What to expect from the Windows Phone 8.1 update
April 23, 2014
Just like Microsoft's Windows 8.1 update, its mobile OS is continuing to move forward with Windows Phone 8.1. This is a major upgrade which is free to all current Windows Phone 8 users, and set to be released sometime this summer (Northern Hemisphere). Availability will vary by device and carrier. Here's a look at some of its new features and what you can expect.
Windows Phone now has a notification center that Microsoft calls Action Center. You access it the same way as on Android or iOS devices – swipe from the top of the screen down. Some of the information and functions it provides includes recent emails and texts, updated apps, enable Bluetooth, Airplane mode, and more. You're able to change the data displayed by going to Settings > Notifications + Actions. There you can also enable the Action Center to appear when your phone is locked.
CortanaCortana is Microsoft's digital assistant, which is similar to Android's Google Now or Apple's Siri. It's one of the most hyped features of Windows Phone 8.1, but is currently in beta and only available in the United States. It's currently not clear when it will make it to other countries.
Cortana is powered by Bing and it replaces the Bing search function currently in Windows Phone 8. After setting it up by following a simple on-screen wizard, you speak to Cortana by launching the app, or by holding down the Search button on the phone. Of course like Google Now and Siri, a data connection is required to use it.
For specific searches like the current weather, or recent sports scores, it will read the results back to you. If you're querying something that requires more data from the internet, the results are displayed on your phone. If you type your search, Cortana automatically assumes you don't want audio and will only provide results via text.
It uses natural language technology which means you can talk to Cortana as you would to another person. When Cortana speaks, it replies back to with a natural-sounding voice, which is less robotic than Google Now.
There are also "Easter eggs" included with Cortana. One that's been revealed turns the Cortana icon into Clippy – the most loved and hated icon from earlier versions of Windows. To get that to display, ask Cortana "Do you like Clippy?" twice. Then you'll see the famous icon appear in the upper left corner of the screen, as shown in the image below.
Start Screen enhancements
There's been several enhancements to the Start screen in Windows Phone 8.1. First, you can use the "Show more Tiles" feature. It's not enabled by default, but can easily be turned on in Settings > Start + Theme. Now you have three sizes for your tiles – previously there was just two. With this feature you can fit five small tiles on the Start screen horizontally. Or mix and match to make it your own.
For the start screen background, the update lets you pick a photo to display under the Start screen tiles. It gives you stock themes to choose from, or you can use your own pictures. This eye candy feature looks cool, but the background only shows for tiles that are transparent. For example in the picture below, I had to move the transparent tiles to the top to make out the background image. As you can see, some of the tiles aren't transparent like Games, OneDrive, and Office. Whether there will be a way to make all tiles transparent remains to be seen once the final version ships.
Storage, Wi-Fi and Data Sense
There are a couple of new "Sense" features that allow you to keep a closer eye on your phone's storage and network connectivity. Storage Sense allows you to drill into the phone's internal storage or SD card to see exactly what's taking up the space. Wi-Fi Sense lets you keep an eye on your data usage. When combined with Data Sense (a feature previously only available on high-end Windows Phones) it creates a great method to monitor your usage, which is useful if you're on a limited data plan. Data Sense also finds efficient ways to use your cellular data. It allows you to limit large uploads and downloads to occur over Wi-Fi only, and restrict background data that you're not using.
Wi-Fi Sense features the ability to sync known Wi-Fi networks and passwords between other Windows devices you own. It makes connecting to various Wi-Fi networks a seamless experience. It also provides the ability to share Wi-Fi network settings with your Outlook.com, Facebook, and Skype contacts – provided they are using a Wi-Fi Sense-enabled Windows device.
Other Notable changes
There are even more changes in Windows Phone 8.1. For example, previously all of your media options on the phone were in one central hub called Music + Videos. There you would find Xbox Music, Xbox Video, Podcasts, and FM Radio. That hub is gone now, and each one has an individual tile. The Windows Phone Store has a slightly revamped layout, and it's all about apps. Previously if you did a search in the store, it would give you results for music, videos, and games. Now the only result you will get when searching the store is apps and games.
Skype is baked in now, so you don't need to download it separately. It’s also part of the phone dialer, and lets you switch a regular phone call into a Skype video call (provided the person you're talking to is also using a smartphone with Skype installed). The Calendar app has been revamped to display a new week view, and it displays the weather for each day – which is always handy for planning events. The onscreen keyboard now has Word Flow, which is similar to Swype style keyboards for Android.
New business features are available too. Most notable is the fact that you can now VPN into your work computers. A new feature called "Workplace" keeps your work and play separate. It allows your IT guys to set up a company account where they can remotely reset or encrypt your phone, require complex passwords, allow access to company apps, and more.
There are really too many new changes in Windows Phone 8.1 to cover in one article, but this should give you a feel of what's coming. While the 8.1 update turns your Windows Phone into a new device, there is one glaring issue – lack of apps. A lot of the essential and popular apps keep coming to Windows Phone, but are doing so slowly. There is always that one app you always use on Android or iOS, and it's not on Windows Phone yet. Hopefully with this update though, developers will start taking the phone more seriously.
Microsoft is playing "catch up" with Android and iPhone, and even with fewer apps, Windows Phone 8.1 delivers. If you're a Windows Phone fan, you'll be pleased with the new updates and the features they bring.