Sony Xperia Play Ready for Verizon Wireless Gamers

Verizon Wireless (s vz) stores will offer Sony Ericsson’s (s sne) (s eric) Xperia Play handset beginning May 26 for $199 with a two-year contract. Online pre-orders for the Google Android (s goog) handset begin one week earlier, May 19. Unique to the phone are support for Sony PlayStation games and controls that match Sony’s console. In lieu of a hardware keyboard, the Xperia Play has a slide out game controller with a directional keypad, dual analog touch joysticks, two shoulder buttons and four symbol keys: circle, X, square and triangle.

The smartphone, a Verizon exclusive for now, looks to take advantage of the relatively weak gaming software available for Android handsets. It comes pre-loaded with seven game titles: Madden NFL ’11, Bruce Lee Dragon Warrior, Asphalt 6: Adrenaline, The Sims 3, Star Battalion, Crash Bandicoot and Tetris. While the handset can take advantage of a growing number of games in the Android Market, the addition of other Sony Playstation titles make the device appealing to gamers who want both an Android smartphone and a handheld gaming console, especially if Sony adds gaming titles to the Android Market.

The handset should have the horsepower to work well as either type of device:

  • 1GHz Qualcomm (s qcom) Snapdragon II processor with Adreno 205 GPU
  • 4-inch multitouch display running at 854×480 resolution
  • 5-megapixel rear camera, VGA front-facing camera
  • Integrated mobile hotspot capability for sharing a 3G connection with up to five devices

Aside from the innovative gaming aspect, the Xperia Play is one of the few handsets shipping with Android 2.3, also known as Gingerbread. Most Google-powered handsets for sale today are still on version 2.2, or Froyo. Gingerbread doesn’t bring many new features to smartphones, which is likely why manufacturers haven’t invested resources to adopt it, but this development is a positive shift for Sony Ericsson.

Smartphone owners have been critical of the handset maker in the past for being slow to update the software on its Android smartphones. The Xperia X10, for example, launched with Android 1.6, and by the time Sony Ericsson finally made Android 2.1 available, most competing phones were already launching with Android 2.2.

Android updates aside, Sony Ericsson’s timing on the Xperia Play may be just right. Earlier this month, a report from mobile analytics firm Zokem, showed mobile gaming is now the fifth-highest activity on smartphones, and 60 percent of smartphone owners are gaming on their devices at least once per month. With the new Xperia Play on Verizon’s network, Sony Ericsson sales could hit a new “high score.” The company could use a sales boost given that it sold fewer phones in the first quarter of 2011 than it did in the same period last year.