Play, an Android smartphone with controls designed for video games.

First and foremost, the Xperia Play is a phone. It runs on the Android operating system and supports apps like any other smartphone. The phone went on sale May 26, 2011 in the United States with a $200 price point and a standard two-year Verizon contract. The Play supports 3G Internet connectivity like every modern smartphone [source: Verizon]. But beyond the communication basics, Sony Ericsson wants to distinguish the Xperia Play as a gaming device.

To drive home the Xperia Play's gaming capabilities, Sony introduced a "PlayStation Certified" program for devices like the Play that will support classic game downloads through the PlayStation Suite. The Xperia Play may not sport the PlayStation name, but it can play emulated PlayStation games just like Sony's PlayStation Vita handheld game system can.

Sony Ericsson's Xperia Play represents a major shift that's occurred in the video game industry since the launch of Apple's iPhone in 2007. When Sony released the PlayStation Portable in 2004, video game handhelds offered a mobile gaming experience unrivaled by other areas of technology. But then the mobile landscape changed significantly. Phone hardware grew by leaps and bounds after the release of the iPhone, and in 2011, devices started adopting dual-core processors for even faster performance. A pair of CPUs performing operations at 1GHz absolutely dwarf the PSP's 333MHz clock speed.

Though Sony and Nintendo are sticking to game-focused hardware with the PlayStation Vita and 3DS, hybrid devices like the Xperia Play may be the future of mobile gaming. Sony Ericsson engineered the Xperia Play to be in a unique position: It offers average smartphone hardware that's capable of playing simple titles like "Angry Birds," with the added advantage of buttons designed for more complex games.

Hardware Specifications

The Xperia Play features a 4-inch touch-screen display and runs the Android OS.
The Xperia Play features a 4-inch touch-screen display and runs the Android OS.
Image courtesy of Sony Ericsson

In 2011, the rapidly changing smartphone market introduced dual-core phones for the first time with devices like the Motorola Atrix and the LG Optimus 2X. While these phones ran at the same speed as many other smartphones on the market -- 1GHz -- they could handle more intensive processing tasks, thanks to an additional CPU core [source: Tested]. This change mimicked the advancements Intel made with dual-core and quad-core PC processors, but on a smaller scale. The Sony Xperia Play is not one of those dual-core devices. It's not as cutting edge as it could be. Is that a problem? In the long term, maybe. But as of 2011, most Android phones aren't dual-core, and games released in the Android Market are designed for phones equal to or slower than the Xperia Play.

The Xperia Play runs on a Qualcomm Snapdragon MSM8255 system-on-a-chip, which pairs a single-core 1GHz ARM processor with an Adreno 205 GPU. Memory consists of 512MB of RAM and 400MB of internal phone memory and an 8GB microSD card for expandable storage. The processor and GPU power Android software on a 4-inch (4.2-centimeter) 854x480 capacitive LCD touch-screen display. We'll cut through the techno babble: The Xperia Play offers pretty standard hardware for a 2011 smartphone, with expected features like accelerometers/gyroscopes, 802.11b/g/n WiFi support, GPS, Bluetooth and 3G on Verizon in the United States [source: Sony Ericsson].

Neither of the Xperia Play's cameras break from the mold: The rear camera uses a 5 megapixel sensor and the front-facing webcam has a resolution of 1.3 megapixels. While the Qualcomm chipset used in the Xperia Play can support both GSM and CDMA wireless data networks -- the systems used by AT&T and Verizon, respectively -- the phone was released in the U.S. on Verizon's CDMA network [source: Verizon]. Other carriers, like Rogers in Canada, make use of the GSM wireless data standard [source: Rogers].

Because the Xperia Play's control pad slides out much like a keyboard, the phone is thicker than most non-sliding smartphones on the market at 0.6 inches (16 millimeters). It measures 4.7 inches by 2.4 inches (119 millimeters by 62 millimeters) and weighs a total of 6.2 ounces (175 grams) [source: Sony Ericsson]. Of course, that game pad is what separates the Play from the competition. While similar phone hardware is available in dozens of handsets, only PlayStation controllers offer the same buttons as the Xperia Play.

