At a London soiree yesterday, mobile phone manufacturer Sony Ericsson invited UK press to see its new range of Xperia smartphones. They're running the Google Android operating system, great rival to Apple's iOS.
Star of the show – at any rate, the only phone given a room to itself, which was mobbed by games journalists – was the Xperia Play, the first Sony Ericsson phone to bear any association with the PlayStation brand since the Japanese giant and Swedish telecoms firm set up their joint venture 10 years ago.
The large "slider" handset flicks open to reveal PlayStation's iconic quartet of symbol buttons and cut-away d-pad. That makes it the only smartphone on the market with dedicated physical gaming controls.
Some form of PlayStation phone has been rumoured for years – and indeed, a Sony Ericsson rep tells me it's something the London-based firm has wanted to do for a very long time.
It's hardly a coincidence that the Xperia Play's unveiling comes hot on the heels of Sony Computer Entertainment's announcement of PlayStation Suite, an initiative that will bring PlayStation-branded games, including PSone classics, to Android phones.
But as eager as Sony Ericsson is to drop the PlayStation name (just as it boasts of "Bravia engine" displays in its phones, and has used the Walkman and CyberShot brands in the past), the reps present have little knowledge of the still rather mysterious PlayStation Suite.
Sony Computer Entertainment has so far had no involvement in presenting the Xperia Play to the press or public. Aside from those symbols, there's no PlayStation branding on the device itself. So where exactly does the Xperia Play fit in?
Your pocket? Only just. This is a big, fat, heavy phone. At 119 by 62 by 16mm, it's bigger than the iPhone 4 in every dimension. However, the key figure is that 16mm depth. It's 70 per cent thicker than Apple's device (at its thickest point – it has a curved back) and, at 175g, nearly 30 per cent heavier. It feels weighty and bulky – although to be fair, it also feels substantial, and its curved surfaces sit comfortably in the hand.
When shut and held in portrait mode, this could be any Android phone, with back, home, menu and search buttons below the screen. This exceptionally large, bright and sharp 4-inch display might be the Play's greatest virtue.
That's a lot of real estate for a phone. It boasts excellent viewing angles and a 480 x 854 resolution that's shy of the definition and awesome pixel density of Apple's Retina display, but still impresses.
Xperia Play will launch with the new version 2.3 of the Android OS, codenamed Gingerbread. This boasts game performance optimisation as one of its headline features, along with an improved on-screen keyboard and better power management.
Sony Ericsson claims the Play has an impressive five-and-a-half-hour battery life when gaming. The firm will also be offering a multimedia dock sculpted to its curves which charges it through its micro-USB port and connects to a home stereo system through line out.
Slide the Play open – the action feels a little stiff and ill-defined – and it assumes a form factor very close to the PSPgo's. A brushed-metal plate holds the d-pad and four (rather small) face buttons as well as start, select and menu buttons.
The recessed digital controls are precise and responsive but have a hard, microswitch-style 'click' to them which contrasts with the soft, springy touch of a PSP or a Dual Shock pad. There are left and right shoulder buttons recessed into the handset – you need to find these with the tips of your index fingers, rather than the joints as you're used to.
The most interesting inputs are the twin circular touch-pads between the buttons. These effectively replace the on-screen virtual analogue sticks that blight so many smartphone games – and they do the job well.
It's amazing the difference a little physical definition can make. Each pad has a tiny raised stud at its centre and a raised line indicating its circumference. They work best when tilting or rolling your thumbs across their surface, rather than sliding, and could well offer the best way to control traditional shooters or racing games on a phone.
The controls feel high-quality, but they don't feel like a PlayStation – something which holds true for the Xperia Play as a whole. Despite the nominal similarity to PSPgo, it doesn't bear any family resemblance to or design hallmarks of SCE products, and indeed is only passingly identifiable as a Sony Ericsson phone. It's very much an anonymous Android handset with the added novelty of game controls.
