Windows Phone 8.1 is finally here and while it comes with just a tiny number bump it brings with it two big new features and a number of smaller ones. So read on to find out what you can look forward to in the new version of Microsoft’s mobile operating system.
Cortana is undeniably the star of the show. It’s Microsoft’s answer to Siri and Google Now and while it’s certainly late to the party it was worth the wait. With Cortana, Microsoft really focussed on the personal side of a personal assistant, so while Cortana will answer questions, find information and perform tasks just like Google Now and Siri, it also gets to know you.
It does this by building up an ‘interests’ section over time. So, if for example you ask for the results in a football game Cortana would then ask if you’re interested in either of the teams playing and if you are that team would be added to ‘interests’ so that Cortana would know to give you information on it in future.
Cortana also speaks more like a real person than the likes of Siri. It’s voice can become emotive and hesitant and it will ask follow-up questions as needed.
If you’d prefer it stayed quiet though you can type out a query rather than speaking it, in which case Cortana will reply silently. There’s also a ‘Canvas’ section and a ‘Daily Glance’ area, which between them do a similar job to Google Now's main page, showing you the weather, traffic information, sports scores and anything else relevant to you at that particular time and place.
Cortana is also compatible with third party apps, so if an app developer bothers to build the functionality in Cortana will recognise and be able to interact with any app on your phone. That might be useful for example if you want to use an alternate calendar or could even just be used for launching apps.
All in all it’s an impressively fleshed out assistant, one which could potentially outmatch both Google Now and Siri.
Action Centre is the other big new feature on Windows Phone 8.1 and while it’s not as exciting as Cortana it’s potentially just as useful. Essentially it’s Microsoft’s answer to Android’s notifications screen or Apple’s Control Centre.
You just swipe it down from the top of the screen and you can see a customisable list of notifications, such as missed calls and emails, but as it’s customisable you can pick and choose which notifications will appear.
There are also four customisable tiles along the top which can take you to various settings, such as Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. Then there’s a button which takes you straight to the main settings screen and at the very top you can see the time, date and battery level.
That’s the big stuff out of the way, but Windows Phone 8.1 also includes a few little tweaks and improvements. The Start screen has got a little more customisable as you can now use your own pictures as the background, the calendar has got a new look which allows you to see a whole week of entries on a single screen, and the camera has had a burst mode added as well as giving you access to the various lenses straight from the main camera screen.
The keyboard has also been improved, as it now allows you to drag your fingers across letters instead of tapping if you’d prefer and volume levels can now be set individually, so you can have music and ringtones set to different volumes for example.
Windows Phone 8.1 is launching on the Nokia Lumia 930, Lumia 630 and Lumia 635 but it will also be coming to all other phones running Windows Phone 8 as an over-the-air-update starting this summer. So keep an eye out for it in the coming months. Older phones running versions of Windows Phone 7 won’t be getting the update though.
While there are only really two new features added with this version of Windows Phone they’re big and impressive enough that calling it 8.1 almost seems to diminish what’s been accomplished, because make no mistake, this is a big upgrade which fundamentally changes the Windows Phone experience and importantly closes the gap between it and iOS / Android while keeping its individuality intact.
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