Windows Phone 8.1 Review: A Compelling Release From Microsoft

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Microsoft released the developer preview of Windows Phone 8.1 to devs earlier this month and if one thing is clear it shows that with this latest OS Microsoft is now ready to play ball against iOS and Android. 

To be clear, Windows Phone 8.1 isn’t a total revamp of Windows Phone 8.0, like iOS 6 to iOS 7 was. Instead, Windows Phone 8.1 is an incremental improvement to Windows Phone with some very nice and well thought out changes that brings Windows Phone more in line with other modern mobile platforms. 

While Windows Phone 8.1 won’t ship to the public until later this year, we’ve gone ahead and done a review of the beta. Keeping in mind all betas have bugs (though Windows Phone 8.1 seems to have very few) what we really wanted to concentrate on were the coolest new features. So here they are. 

Windows Phone 8.1: Cortana

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Without a doubt the biggest new feature of Windows Phone 8.1 is Cortana, Microsoft’s personal digital assistant designed to take on Google Now and Siri. Cortana is named after the AI construct from the Halo video game series. In its current guise Cortana doesn’t have the minimal visual appeal of Apple’s Siri in iOS 7, or all the features of Google Now; but it’s a terrific start for Windows Phone’s virtual assistant, all the same. 

Cortana can currently do most of the things any virtual assistant should be capable of: placing phone calls, sending text messages, adding calendar appointments, setting reminders and alarms, creating notes, and performing searches.

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One clever thing Microsoft built into Cortana is its “Notebook” feature. This is the personal digital assistant’s notebook that contains notes about you: what you like, who’s in your family, and your favorite places to eat. Cortana uses this information to give you more accurate results. But though it’s Cortana’s notebook, you’re the one who can curate it. So if you don’t want Cortana knowing something about you, you can simply delete that information from the Notebook.

One drawback of Cortana is its US-only for now, though we expect that to change when Windows Phone 8.1 is released to the public this year. Want it now? Check out our guide on how to install Windows Phone 8.1 and Cortana ahead of the update’s scheduled late-2014 rollout.

Windows Phone 8.1: Action Center

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Another new feature in Windows Phone 8.1 is Action Center. This is comparable to iOS 7’s Control Center combined with its Notification Center. The awkwardly named Action Center allows you quick access to some most frequently used settings such as Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Rotation Lock, and Airplane mode. You access Action Center by swiping down from the top of any screen. In addition to quick access to settings, the Action Center also shows notifications such as emails received, texts, and other push notifications.

Windows Phone 8.1: Internet Explorer 11

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Windows Phone 8.1 also sees a new version of Internet Explorer, version 11. The big new features to Microsoft’s latest mobile web browser are all stolen from the desktop version – and this is a very good thing. Users can now access open tabs on other Windows devices, such as desktops and tablets, right on their Windows Phone.

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But best of all are the under the hood improvements that you’ll take advantage of every day, even though you can’t tell they’re there. These include support for open web standards like WebGL and HTML5 videos. 

Windows Phone 8.1: Word Flow Keyboard 

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Another awesome new feature of Windows Phone 8.1 is the Word Flow keyboard. Word Flow is the equivalent of the popular Swype keyboard on Android. It allows users to leave their fingers on the screen and just drag the tip of their digit from one letter to the next. Windows Phone’s Word Flow keyboard can guess the word you are typing by the short pause and change in direction as you drag your finger from one letter on the keyboard to the next. 

Windows Phone 8.1: Skinnable Live Tiles

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The Start screen has received a visual makeover in Windows Phone 8.1. There’s a new setting under Themes, which allows you to use a photograph as the background for the Live Tiles that live on the start screen. This is a clever implementation of background imagery, as it doesn’t add the image behind the Live Tiles, instead making it part of the Live Tiles themselves. The results, as you can see above, are very pretty.

Windows Phone 8.1: Improved Multitasking 

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Microsoft has also beefed up the multitasking operations in Windows Phone 8.1. As before users can access the multitasking screen by pressing and holding the physical back button on their phone. Now, however, users can simply drag an app down on the multitasking screen to close it. It’s a small feature, but a nice one. 

Windows Phone 8.1: New Apps 

The Windows Phone 8.1 update doesn’t only add new system-wide features. Microsoft has wisely chosen to build in some extremely useful new apps to the OS. All these new apps can be accessed from the App List.

Battery Saver is an app that lets you quickly see which of your currently running apps are using the most of your battery. If you see one is using up a lot you can quit it to stop the drain. Battery Saver also lets you quickly see how much current battery life you have left, the estimated amount of time, and the time since the last charge. You also get the option to conserve battery power when it begins to run low. 

