Xperia Play: The smartphone for serious gamers

The scoop: Xperia Play, by Sony Ericsson, about $200 (after rebates, plus monthly data and voice plans).

What it is: This Android phone is a combination smartphone and portable video game system in one. When held vertically, the device looks like a bunch of other Android smartphones on the market, allowing you to access apps like email, Web browser, digital camera, GPS, Facebook, etc. When you rotate the device horizontally, you can slide out a game controller from underneath the device (much like messaging phones offer a slide-out keyboard). The game controller should be very familiar to users of the PlayStation Portable, as it has four navigation buttons (up, down, left, right), the four PlayStation action buttons (X, O, square and triangle), and even left/right shoulder buttons. The device runs off a 1GHz Snapdragon processor and an Adreno 205 graphical processor.

BACKGROUND: Sony Ericsson woos developers ahead of Xperia Play launch

The smartphone runs the Google Android (Gingerbread) operating system with all of the Google features (voice search, etc.), includes a 4-inch touch-screen display, has a 5.1 megapixel digital camera with an LED flash, and an 8GB microSD memory card (can go up to 32GB of storage). Users can access the Android Market for additional apps.

Why it's cool: If your idea of mobile gaming means more than just flinging cartoon birds at pigs or slicing up watermelons with your fingers, the Xperia Play can deliver a better gaming experience. The types of games offered here are more akin to a PlayStation Portable or Nintendo DS.

I thought I would hate the game play on the device, but was truly impressed at the speed, controls and graphics of the games on the Xperia Play. The phone came with several outstanding pre-bundled games (Crash Bandicoot, a Bruce Lee fighting game, The Sims 3, Asphalt 6), and there were about 20 more available through Verizon's VCast Application. With the Android Market, I could download Angry Birds and Fruit Ninja if I still wanted to play the more casual smartphone games.

Another nice surprise was that I could use the gaming controller to move around on several of the smartphone's apps instead of using the touch screen. This reduced the amount of fingerprint smudging that often goes on with today's smartphones.

Businesses might not like the idea of supporting a smartphone that has such obvious gaming aspirations, but the nice part here is that the gaming controller is hidden underneath the main display. So when it's placed on a desk, you can't tell the difference between this, an iPhone or other major Android smartphone. Only the user will know that they can play games on it when the workday is done.

Some caveats: If the gaming aspect doesn't appeal to you, there are other Android phones that weigh less and are more powerful. The phone at the moment only supports Verizon's 3G network (no 4G LTE yet), so Internet speeds away from Wi-Fi might seem slow compared to devices like the ThunderBolt or LG Revolution.

Gamers might also question the need for an additional device -- especially if they're hardcore PSP or Nintendo DS owners. Having to buy additional games for the device may put a dent in their wallet.

Grade: 4.5 stars (out of five).

Shaw can be reached at kshaw@nww.com. Follow him on Twitter -- @shawkeith.

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