capsule review

Xperia Play 4G Review: Mobile Phone Gaming at a Hard-to-Beat Price

At a Glance
  • Sony Ericsson Xperia Play 4G

    PCWorld Rating

    The Xperia Play 4G is a great gaming device and phone, with a few quirks that can easily be overlooked.

To the delight of mobile gamers on AT&T, Sony Ericsson has brought the Xperia Play to the carrier's HSPA+ network. When I reviewed the Xperia Play on Verizon, I praised the phone's physical gamepad--a godsend to people like me who hate using touchscreens for gaming--but I criticized the Play for not taking advantage of Verizon's ridiculously fast LTE network. The Xperia Play 4G ($50 with a new two-year contract on AT&T) addresses some of the issues I had with the original Xperia Play, but other holdover issues remain.

Well Designed

The Xperia Play 4G is small, though it has some heft to it. The phone appears to be very well designed and is virtually identical to the Verizon version, save for the fact that the Play 4G has a royal blue backplate as opposed to a piano black one. I prefer the blue coloring, if only because it is less of a fingerprint magnet. The 4-inch, 480-by-854-resolution display isn't great, but it offers better color than many pentile displays we've looked at lately. The screen comes with a screen protector preinstalled to prevent the display from getting scratched up while in your pocket or in a bag. The buttons on this version of the Xperia Play 4G didn't feel as flimsy as on the earlier one, and the sliding mechanism for the gamepad felt much more fluid.

Mobile Gaming Evolved

I prefer playing games on my Nintendo DS or Sony PSP rather than on my phone, but I can see the appeal of carrying fewer devices around.

The Xperia Play works well for gaming. There is no significant lag between pressing a button and seeing the action occur on screen, but I wish that the face buttons on the gamepad were raised a bit more. As with the earlier Play, I find the placement of the Start and Select buttons awkward, and I wish they were in the center (much like how they are on the PlayStation game controllers).

The two touch-sensitive thumb pads worked, but they were too inaccurate to use in games that require quick action. In Minecraft: Pocket Edition, movement and block placement were clumsy; more often than not I would fall off ledges because the thumb pad didn't properly register your input. If you plan on playing a lot of games on the Play, I recommend using the directional pad instead of the less-than-fully-functional thumb pads.

Arc Launcher and Other Software

The Xperia Play on Verizon shipped with the stock Android 2.3 (Gingerbread) operating system. The Play 4G still comes with Gingerbread, though it also runs Sony's Arc Launcher overlay. I didn't mind the Arc Launcher, since it wasn't as heavy as HTC's Sense or Samsung's TouchWiz overlays. I liked the animation of the app drawer and the ability to order apps based on how often you used them, though I would have preferred to see Sony swap out the stock (and feature-poor) Android camera app in favor of something better.

The Xperia Play 4G is light on bloatware. Besides the usual bunch of AT&T apps, you get a handful of games that take advantage of the slide-out game pad--Asphalt 6, Crash Bandicoot, Dungeon Defenders 2nd Wave, Madden NFL 11, Star Battalion, TBloxx My City, and the Sims 3.

Performance

Though I would have preferred a dual-core processor (for an extra kick of power), the Xperia Play 4G is no weakling. Its single-core 1GHz processor kept the phone running butter-smooth, even when I played graphics-intensive games.

Call quality was even, though AT&T's reception was shaky here in San Francisco. Reception frequently dropped from three bars to none, and I occasionally lost HSPA+ connectivity. The earpiece handled audio well, and the people I called had no trouble hearing my side of the conversation.

Back when I reviewed the Xperia Play on Verizon, I complained about using 3G to download large game files. With the Play coming to AT&T, I hoped that the faster HSPA+ network would remedy the languishingly long download times. Unfortunately AT&T's 4G download speeds varied so much that you'll probably want to stick to using Wi-Fi to download and play games online.

Don't expect to download an entire library of apps to your phone. The Xperia Play 4G still has the same minuscule 380MB of memory that its Verizon cousin had last spring. True, the Play 4G comes with an 8GB MicroSD card, and you can add storage by inserting a larger card (up to 32GB)--but since the phone stores apps in its memory, people who love to download apps are out of luck.

Camera and Media

The Xperia Play 4G has two cameras: a 5-megapixel camera on the back, and a front-facing VGA camera on the front for video chatting. Camera quality hasn't improved much since the first iteration of the Play: Pictures looked fuzzy and a little washed out. Videos had a similar washed-out appearance, but the Play did a good job of picking up audio.

The Sony audio player is leaps and bounds better than the stock Android player, both in functionality and in design. With the touch of a button, you can view available YouTube videos of the currently playing artist. You also get a basic equalizer in case the audio levels are not to your liking.

A big surprise when I first opened the Xperia Play 4G was the inclusion of a charging dock. The Xperia Play snugly snaps into the dock, so you can connect the phone to external speakers--a nice touch.

Bottom Line

The Xperia Play hasn't changed much in the months since I last saw it. Other than a new coat of paint and 4G connectivity, most of the gripes I had with the original remain unaddressed. The small internal memory, the lack of dual-core, and the mediocre camera would be unforgivable on any full-price phone; but on a $50 model, they are easier to forgive. If you enjoy gaming on the go and can look past the persistent drawbacks, this may be the phone for you.

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At a Glance
  • PCWorld Rating

    The Xperia Play 4G is a great gaming device and phone, with a few quirks that can easily be overlooked.

    Pros

    • Slide-out gamepad
    • HSPA+ Connectivity

    Cons

    • Small internal memory
    • Sub-par camera
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