Jonathan Takiff: Hottest new mobile phones made for geeks & gamers

The Xperia Play is the first "PlayStation-certified" phone.
The Xperia Play is the first "PlayStation-certified" phone.
Posted: February 16, 2011

THE GIZMO: Breakthrough mobile phones from Sony Ericsson, Sprint Kyocera and Nokia steal some thunder.

FRESHER FISH TO FRY: So maybe Verizon didn't pick the best time to introduce its version of the iPhone 4. With the Mobile World Congress convening in Barcelona, Spain, this week, there was lots more eye-opening news on the mobile phone front.

EXPERIENCE XPERIA PLAY: After months of speculation, photo leaks and a 30-second teaser spot during the Super Bowl, Sony Ericsson has finally taken the wraps off the world's first "PlayStation certified" mobile phone.

Coming to the U.S. in late March, initially at Verizon stores, the 4-inch color-screened Xperia Play boasts all things you expect in a Google Android 2.3 (aka "Gingerbread") phone for calling, texting, pathfinding, photo shooting and such.

But what makes it shine are processors optimized for fast, smooth (60 frames a second) video game action, plus Sony-designed game software and a unique slide-out panel with dedicated PlayStation-styled controls for "console-quality" play.

Games must be formatted to a new platform called PlayStation Suite, also to be featured on the next-generation flash-drive and wireless-download-based PlayStation Portable. Ready to serve are major software developers like EA, Gameloft, Namco Bandai and Sony (natch). "Asphalt Adrenaline 6," "Bruce Lee," "Star Battalion," "The Sims 3" and "Tetris" will come preloaded, and 50 additional games will be available at launch from the Android Market.

Pricing is the unanswered question. Hardware had better come in around $200 with a service contract, I'm thinking, to convince die-hard gamers they should stop carting around a basic phone and separate player in their backpacks. And if some lighter, casual game titles aren't priced as low as 99 cents, there'll be "Angry Birds" squawking.

SEEING DOUBLE: On first inspection, the Kyocera Echo from Sprint Nextel looks like just another modern touch-screen smart phone. But apply a little wrist action, and the 3.5-inch screen pivots up and over on two hinges to reveal a second, equal-sized display.

These twin LCDs can be locked flush, side-by-side or angled for a notebook PC-like appearance, with the bottom screen serving as the touch screen QWERTY keyboard.

What other "Simul-Task" applications are possible on this unique dual-screen smart phone? You can put up a bunch of thumbnail sized images from the Photo Gallery app on the left screen while the other screen displays a single, full screen image. Or run Facebook on the left side while tweeting on the right. Or switch the phone into tablet mode with content (like an in-development "Sims 3" game) viewed across both screens, collectively measuring 4.7 inches on the diagonal, with 800x960 resolution.

Like the Xperia Play, the Kyocera Echo is powered by a 1 GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon processor and the Android 2.3 platform. The launch version, landing at Sprint stores in April, will run on Sprint's older 3G EVDO Rev A CDMA network, a decision made to bring it to market six months sooner and at a lower price ($199 after mail-in rebate with two-year contract) than a 4G version would have demanded.

But Kyocera's director of corporate communication John Chier called the introductory product "the first generation of what we see as a platform" with "obvious applications" for a 4G network.

NOKIA "FRIENDS" MICROSOFT: For a long while, the Finnish telecommunications giant Nokia had a pretty good thing going, claiming more than 50 percent of the world's business in mobile phones. But in recent years, upstarts have been eating Nokia's lunch, especially in more developed countries.

I witnessed this firsthand last week on a serious "research" trip to Paris. Scoping out fellow passengers on the Metro, it often appeared a majority of those working on a mobile had an iPhone in hand! (It helps that multiple French carriers sell 'em and price hardware and service more competitively than here.)

But these findings are also supported more methodically by the research firm IDC, which recently reported Nokia's world share in phone sales tumbled in just a year from 38.6 to 28 percent, while RIM's BlackBerry phones dropped by almost as much. Picking up the difference? Apple's iPhone and mobiles running on Google's Android system.

So what's Nokia to do? Something radical, it's just announced. Next year, the company will bail on its own Symbian operating system and start making phones that run on Microsoft's new Windows Phone platform. The smart phones will also work with Microsoft's mobile Office and Xbox Live, of course, and use the Big M's Bing search engine and adCenter income generator.

For its part, Microsoft has wisely agreed to take design and worldwide distribution cues from Nokia, which still dominates the phone business in Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

iPHONE UPDATE: So why were lines so short outside Verizon stores the first day the iPhone4 went on sale, despite early reports it was much improved in holding onto calls?

AT&T is doing its darndest to keep its iPhone customers, with special enticements like unlimited mobile-to-mobile minutes and free home microcells in cities like New York and San Francisco, where indoor signal strength is weak.

But more importantly, Apple followers have mastered the drill. We know there's another iPhone coming in July. And this year's version is rumored to have significant upgrades in text-to-speech translation, with a processor that can run in both CDMA (Verizon) and GSM (AT&T World) modes, and maybe with a "near field" identification chip to use the phone as a superfast charge card at turnstiles and coffee shops.

Can you blame us for waiting?

Send e-mail to takiffj@phillynews.com.

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