More worryingly, the Play doesn't feel like a luxury item. It's reasonably well-specced, with a 1GHz Qualcomm processor, 8GB of memory (expandable to 32GB), HDMI support and a 5-megapixel camera.
But while the slide-out surface for the game controls has an excellent finish, the back of the phone has a cheap, hollow, plastic gloss. And with its bulging profile, it's far from sleek.
Sex appeal is everything in the leisure smartphone market, and the Play has none of the allure of Apple and HTC's finest handsets. In fact, downstairs at the same event, Sony Ericsson was showing the stunning Xperia Arc, a wafer-thin and feather-light Android handset with a concave back and even more enormous 4.2-inch screen. I know which one I would have walked out with, given the choice.
So it's left to the Xperia Play's gaming credentials to justify the £40-a-month contracts that Sony Ericsson is aiming for with all the major UK network operators. This is where things get rather hazy.
Xperia Play will launch in April in the UK with seven pre-installed games and 50 compatible launch titles. Since it's the only Android phone with physical controls, games have to be re-engineered to make use of them. Sony Ericsson promises it's sending out as many dev kits and talking to as many developers as it can to ensure wide support.
EA and French copycats Gameloft are the biggest names to offer support at launch. The seven pre-installed games are The Sims 3, FIFA 10 (Madden in the US), Tetris, Bruce Lee Dragon Warrior (a fighter!), Star Battalion (a space dogfighter!), Asphalt 6 (a racing game!)... And Crash Bandicoot.
The EA games are of a pretty high standard, but it's Crash's presence that is probably of most interest to PlayStation fans. This port of Naughty Dog's classic PSone platformer came nested within another app called PlayStation Pocket. Nobody could explain what this was or what its relationship to PlayStation Suite might be, and it wasn't working on the handset I tested.
However, it seems safe to assume that Crash will handle superbly on the Xperia Play's control layout. The same will surely be true of the other PSone games that will be released via PlayStation Suite, and one assumes Sony will ensure these offer Xperia Play support as standard, eliminating the need for a touch-screen button overlay.
If you're excited about the prospect of revisiting or discovering the original PlayStation catalogue on your phone (and don't mind paying twice), then surely Xperia Play is the device for you.
But Sony has plans for PlayStation Suite to be more than a mere PSone emulator. They're not very well-defined at present, and they were poorly communicated at the PlayStation Meeting in Tokyo last month, but they do exist.
SCE wants the Suite to become a platform within a platform. The idea is developers and publishers will choose to create new and original games for it, while the PlayStation branding will promise premium gaming products (possibly at premium prices).
It's also offering the PlayStation Certified stamp to handset manufacturers, which will guarantee a certain level of gaming performance. The Play is the first phone to bear this stamp – and of course has the unique advantage of those unmistakeable controls.
But SCE boss Kaz Hirai expressly stated in Tokyo that the point of PlayStation Suite was to reach as wide an audience as possible. So it's hard to imagine that developers, or even SCE itself, will limit the audience for new Suite games by designing with the Play's controls in mind.
The same goes for the wider Android marketplace, where studios will have an eye not just on all the rival touch-screen handsets but on porting to and from the more lucrative Apple App Store.
Xperia Play may well be the best phone to play traditional games on, but it seems unlikely to divert the mobile market away from its focus on simple touch-screen games – unless Sony Computer Entertainment puts its considerable muscle behind the platform.
Will SCE insist on Xperia Play support as standard for all Suite games? Or will Sony Ericsson have to chase down developers individually, as it has done for the phone's launch line-up? Just how integrated are the plans of Sony's PlayStation business and its mobile phone manufacturer?
That's the million-dollar question. The answer will make the difference between the Xperia Play creating a niche for itself between smartphones and handheld games consoles, or joining the ranks of the many that have failed to do just that, such as Nokia's ill-fated N-Gage.
Until plans for PlayStation Suite are clarified, we won't know the answer. But based on SCE's arm's-length handling of the Xperia Play so far, the signs are not promising.