Review

Windows Phone 8.1 Review - Cortana has arrived

Microsoft’s Windows Phone operating system is a platform that has been an underdog and has been slowly carving it’s own piece of the market share pie. With its latest release, well upcoming release that is, Windows Phone 8.1 builds upon Windows Phone 8 and brings many requested features like custom backgrounds and a notification center along with dynamic features like Cortana.

While the name only gets a .1 increase over Windows Phone 8, don’t let this fool you into thinking that this is a small update. This release is significant in many ways and the underlying technology being introduced (Cortana) provides a leaping point for Microsoft to continue its differentiation of Windows Phone from iOS and Android.

Many of the new features to Windows Phone 8.1 can be found on other devices but Microsoft has fortunately studied the other options and built out similar features that allow for more flexibility and usability. So, even though the features are arriving later than the other platforms, they are well designed bringing significant benefits to the Windows Phone platform.

 

Previously with Windows Phone, notifications were a weak spot compared to other platforms. For example, if you had applications that were not pinned to your Start screen and received a notification for that app, it was a pain in the butt to figure out what app received a message unless you were staring at the screen as the message popped up.

The Action center provides more functionality than notifications and allows you to access common settings like airplane mode, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and rotation lock as default. If there are other settings that you would prefer to have in the Action center, Microsoft has made it possible to change the toggles selections from a large list of items like VPN, camera, quiet hours, brightness and a few more.

Tucked away near the top of the Action center is the percentage of battery life remaining and the date as well; a shortcut to phone settings is located here too.

Notifications show up exactly how you would expect them too. Depending on what items you have opted to include in the center, Windows Phone will group them by type (Twitter notifications grouped together, emails grouped, etc.) and by tapping on the item, this will launch the application.

There is also a ‘clear all’ button for quickly removing all notifications, which is a nice shortcut tool but it is easy to accidently hit the button when tapping on the left most toggle (our is Wi-Fi).

In practice, the Action center is exactly what we hoped it would be and works well for its intended tasks. The ability to customize your shortcuts is handy and helps to make the platform more personal (Microsoft loves to promote that it has the most ‘personal’ OS).

 

Microsoft made a big deal out of the fact that they interviewed real personal assistants to help define how Cortana would help make our lives easier. The underlying goal for Cortana is to be the human side of Windows Phone and to anticipate your needs before they arise so you can spend less time on your phone and more time ‘doing’ whatever it is you need to get done.

When you first start up Cortana, you are walked through a wizard that helps the service better understand your personal preferences for food, what type of news you like to read and your personal interests. These are done to help Cortana hit the ground running, but the magic is really in the machine learning what goes on behind the scenes the more you use the service.

For example, let’s say that you get coffee every morning on your way to work and Cortana can track this information. But on this particular day, you are traveling and when heading to your new destination instead of your office, Cortana knows that you probably want coffee and can make suggestion for locations along the route.

It’s important to note that you have to give Cortana permission to view your content and locations, so for those of you who don’t want to use these features, you simply never turn them on. Also, the platform is still in beta as Microsoft needs to hit scale with Cortana to help the machine learning algorithms to have enough data to start pulling in contextual scenarios which improves her capabilities.

One thing you will notice is that Cortana is quite good at transcribing your voice to text. Sure, it’s not perfect, but she was getting it right more often than not and you don’t have to talk at a slow rate either. During every interaction with Cortana, I would speak at a natural pace and only place emphasis on unique words (such as my wife’s name).

Cortana can do quite a few things right now and of course, Microsoft will be adding more features with each new update for the platform:

  • Notebook. Similar to a real life assistant, Cortana has a notebook where she stores the stuff she’s learned about you. When you search for something using Cortana and want her to track it, you can add the interest to your notebook. Cortana will also keep track of people and places that are important to you, as well as your quiet hours and reminders.
  • Interests. These are the topics that Cortana stores in her notebook which she can keep you up-to-date on. Categories include daily routine, finance, news, out+about (eat+drink recommendations), travel, and weather.
  • Suggestions. Each time you open Cortana home, you’ll see “suggestions” tailored to you. These suggestions can either be cards with relevant information (such as news, weather or reminders) or questions she will ask to help fill out her notebook further. Your top suggestion will appear in the Cortana Live Tile.
  • Reminders. Cortana can set reminders based on time, location, or even tagged to a specific person. Your list of reminders can also be pinned to your Start Screen.
  • Scheduling. Setting up a calendar appointment on your Windows Phone is a breeze with Cortana. She understands context, like a text that says “Friday for lunch”, and just a few taps later it’s on your calendar.
  • Quiet hours. Cortana can filter out notifications and incoming communications at chosen times or when you are busy – but also makes exceptions for your ‘inner circle’, that is, people who are most important to you.
  • Type or speak. You can speak to Cortana naturally almost as you would with a real person. You can also choose to interact with Cortana using your keyboard.

