This is the day Windows phone users have been waiting for eagerly for a long time, after so many rumors about what’s coming in Windows Phone 8.1.
Microsoft finally announced it two weeks ago at Build. It exceeded many of our expectations and brought tons of great features to Windows Phone, some were needed, and some are bonuses that make using this platform even better.
Windows Phone is known for taking a minimalistic modern approach in software design, while being elegant at the same time, but with 8.1 some of the elegance is stripped away for more functionality – a lot more functionality. There are so many features to this update, but we’ll go over the major changes that consumers will recognize.
This preview is a developer preview, which is essentially the RTM (official) version of Windows Phone 8.1 from Microsoft, without the Nokia Cyan update, and without Carrier Approval. The official version of Windows Phone 8.1 which is to be coupled with Nokia Cyan is expected to be released by carriers sometime in June. For those of you who can’t wait to take the plunge, you’re able to receive this update by downloading an app called “Preview for developers” and enrolling in the developer program through Windows Phone App Studio. It’s free and accessible to anyone, you don’t have to be a developer.
The first thing that’s immediately noticeable is the addition of an extra tile column which all Windows Phones could now use. It doesn’t turn on by default, it can be turned on in the setting menu, and this layout was previously only available for devices with 5” screen or larger. This is a great feature that really enables you to use the start screen to its fullest potential, by being able to place even more apps and information. Another new feature available for the start screen, is the ability to add custom background wallpapers. This feature is really neat as it makes the live tiles now transparent while the wallpaper bleeds through the tiles. However, not all apps pinned will become transparent, there are still 3rd party apps tiles that will need to get updated to receive this feature. The start screen has always been very personal, but now it’s even more personal with a much richer customization experience.
The Windows Phone keyboard has always been a first class mobile typing experience with its smooth typing and predictive keyboard technology. But now there is a really great feature added to it – it’s Microsoft’s own version of the popular Swipe keyboard for Android. Microsoft calls their version Word Flow and they put their own twist to it. Microsoft claims to have broken the world record in speed typing with its Word Flow keyboard, and with our tests it feels extremely fast. It’s natural, smooth, and once you get the hang of it, it gets addicting. Emoji’s will also pop up that correspond to the words your typing, this is neat little feature and it certainly makes using emoji’s more useful rather than looking and finding the one you want. This is not a replacement of the original keyboard, it’s actually an additional feature.
The biggest and most popular change to Windows Phone is the addition of Cortana. Cortana is Windows Phone’s personal voice assistant, and inspired by Cortana in the Halo Franchise. Cortana works as if Siri and Google Now were melded together, but she also has some specific capabilities of her own, like setting people specific reminders, and providing you with up to date news about things you care about. She has the excellent location services, and with your permission will track what you do and like to read about, based on your searches, much like Google Now, but will need your permission to do so, unlike Google Now which will automatically do it. Cortana will ask rather than anticipate, while Google does the latter. She also takes the best of Siri with her witty and funny answers to certain types of questions and having a personality, she sounds more human though, but not with every type of request.
You’ll have to tell Cortana about you, she has her own notebook and this is where she keeps everything she knows about you. The more you tell her, the more powerful and useful she becomes. In the Inner Circle menu is where Cortana will store the people that are most important to you, and let their calls go through even when quiet hours are in effect, you can tell her who your friends and family members are, and provide nicknames for them, so rather than using your wife’s name, you can just say “next time I speak with my wife, remind me to ask her about hair” Cortana will know who your wife is and remind you about what you had asked, when you get in touch with your wife either through text, email, or a phone call.
You can also give Cortana permission to scan through your email where she can track things such as flights and other appointments for you. Google Now will just automatically do those things without asking, and Siri doesn’t support those features.
Cortana can be accessed through the search button and will replace Bing, you can also pin her to the start screen where she can update you on all of the news you care about, with a live tile. When searching with Cortana, just underneath your search results is an option called “update me on this topic” by selecting this option Cortana will know you are interested in that certain topic and will provide constant updates, via live tile and when scrolling through the Cortana app. To see more on that topic you can select “see more news”. You can access Cortana’s notebook and edit all of the things she knows about you to personalize it even more. You can access things such as you interests, reminders, quiet hours, which is a great feature that will block incoming calls from people you choose, at the hours you select, it’ll let calls through if someone calls twice in a span of 10 minutes. There are also options for your places of interest, such as your work, home or whichever place you chose, Cortana will update you with traffic information to these locations and she will eventually learn your schedule.
Cortana will also do music searches of your favorite tunes and prompt you to download the track if you have an Xbox Music Pass. When you receive texts or emails regarding an event, Cortana will recognize this by underlining the date, time and of the particular event, tap the underlined text and Cortana will add it to your calendar. She’ll use the text written prior to the date and time in your calendar. This works great with messages such as “meet at Joeys at 9” but with messages like “come over to my place at 9” the calendar appointment doesn’t sound right. It would be great if she knew who was sending the message and could reword the event in your calendar by adding “come to Vlad’s house at 9”. Were pretty positive that this feature will be improved upon in the future since Cortana is in a very early beta, but it’s definitely a neat feature.
