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Windows Phone 7 Review, Part 6: Windows Phone at Play

And now we get to the fun stuff. Not just the fun stuff, but the good stuff. Windows Phone is a fine productivity solution, sure. But at heart, this is a phone for consumers, and its digital media and gaming features, in particular, are top notch. This isn't going to sell anyone in the Fortune 100, I guess. But it's going to fly--and then some--with your average consumer. Indeed, if you could just get this phone's photos functionality in front of people, it would sell millions of units immediately. It really is that good. And if you were looking for the ultimate portable gaming machine, well ... well, the iPhone is probably that device. Today. But Windows Phone comes pretty darn close, and thanks to an ever-swelling collection of actual Xbox LIVE titles, my guess is that this platform will establish itself as the one to beat for gamers around the world.

In this part of the review, I'll take a look at the Windows Phone digital media features--how it handles photos, music, videos, and other entertainment-related content--as well as its gaming functionality. With only a few niggling issues, this is virtually all good news.

Digital Media Features

If there is a single Windows Phone feature that serves as a poster child of sorts for why this platform is infinitely superior to the competition, it's gotta be the Pictures hub, which lets you view both your own pictures as well as those that are shared by friends and family. And it does so seamlessly, using the system's deep integration with online services.

Windows Phone 7 Review
The Pictures hub (mockup).

The Pictures hub is presented as a sweeping and customizable panorama, or hub, where you can manage, view, and share photos, including those that you take with the phone's internal camera, those you sync to the phone via your PC, those you've shared online, and, perhaps most interestingly, those your family, friends, and other contacts have shared online as well. By default, you will see three sections, or columns, from left to right in the Pictures hub: Galleries, which lists the default photo galleries, a featured gallery (which is automatically selected based on the data and your own usage), and What's New, which presents a dynamic feed of your contacts' photo-related online posts at Windows Live, Flickr, Facebook, and whatever other services you've configured.

The Galleries list provides access to three galleries: All, Date, and Favorites. All lets you browse all of your photo galleries, as you'd expect, including galleries of locally-stored pictures (like Camera Roll, Saved Pictures, and any synced pictures), as well as photos you are sharing from Windows Live and, if configured, Facebook. Yes, they're mixed together into one view, which makes so much sense: This can literally be all of your photos, not just photos on the phone.

Windows Phone 7 Review
Picture galleries.

Date, meanwhile, organizes locally stored photos only, by date, and not according to folder. The Favorites view displays those locally stored photos you've marked as favorite.

The individual galleries display thumbnail views that can be organized in different ways (date, favorites, all). Tapping a thumbnail displays the image, you can pinch to zoom, share photos, and do all the expected stuff. (Curiously missing: Automated photo slideshows.) You can very easily add photos to your favorites list, use a photo as the lock screen wallpaper, or upload photos to supported online services.

Secret: While Windows Phone will by default automatically select a background wallpaper for the Pictures hub itself, you can change this manually by tapping and holding on the current background and choosing Change Background from the pop-up menu that appears. Make it your own.

Windows Phone 7 Review
A customized Pictures hub background.


As you might expect, the Pictures hub works hand-in-hand with the built-in camera, which is surprisingly different (if locked to a 4:3 aspect ratio) in all the phones I tested. The best camera feature, by far, is called "pocket to picture." If you'll excuse the cut and paste, here's how I describe this feature in Windows Phone 7 Secrets:


In mid-2010, I drove cross-country with my father in a Volkswagen convertible. When we arrived in Colorado, we saw a deer at the side of the road. "Quick!" my dad said, pulling over. "Take a picture!" I fumbled for my iPhone 3GS, yanking it up to capture the moment before the skittish animal bounded through the trees. Oh, right, the screen was locked, so I had to turn it on. But it was locked with a password, so I needed to correctly tap that in, an action that was complicated by the fact that I had recently changed the password for security reasons. Finally, I managed to arrive at the iPhone home screen. But not the screen with the camera, Frantically swiping right to left, I tried to navigate to where I thought that camera icon was located, lost in sea of icon-gridded iPhone home screens. Finally, I found it. So I tapped the icon, waited impatiently for the camera app to finally load, raised the phone to my eye, looked, and ...