To launch Cortana you have two options, you can click on the live tile or press the search button to open the application and engage with her.

Microsoft has done a good job with giving Cortana a voice that doesn’t sound too robotic. It’s not a perfect sounding voice but compared to the options a few years ago, it’s a good start for the first iteration of the platform.

And I call Cortana a platform because of the potential for the tool with Microsoft allowing developers to tap into the service to enhance applications and the overall function of the tool; as a side note, the service will only be available in the US with the launch of the dev preview program.

In the current state, Cortana meets expectations for a platform that is still in beta. The voice transcription worked exceptionally well and for most items, Cortana responded appropriately. There were quite a few places when trying to compose a tweet it would open a text message or on random occasions, when asking Cortana anything, it would try to search my music library.

But, Microsoft gave us a heavy qualifying statement before using Cortana and noted that the platform needs scale to perform better and that won’t happen until developers get their hands on the build and have been using it on a daily basis as well.

Overall, though, Cortana comes out swinging against the competition and it's a feature that will grow over time and it's future looks bright.

 

With Windows Phone 8.1, you can now create custom backgrounds instead of choosing a solid single color for a live tile. By selecting an image, it will become the background of the tile and allow you to further customize your phone besides selecting the accent color.

You can change backgrounds in the ‘start+theme’ section of the settings and the OS provides a cropping tool for you to select the portion of an image you want to be your background. It’s a very simple process and takes only a few seconds to complete.

One issue with the background theming is that if an app does not support theme coloring, it will not work the custom backgrounds. So, if you use the official Twitter app for Windows Phone, it will stick out when you apply a custom background as that app does not support the feature.

The good thing here is that the live tile theming is something you will only find on Windows Phone and offers up a unique way to customize your device.

 

One of the more, ‘why isn’t everyone else doing it’ features that arrives with the update is the ability to create custom lock screens. It’s a simple little feature that allows you another dimension to customize your phone.

We will be curious to see how developers make use of this feature as there really are no limits for creativity here. We can already see lock screens that focus on pure productivity with loads of notifications showing up or, like the image above, unique unlocks that have more artistic appeal to them.

More so, seeing that the lock screen can become another personal attribute for the phone, it will make it easier to have the appearance that all Windows Phones look different from lock screen to home screen.

 

If you have dreamed of having Swype on Windows Phone, your dreams have come true, to an extent. With Windows Phone 8.1, Shape writing is a new feature for the OS and makes it easier to input text and once you get used to it, dramatically speeds up the input process.

It’s very easy to use and all you do is press on the first letter of the word, then drag your finger to each of the next letters. By doing this, the OS can determine what word you were looking to write and input it in into the text field. The name ‘shape’ comes from the fact that each word has a unique shape to it that helps the system identify the word you were looking to write.

In short, we quite like it.  There are some rough spots such as trying to type the word ‘if’ generally gets changed to ‘I’d’ but with a bit of practice, we can tell that we are inputting text quite a bit faster with the new feature.

 

To no surprise, Internet explorer received some new features in the update including inPrivate browsing, reading view, unlimited number of tabs, and a high savings mode that reduces data while browsing 45-70%.

Of course, there are also performance optimizations under the hood and Cortana is integrated as well by allowing you to open pinned websites with voice commands.

Generally speaking, the updates to IE11 will not be as obvious as say, Cortana. That’s because they are all enhancements to the browser and make surfing the web a bit easier. In use, the updated version of IE works like it did on Windows Phone 8. Meaning, it gets the job done, we had no issues with rendering or working with the browser in general and will likely be a frictionless app while using Windows Phone 8.1.

 

Microsoft has been the dominant player in the enterprise market for decades but with Windows Phone, it has been slow going to get companies to drop competing devices and make the move over to Windows Phone.

