Barring a complete miracle, no company will be able to topple Apple in the mobile phone gaming market for the next few years. Given the head start that the iPhone and App Store have over the competition, and the ties each have to the ultra-popular iTunes Store marketplace, the market share for both hardware and software are near insurmountable.
The only way to even begin to make a dent in the market is to specialise, which Microsoft is doing with its Windows Phone 7 devices.
Instead of working on the hardware end, Microsoft has instead entrusted the Windows 7 mobile operating system to manufacturers who can create phones that meet certain CPU speed, screen size and button placement specifications. Because it's not betrothed to any particular companies, it means a variety of manufacturers (like ASUS, Dell, HTC, LG and Samsung) can create Windows Phones for many different service providers (including AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon).
For this review, I spent a month with the HTC HD7, one of the larger-screened phones introduced for the Windows Phone 7 launch.
Xbox live integration
Ever since Microsoft announced its intentions to tie Windows 7 games in with its Xbox 360 games, I've been a bit skeptical about how mobile gaming would be tied into the service. Thankfully, Microsoft has taken a conservative approach to releasing games and integrating them into Xbox Live. While hundreds of games and applications are available on Windows Phone 7 devices, only a few dozen are Xbox Live-enabled.
These Microsoft-sanctioned games include the ability to unlock Achievements and add to your Xbox Live profile's Gamerscore, while also allowing the player to sign into the online service to send messages to fellow online members. While there are a few titles that are available in portable and console form, mostly puzzle games like Hexic Rush and Tetris, none have cross-platform play as of yet.
For now, the biggest draw of Windows Phone 7 gaming is the additional source of Gamerscore points for hardcore Xbox 360 gamers. With Microsoft metering official Xbox Live games for Windows Phone 7 devices at roughly the same pace as Xbox Live Arcade games, the company can make sure that the titles meet a certain level of functionality.
While some of the games might not be great, Microsoft's refinement of the Achievement system over the last half decade has ensured that these mobile phone games will take the same level of dedication to earn Gamerscore points as the console-bound games. In my month with the phone, I was able to devote a few hours to some of the platform's finest, but I was unable to obtain 100% completion for any of them.
Even though Apple has introduced the similar Achievement-tracking Game Center application, I found that Microsoft's groundwork on the Xbox 360 gave the Windows 7 achievements more gravitas.
Even though Microsoft has already delivered a handful of quality exclusives to the platform like Hexic Rush and The Harvest, the platform is home to more than a few App Store ports. While most are done justice (and some are improved due to the larger screen on some Windows Phone 7 devices), I did come across a few games that felt less natural on Microsoft's mobile system. Particularly, games with icons in the corner (like Flight Control) had response issues on the edges of the screen.
More pressing than the software issues, some of which can be addressed with a patch, are the hardware flaws inherent in the design of the initial Windows Phone 7 devices. It's pretty difficult to accidentally exit an iPhone game, since the power button is the only one you're in danger of pressing during gameplay.
The Windows Phones, on the other hand, have two tactile (power and camera launch) and two of three touchscreen (home and web search) buttons that will boot you from the game if pressed. The latter two buttons are the most egregious, as they're placed right at the edge of the screen, mere millimeters away from the device's touchscreen. Granted, the fact that most titles will simply pause when you press one of these buttons lessens the pain, but the constant interruptions caused by these poorly placed buttons shouldn't have been an issue to begin with.
The device's non-gaming capabilities, however, are very soundly integrated. Like the iPhone, call quality is plenty serviceable, though it's built to be more of a multimedia machine. The Windows Phone 7 platform includes plenty of productivity tools, including basic versions of Microsoft Word and Excel, bolstered by a predictive touchscreen keyboard input similar to the iPhone.
Internet browsing is done with a modified version of Internet Explorer (which is a bit clunkier than the iPhone's Safari browser). The music and video playback is done via Microsoft's Zune software, which, while unorthodox in terms of UI, has a pretty stellar recommendation algorithm. Speaking of UI, every facet of the phone from email to Foursquare to Netflix employs a similar column-based design ethic that lists the major parts for each program next to each other on the top of the page.
To use Twitter as an example, you can browse your feed by running your finger up and down the screen and then jump to your direct message with a few side swipes. The unified design really works wonders, though on more than one occasion the phone misread a slightly askew vertical swipe as reason to shift columns.
While I'd certainly recommend one of the Windows Phone 7 devices to fans of the Xbox 360, the fact remains that the software and app libraries are anaemic compared to the iPhone. Where Windows 7 is able to gain some headway is with a unified UI and a dedicated library of games that manage to make mobile gaming a bit more rewarding.
If upcoming firmware updates can make the touch screen a bit more forgiving, and the next generation of phones can eliminate the minefield of game-pausers, I might extend the recommendation outside of diehard Xbox fans.