You guessed it. I snapped a blurry picture of the deer's tail and a slice of its hindquarters. In the time that elapsed while I was fighting the iPhone interface, the deer had simply walked away.

This will never happen to you with Windows Phone thanks to a new feature Microsoft calls "pocket to picture." If I had had a Windows Phone in this same situation, I could have simply taken out the phone, pressed the camera button, and taken the picture. And this would have worked even if the device was off at the time and locked with a password. That's because Windows Phone, unlike the iPhone, has an actual camera button. And the underlying camera works even if you're not logged onto the device.

Revolutionary? Maybe not in the strictest sense. But most everyone who's ever struggled with a phone-based camera has experienced something similar to what I describe above. And if you are (or were) an iPhone user, you know exactly what I'm talking about. This is a common and very frustrating occurrence.

Pocket to picture is simple. You just pick up the phone and press the camera button. It doesn't matter if the phone is off (and/or locked with a password), or if you're using it currently. Either way, it will switch, almost immediately, into the camera application, ready to take a picture. If the phone was off when you pressed the button, it should take about 2 seconds from the time you press the button to when the device is ready to take a picture, maximum. If the phone is already on, it will take even less time.

The only caveat here is the amount of pressing you'll need to do. To prevent in-pocket camera activation, you need to use a "full press"--hold down the button for about one second--in order to activate the camera, and you'll hear a tiny beep when it's on. If you're already using the phone, a half press will do, just a tap really.

By the way, if the phone was off, and locked with a password, and you do take a picture with the camera, you can't just tap Start and bypass the phone's security lock. You'll be prompted to logon at the lock screen instead. That makes sense.


Windows Phone 7 Review
Some camera options (varies per device).

The only weak point in the whole photo experience is Windows Phone's reliance on the Zune PC software for transferring photos you take with the phone to the PC. Yes, Windows Phone supports automatically uploading photos to either Windows Live SkyDrive or Facebook, but those uploaded photos are not full-resolution. If you want perfect copies of the photos, you need to use Zune. And Zune doesn't offer any way to name photos or organize them into folder structures that make sense to you. It just dumps them into a single, inelegant folder. There is currently no way around this, which I think stinks.

Music + Videos

The music and videos pictures situation is mostly excellent. These activities occur through the Music + Videos hub, which is often incorrectly referred to as "the Zune hub." Here, you can manage and play music, audiobooks, podcasts, TV shows, movies, music videos, and even FM radio, all from the device. If you have a Zune Pass subscription, you can stream songs from Microsoft's several-million-strong music collection directly to your device, over the air (or over Wi-Fi), all for a low monthly fee. And if you use the Zune PC software to manage your media collection, you can sync your favorite content to the phone, and even do so wirelessly and automatically if you'd prefer. This stuff is years ahead of what Apple is doing with the iPhone.

Windows Phone 7 Review
The Music + Video hub.

You can find, buy, and download commercial music, TV shows, movies, and music videos, as well as free podcasts, via the Zune Marketplace. And you can even access parts of this voluminous online store (music, apps, and games only) directly from the phone if you prefer. (This stuff, unfortunately, is quite a bit behind what Apple is doing with the iPhone.)

And the Music + Videos hub is also extensible. Already, third party services are showing up, including, AT&T Radio, and many more.

Like Pictures, Music + Videos is a panoramic hub. In the first column is the Zune playback and media management software, which includes music, videos, podcasts, radio, and the marketplace. Next over is the history section, which includes a Now Playing panel as well as access to your most recently viewed/listened to content. Then, there's a New section for recently added content and a Marquee section for third party services.

If you've used a Zune device, I don't need to tell you how awesome the experience is. For the majority of people, however, Zune will be revelation: It's far more visual and elegant then the Apple stuff, with superior navigation, artist imagery, seamless links to online content (for Zune Pass streaming or purchase), artist biographies and other information, and more. Put simply, Zune makes the iPhone/iPod stuff look like DOS. This the next generation, today.

Windows Phone 7 Review
The Zune interface: Suck it, iTunes.

