Better in all the right places.
Windows Phone 8.1 is set to roll out in the coming months, and while, numerically, it looks like the changes should just result in a minor update, the latest version of Microsoft's smartphone operating system is anything but. Between the introduction of the Siri-like Cortana, a new input method for the platform's keyboard, and, finally, a proper notification system, Windows Phone has reached a new level of refinement and feels one big step closer to maturity.
But don't be mistaken, Windows Phone 8.1 isn't a complete re-working of the operating system. Instead, it introduces a few high-demand features and other smaller upgrades that bring it more in line with Android and iOS. Not only does the latest update deliver some significant additions, but it also gets rid of some problems that have been holding back the operating system from achieving parity with its more established competitors.
By far, my biggest gripe about Windows Phone, up until this point, has been its bare-bones notification system. Live Tiles, while attractive on the home screen, are extremely limited in terms of functionality. In order to make them work in any decent manner, you would have to make sure the app is pinned to the home screen and adjust the size of the tile to show the desired information. Even then, you couldn't interact with the notification in any meaningful way. But these issues have been completely erradicated with Windows Phone 8.1.
The most useful addition to the operating system—and one you'll likely take advantage of on a regular basis—is the new Action Center. Like with Android and iOS, Windows Phone users will be able to drag their finger down from the top of the screen to reveal notifications and quick settings. Notifications can either be swiped away or tapped to access, and toggling Wi-Fi or airplane mode is now as simple as tapping one of the pre-set icons. If you need to get to more settings, the standard menu can also be accessed from the pull-down shade.
Another feature that we've seen on Android that has made its way to Windows Phone is a swipe-enabled keyboard. Dubbed Word Flow, the new input method works just like Swype, letting users drag their finger across a series of letters to create a complete word. Microsoft's smartphone keyboard was good to begin with, and this just makes it better.
In regards to cosmetics, Microsoft has added the option to choose a background photo for the phone's home screen. This doesn't function like other operating systems, including Windows 8, which lets users change the imagery that sits behind the icons. With Windows Phone 8.1, the base background remains solid black or white, but the tile backgrounds become transparent, revealing the chosen image.
Text and icons on the tiles will still be seen, so it may take some time to find the right background that doesn't make letters tough to read, but the results can look extremely clean and attractive. Unfortunately, not all app tiles support the new feature at this time—and some may never, it's all up to the developer. So while many will display the desired design, tiles for Twitter and Spotify, for example, still appear bright blue or green, breaking up the flow in the process. It definitely makes the OS look more unique than it already was, as long as you use the right combination of tiles. Those with older Windows Phone devices will also be happy to know that there is now an option to show more tiles, allowing for a 3 column home screen configuration like Nokia's Lumia Icon and Lumia 1520.
One of the biggest additions to Windows Phone 8.1 is Cortana, Microsoft's answer to Apple's Siri. Accessible by opening the app or by tapping the magnifying glass icon below the display, the new voice-activated virtual assistant works much like the one found on iOS devices. You can ask questions in regards to traffic and directions, sports schedules, and actor facts (with the help of Bing and Foursquare), or request the phone to open apps, send messages or make calls, or set up reminders. Similar to Android's Google Now, Cortana can also show you top headlines from topics that you indicate you are interested in when you first boot up the app. In a way, it blends the best qualities of both Google Now and Siri, offering not only detailed results for a variety of inquiries, but presented in a humanized way. It's also notably fast and accurate, though voice detection can be hit or miss at times.
There are also a bunch of other, smaller upgrades to Windows Phone that make the general OS much easier to use: you can now independently adjust the volume for notifications and media, games can be found in the general app list instead of just within the games hub, and apps can be set to automatically update. Internet Explorer has been improved to include a private browsing option as well. Microsoft also enhanced Windows Phone's usage tracking systems with the inclusion of Wi-Fi Sense, Data Sense, Storage Sense, and Battery Saver.
Windows Phone 8.1 fixes the operating system in all the right places while adding a few significant features in the process. Cortana, Word Flow, and a unified notification system aren't just about introducing new software to the platform, though, they're also about making the base operating system more comparable to Android and iOS. Microsoft may still be far in third place in the race for smartphone dominance, but the latest update does a great job at positioning Windows Phone as an actual competitor worthy of some attention. The hardware has been there—Nokia made sure of that—and now the software is on its way to being ready for prime time too.
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