PlayStation Game Controls and Inputs

The Xperia Play features slide-out game controls so you can replicate the console gaming experience right after you finish a phone call.
The Xperia Play features slide-out game controls so you can replicate the console gaming experience right after you finish a phone call.
Image courtesy of Sony Ericsson

Since the launch of the original PlayStation, Sony has stuck with a proven controller design familiar to millions of gamers. The Xperia Play lacks the dual shoulder buttons and curved plastic design of the famous DualShock controller, but the face buttons are classic PlayStation. When the Xperia Play is held upright like a phone, the gamepad slides out of the left side of the device and is designed for a landscape grip. A directional pad sits under the left thumb and four face buttons labeled with X, O, Square and Triangle sit under the right. Shoulder buttons sit at the top of the slider on each side where index fingers would rest in a normal grip, and Start and Select buttons are located out of the way at the bottom right corner of the slide pad. Finally, an Android menu button sits unobtrusively below the cross-shaped D-pad.

With only those features, the Sony Ericsson Xperia Play would be the spitting image of another handheld device: the PSP Go. The Play's designers obviously leaned heavily on the Go's design, but added a touch sensitive area between its D-pad and buttons meant to simulate real analog joysticks. The so-called "analog touch joysticks" are more similar to a touch-screen display than a physical joystick, but they provide an extra control option that doesn't obscure the screen the way typical touch controls do. The sliding pad has a spring mechanism that snaps it open or closed once enough pressure is applied to slide the pad halfway [source: Engadget].

The D-pad can be used to navigate around the Xperia Play's screen in place of the touchscreen. There are a few other buttons on the device standard on most Android phones: Back, Home, Menu and Search buttons rest below the touchscreen and the necessary volume rocker and power buttons are both accounted for. When it's closed, the Xperia Play really does look the part of an ordinary smartphone. And for the most part, the device runs standard Android software and games. This leads to a bit of a problem: Games must be designed to support the Xperia Play's gamepad controls, which means most Android apps won't make use of the D-pad or face buttons.

Xperia Play and Android

The Sony Ericsson Xperia Play launched with Android 2.3 Gingerbread in mid-2011, the most up-to-date version of Google's operating system available until the release of the Android Ice Cream Sandwich OS at the end of 2011. Android device makers habitually design their own skins to run atop Google's operating system, and Sony Ericsson is no exception. The Play runs a Sony-designed user interface including a custom keyboard, unique icons and contacts application. Apps work like they do on any other Android device -- they're downloaded and updated through the Android Market and are operated with touch controls. Even though the Xperia Play has a slew of specialized buttons, they only work in apps customized to include Android? support [source: Tested].

The Xperia Play ships with a game browser app that separates games into two categories. The first contains games designed to work with the Play's controls, while the second lists all the available games that only support the stock Android experience. Six Android games that work with the Play controls come pre-loaded onto the phone for free: "Bruce Lee Dragon Warrior," "FIFA 2010," "Sims 3," "Star Battalion," "Tetris" and "Asphalt 6." More than 100 other titles also support the Play's controls, including big name franchises like "Spiderman," "Assassin's Creed" and "Need for Speed" [source: Engadget].

Though the Xperia Play attempts to be a hybrid phone/gaming device, it's only as much of a gaming device as software allows. The majority of games available on the Android Market are short, simple experiences offered for free or sold for a few dollars. That's not necessarily a bad thing or a criticism of Android games -- it simply means games developed for dedicated gaming platforms like the PSP are typically much longer and more complex (and, of course, more expensive) than phone games. Emulators on the Android Market work well with the Play, since they are designed to run classic games from systems like the Super Nintendo that used D-Pads and face buttons.

Sony's PlayStation offerings are meant to augment the games available on Android. Another game browsing app, PlayStation Pocket, offers emulated versions of classic PlayStation One games ported to the Xperia Play.

The Xperia Play's Exclusive PlayStation Software

The game controls on the Play mimic the ones you'd find on a PlayStation controller, but are smaller in scale.
The game controls on the Play mimic the ones you'd find on a PlayStation controller, but are smaller in scale.
Image courtesy of Sony Ericsson

Google Android’s critics point to the issue of fragmentation as one of the platform’s major weaknesses. New versions of the Android operating system come out more frequently than carriers and device makers are willing or able to keep up with, meaning old devices often take months and months to receive updates or never get them at all. App compatibility can be a challenge, since there are so many OS versions out there. Sony’s not helping the situation: With the PlayStation Suite, the company is launching yet another service on Android that only works on certain devices.