This is equally true for music playback, which is a wonderful, visual experience, and it's persistent, so you can start music (or other audio) playing and then go do other things on the phone. Oddly, video playback on Windows Phone is a surprisingly dull experience with little in the way of customization. The pop-up controls support Play/Pause, Rewind, and Forward, and a timeline scrubber, but that's it. It's pretty stark.

Windows Phone 7 Review
The Zune music playback experience. Tap the screen, and a number of options appear.

Windows Phone 7 Review
The Zune video playback experience.

I should note too that while Windows Phone can sync podcasts from Zune over USB, it cannot access them in the store from the device itself. That makes podcast usage more tedious, especially for travellers who want to grab the latest episodes while on the road. This functionality is coming in a future update, I was told.

But here's one bit of good news: While the Zune Marketplace on the PC is still saddled in Microsoft Points silliness, all purchases made from the device happen in real US dollars (or your own currency). Finally, this is changing.

Games and Xbox Live

For years, eager Xbox fans have pined for a portable, handheld video game machine from Microsoft. And with Windows Phone, they finally get it: Thanks to its stellar hardware specs, awesome developer APIs, and support for the Xbox LIVE service, Windows Phone is already a first class gaming machine. The only thing holding back from overtaking the iPhone is timing. I expect, overtime, that Windows Phone will be the undisputed mobile gaming king.

But even today, there's good news. Out of the gate, there are hundreds of Windows Phone games, and dozens of Xbox LIVE games--complete with achievements, leaderboards, and other exclusive features--and more are coming every single day. It's not a question of it, but when.

I don't have the space or patience to explain Xbox LIVE to you, but you should know that the Xbox LIVE services available on Windows Phone are a subset of what's available on the Xbox 360. You can access your Xbox LIVE gamertag (including profile information like your name, gamerscore, and gamer picture), your avatar (or "avatard" as I call it), your friend's list, your achievements, game leaderboards (from within Xbox LIVE games), and get and receive game invites. Xbox LIVE games must also offer a free trial mode where the user downloads the entire full game for free, but certain features--like levels--are locked by the developer.

Windows Phone supports both Xbox LIVE and non-Xbox LIVE games. Generally speaking, the Xbox LIVE games will be of much higher quality, will be more expensive, and will include features that Microsoft restricts from non-LIVE titles. So far, I've seen few decent non-LIVE games, but that should change over time.

All games are of course accessed from the Games hub (often referred to, incorrectly, as the Xbox LIVE hub). This hub is a panoramic experience with the following sections, or columns: Collection (which includes all installed games, promoted game links, and access to the games section of the Marketplace, Spotlight (a What's New-type feed for Xbox LIVE-related news and information from Microsoft), Xbox LIVE (which includes your editable avatar, gamertag information, and most recent achievement, and Requests, where you can view any pending game requests.

Windows Phone 7 Review
The Games hub.

The quality of the Xbox LIVE games I've tried so far is excellent and absolutely on par with what's available on the iPhone, with one huge improvement: They're Xbox LIVE games. So they include valuable achievements that sit alongside your console- and PC-based gaming achievements, further enhancing the value of both the phone and the underlying service. There are already over 20 Xbox LIVE games in the Marketplace as of today, and many--like Star Wars: Battle for Hoth, Bejeweled: LIVE, UNO HD, The Harvest, The SIMS 3, Tetris, and Earthworm Jim HD, are obviously of the Tier-A variety. The store is already very well stocked when it comes to games. (By the way, most Xbox LIVE games are $2.99, but the most expensive ones are $6.99 at this time. Compare that to the $10-$15 that new iPhone games can sometimes cost.)

Windows Phone 7 Review
There are already a number of excellent Xbox LIVE games in the Marketplace.

Playability is generally excellent. The only issue I've seen is slow startup times for some of the bigger games, especially The Harvest. You can interrupt a game to do something else and reload it to pick up where you left off. Sorry, multitasking complainers. It just works.

Windows Phone 7 Review
The Harvest is a stunning 3D action game for Windows Phone.

There are many excellent reasons to choose Windows Phone over the competition. Mobile gaming is clearly among the best.

Next up, Part 7: Phone and Messaging Features...

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