If you chose to type a request to Cortana she won’t speak back to you, she’ll write back, which is neat, especially at times when having her talk is inconvenient. She is also able to interact with apps, this is a great feature with apps that support it, and Microsoft is opening Cortana’s to developers so they’ll add as much of Cortana as they please to their apps. You can say things like “Foursquare check in” and it’ll launch the Foursquare app and check you in. Cortana is still in Beta and will remain to be until the second half of the year, and for a Beta she seems to work extremely well, She is only available to download in the US, but if you change your Region to the US she’ll work in any country, but she’ll only understand English. Microsoft plans to a global roll out eventually, but we don’t have any dates yet. Halo fans will be happy to hear that Cortana will eventually be voiced by “Jen Taylor” Which is the voice actress for Cortana in the Halo series. Microsoft eventually gave in as a huge number Halo Fans demanded this feature. Now if she can only be replaced by Cortana’s actual Avatar.
Cortana is a big step up in terms of the limited voice functionality Windows Phone provided, and is arguably more complete than Siri and Google Now, since it combines the best of both assistants. We love what we see so far and look forward to Cortana evolving, especially as she comes to the PC, tablet and Xbox.
For all of the non Nokia Windows Phones out there, the stock Windows Phone camera has been updated with a new UI, it includes a burst mode and basic camera functions on the screen, like flash, the lens, an icon to access a menu for pre-set camera settings for a variety of different shooting modes, such as Close ups, Night shots and so on. These are good needed features to the regular camera app, but doesn’t come close at the level of manipulation that Nokia’s Pro Camera App provides.
These are the major improvements on Windows Phone, but there are many more minor improvements, like Internet Explorers the new reader mode which gets rid of photos and graphics and makes the webpage more readable, and swiping left and right to go back and forward just like Windows 8.1 with touch. Apps now get updated automatically, and action centre will let you know which ones have been updated. The calendar app has been completely overhauled, it’s split up into different views, such as the yearly, monthly, weekly and daily view. We especially like the weather integration on the calendar, it actually helps for scheduling, and it’s a nice touch.
Windows Phones killer feature was always the People Hub and its integration with apps and core services from Microsoft and Major social networks. Microsoft’s vision of an integrated OS was ambitious and genius, but in order to achieve that they would have to update those apps frequently by updating them through the OS. There’s a major roadblock to these updates and they’re the Cell Phone Carrier. In order for Microsoft to roll out updates to the OS, Carriers need to do rigorous testing and it’s quite costly. As these Social networks update frequently, the OS can’t keep up. There are advantages to integration, such as speed and the fluidity of apps, but this model still exists on Windows Phone, it’s just a little less integrated.
The People Hub is now prettier, as photos are larger and the layout seems better organized. However as you select a post or a photo to respond to, the app which presented the post will open and take you to the corresponding screen, these tasks aren’t completed in the OS anymore. The same applies to the Me Tile, posting from there will take you the app that you’re trying to post from, but to the posting part of the app. Notifications from social networks aren’t shown in the Me Hub, those are all in the new Action Centre. This may be a slight inconvenience but there’s still a good level on integration and as these apps get updated, you’ll always have the latest in functionality. It strikes the perfect balance of integration and functionality, there was too much integration in the past with less functionality.
Windows Phone’s new Action Centre works beautifully, for users who don’t have many tiles on the start screen, and who don’t have tiles always arranged in the best way, the new Action Centre provides you with all of your updates from social networks and apps, it’ll even tell you which apps have been updated in the background. It works extremely well and the best part is, that clearing the notifications in the action centre will reset the tiles with the notifications. Tapping the notification takes you to the part of the app with the notification, we wish that it would clear individual notifications from apps rather than all of them from particular app, but everything else work great. It also gives you four toggle buttons of your choice, and a setting icon is present which will take you to the full settings menu. You can set up which apps will show notifications and what types of notifications they’ll show.
Windows Phone still retains is modern clean minimalistic design, but as more functionality takes place, some of the elegance goes away, such as the Music Hub which used to display a graphic on the tile as music played, now its just a green tile without movement. The photo gallery loses its beautiful picture background and integration with social network updates, but as it gains functionality, photos from your camera roll are displayed by date and location. Photos from Social networks and OneDrive are not mixed in to the photos hub with the photos on your phone anymore, their corresponding tile will be there, that when you open, the photos hub will show display all your albums from these apps,, which results in a cleaner experience.
Windows Phone feels fresh and new once again, it’s also more competitive than ever. For people who are using Windows 8.1 on the PC’s or tablets, the experience is better with the level of integration between the two operating systems, such as the new universal apps that’ll work on both platforms, purchasing an app or game on Windows Phone will enable it on the PC, Xbox, and Windows Tablets. Changing your tile color on the phone will also change the background color on your Windows 8.1 device, providing you enable that setting. Windows and Windows Phone will eventually become one, were excited for the ride as these two platforms merge along with their app stores.
Overall the improvement is a tremendous one, and a much needed one, as the official Windows Phone 8.1 update comes along with the Nokia Cyan update, we look forward to seeing more refinements and what Nokia has to bring to the table.