Sony has described the PlayStation Suite as a "hardware neutral" platform for distributing classic PlayStation One games and other software to compatible Android devices [source: Engadget]. As of mid-2011, the company hadn’t specified what those compatibility requirements are. Android devices will definitely have to run version 2.3 or later of their OS to access the PlayStation Suite. Only a few devices are known to be compatible: the Xperia Play, Sony’s PlayStation Vita handheld and two of its Android tablets [source: Sony].

The Xperia Play’s processor and graphics processing unit are average hardware, so theoretically a great many smartphones could run PlayStation Suite games with touch controls instead of the dedicated gamepad. Compatibility might come down to which developers partner with Sony to offer the service. While the plan is to have a wide selection of PlayStation classics and new software available through the Suite, Sony offered only a single game pre-loaded on the Xperia Play at launch: "Crash Bandicoot." Other games available exclusively to the Xperia Play through the Android Market are "MediEvil," "Syphon Filter," "Cool Boarders 2," "Destruction Derby" and "Jumping Jack Flash" [source: Know Your Mobile].

The Xperia Play’s game library will be expanded throughout its life as the PlayStation Suite launches and more game developers add support for the Play’s gamepad controls. Sony landed a temporary exclusive for the Android version of popular game "Minecraft" -- it will be available on the Xperia Play before any other Android device [source: Ars Technica]. Because Sony Ericsson is pushing the Xperia Play as a gaming device, the quality of the games on the platform will be one of the deciding factors in its success. That brings up an important question: Will Sony gamers choose the PlayStation Vita handheld, a dedicated gaming device, over the weaker Xperia Play?

Xperia Play vs. PlayStation Vita

The Xperia Play is hoping to stand up to the new PlayStation Vita by offering gamers all the features of a smartphone in the same package as a handheld gaming device.
The Xperia Play is hoping to stand up to the new PlayStation Vita by offering gamers all the features of a smartphone in the same package as a handheld gaming device.
Image courtesy of Sony Ericsson

The PlayStation Vita hardware doesn't stray too far from the technology at work in powerful smartphones. It's essentially a smartphone cranked up to 11: Dual-core phones premiered on the market in 2011, but the PlayStation Vita pairs a quad-core ARM Cortex-A9 processor with an unusually powerful SGX543MP4+ GPU to one-up phone hardware [source: Tested]. Those tech elements add up to more powerful hardware for game developers to take advantage of.

The Vita also offers real analog sticks for control and a flash-based storage medium, which allows developers to publish much larger games than they can on download-only platforms like Android. The Vita supports downloads, too -- it can access the PlayStation Network and the PlayStation Suite -- but full-size video games will still be sold at retailers. Essentially, the PlayStation Vita comes far closer to emulating the home console video game experience than the Xperia Play.

The PlayStation Vita supports deeper, longer, more graphically impressive games. The Vita also offers more accurate controls for 3D games than the Xperia Play does, thanks to its twin joysticks. The Playstation-branded handheld is more expensive up front at $250, but costs less over time than the Xperia Play, which retails at $200 plus a monthly contract [source: Verizon]. In every regard, the Vita is a better gaming platform -- but is that what people want? The success of phone gaming, especially on Apple's iOS, has changed the way we look at and play games. Most games on iOS and Android cost $5 or less. Tons of them are free. The $40 you spend on one Vita game could be spent on several dozen iPhone or Android games that are designed to be played in short bursts during a few minutes of downtime.

By focusing on powerful hardware, the PlayStation Vita is trying to bring the video game console experience into a handheld device. While it offers superior hardware, the Vita may have trouble gaining a large audience, simply because the tastes of mobile gamers have changed. Realistically, it will still sell more units than the Xperia Play -- there is only one PlayStation Vita, but there are many, many Android phones. But the Play offers an in-between solution for gamers who want physical buttons and aren't interested in a dedicated game device. And, of course, it makes phone calls.

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