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Storage Sense is a handy little app which lets you move files, such as photos and videos, between your phone’s internal memory and a microSD card (if your phone supports such a hardware feature). It also moves some of the old storage settings, such as the ability to delete files, from the old Settings app to this new app, making them easier to find.

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Wi-Fi Sense is found in the Wi-Fi system settings in the Settings app. The new feature allows you to set your phone to automatically join Wi-Fi hotspots whenever one becomes available. This allows you to conserve your valuable 3G or 4G data allowances. It also allows Windows Phone users to share their wireless router usernames and passwords with other Windows Phone 8.1 devices.

All these three new apps aren’t major selling points, but they do make the OS feel more refined and user friendly.

Windows Phone Still Needs Its Own iMessage, Hangouts App

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Amidst all this gushing hyperbole you’d think Microsoft had come to the table with something closely resembling perfection. All the major themes and wants, for us, were covered and addressed. But there is still one aspect of Windows Phone that doesn’t feel quite right: Messaging. 

Basically, Microsoft needs its own version of iMessage or Hangouts, its own bespoke application that can do IM and SMS and Video and Picture messaging all in one place. The company even has the technology in place to do it (hello, Skype!). Could this be on the cards for Windows Phone 9? I have no idea, but it is definitely something Microsoft engineers should be looking at. 

Windows Phone 8.1: Verdict 

Windows Phone 8.1 doesn’t offer any truly unique features we haven’t seen before. No, what Microsoft’s new platform does is seriously bump up what you can do with the Windows Phone platform, bringing the OS well and truly back in line with Android and iOS and telling us Microsoft dreams of bigger things than the number three spot.

Even though Windows Phone 8.1 is only a beta Microsoft has done a stellar job with its latest OS. It can still use some refinement, but this update shows Microsoft and Windows Phone shouldn’t be considered anything but a major contender in the mobile space. 

Latest Windows Phone 8.1 News & Info

Windows Phone 8.1 Update Coming – Brings Folders, VoLTE & More

Times are changing for Windows Phone as it seems Microsoft has really picked up the pace of development. While many handsets still await the completion of the current Windows Phone 8.1 rollout, word has emerged of another update on the way to introduce a slew of new features.

The news comes from the big M itself, which published information about the update on its developer pages. According to the posted details, the new build will allow users to create Folders on the Start screen (homescreen) by dragging app Live Tiles on top of each other. It will also support Voice-over-LTE calls.

Of less immediate significance for end-users, Microsoft is adding support for phone makers to take advantage of – Windows Phone will support screen sizes up to 7-inches and also adds 1280 x 720 pixel resolution support.

Additionally, Microsoft is enabling “smart cover” support similar to what we’ve seen on Android devices. The tweak will mean manufacturers can create covers which display information (time, weather, email, text) through a specially designed flip cover such as those created by LG for its G3 and HTC for its One M8.

There’s not much info regarding when this update will land, although The Verge cites sources “familiar” with Microsoft’s plans who claim it could turn up as early as next week (week of August 4).

Windows Phone 8.1 Rolls Out To Lumia Handsets In “Cyan” Update

Microsoft has now started rolling out Windows Phone 8.1 in the form of the Lumia Cyan update. As the name suggests, it is only hitting Nokia Lumia handsets, with Nokia’s mobile division now being owned by the Windows giant. With Lumia devices making up the vast majority of the Windows Phone market, such restrictions aren’t necessarily a big deal, although it’s worth noting the update is only rolling out to Microsoft/Nokia’s current range of Windows Phone 8 powered devices – anything still stuck on Windows Phone 7 will apparently remain there.

While Microsoft has officially announced the rollout, and it has reportedly begun hitting phones in the UK, we at KYM are yet to get the update on either the Lumia 1320 or Lumia 1020 we have lying around the office – suggesting it’s something of a leisurely paced rollout.

Additionally, some users who previously updated to the Windows Phone 8.1 pre-release build are reporting problems once updated to the official rollout version – it can apparently brick your phone, so if you did update early be sure to restore your handset to the original software before upgrading to the latest build.

Microsoft has issued a statement on the issue:

“We are currently investigating the issue. We have paused delivery of the update to customers using the Preview for Developers, and will resume once a fix is in place. Customers whose phones have been affected should use the Nokia Software Recovery Tool to return your Lumia to a normal commercial software state before downloading the Lumia Cyan update.”

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