With Windows Phone 8, one of the key features that was missing was VPN. Thankfully, it has now arrived along with upgraded secure email that supports S/MIME and IRM (Information Rights Management).

Now that the basic enterprise features are built into the platform, it will make it easier for Microsoft to push its OS into the market it has traditionally dominated. Even though Microsoft has done well, traditionally, at integrating horizontally and vertically inside a corporation, getting the IT shops to switch their current phones to Windows Phone may not be as easy of a task.

But, since Microsoft already has the ability to integrate into existing enterprise solutions better than Google and Apple, thanks to writing the code, we should expect to see them make this the keystone for their marketing campaigns.

 

Baked into Windows Phone are a bunch of other time saving (and potentially wallet saving) features such as Wi-Fi Sense. The feature allows you to automagically login to trusted Wi-Fi hotspots around the world which can off-load some of your web usage to a local Internet connection rather than your carriers.

The tool can even input credentials on your behalf when you connect to these locations so that migration to local data providers is seamless to the end user.

Beyond Wi-Fi hotspots, the feature also lets you share your home Wi-Fi connection with friends and vice versa. There is an option in the Wi-Fi Sense settings to share your credentials with contacts so that when they come over, if they are using a Windows Phone and have the feature turned on, it will load the information needed to connect to your network.

Storage sense works exactly like you would expect and helps you manage the memory on your device. This feature will also allow you to move content from your internal storage to an external SD card too. It’s a small feature but on low end devices that have SD card support, being able to move your apps on to an SD card is an awesome feature, and one we expect many users who purchase devices like the Lumia 630, to take advantage of it.

Volume controls have been separated too, there are now different levels of volume for ringers/notifications and your apps can have a different volume set as well. A small little improvement but the more tweaks to the OS the user can make, the better.

The calendar got an update as well that we are very happy to see (week view) as it makes using the built-in calendar much more user friendly.

Microsoft also broke apart Xbox Music, Podcasts, and Video apps into their open separate applications. By having their own apps, it makes it easier to find exactly what you are looking for with less searching. The downside is that if you are bored and want to browse all this media at once, you now have to check three separate apps.

Quite frankly, there are quite a few more tweaks and updates inside the OS that make navigating and using the OS a more fluid experience. There are also a number of tweaks to individual apps such as photos that provide improvements to the usability of the app but if we were to cover them all, this would read more like a documentary and less like a review.

 

What Microsoft has done with Windows Phone 8.1 is knocked off the list the key items that the Windows Phone community requested. The notification center was likely near the top of the user request list as it provides all applications a home for notifications and we welcome this feature with open arms.

Bundling the notifications with new shortcuts, makes Windows Phone feel more polished and helps to level the playing field when comparing feature lists to the competitors.

Cortana is the other side of the coin for large new features. It’s a personal assistant who will become more personal over time. While the current iteration needs a bit of maturing, for a beta product, it’s meeting expectations. Microsoft has a lot of room for expansion with Cortana thanks to its large ecosystem of platforms and this makes us quite excited about how the personal assistant will integrate with other platforms in the future.

As an OS, Windows Phone is growing up and is matching the established systems feature for feature.

Where Windows Phone struggles, still, is with the apps. I will argue that apps have come a very long way on Windows Phone and many of the larger developers are now on Windows Phone but it’s not about getting the app on your device, it’s about supporting the app for the long-term.

Take a look at Twitter, for example, it lags significantly behind the iOS app and even Google’s app and this same story can said for other apps like Spotify and Uber, well, good luck finding a decent Uber app for the OS.

But, the situation is improving and as Microsoft keeps putting out quality builds of Windows Phone and is able to obtain market share, the app support gap will close; we are confident of this.

For Microsoft, Windows Phone 8.1 is another example of how the company can deliver on the expectations of the community and do so in a way that delights the end user but the real challenge ahead is to bring these new features to existing users. Currently, the easiest way to get your hands on a non-developer build of Windows Phone 8.1 will be to buy a new Lumia in the coming weeks. But for those of you with existing devices, you will have to wait until this summer.

Report a problem with article
Previous Story

Windows Phone 8.1 ‘Preview for Developers' now available

Next Story

Cortana vs Siri vs Google Now; the personal digital assistant shootout

64 Comments

Commenting is disabled on this article.

This looks great!

One question not answered yet: will WP8.1 support connecting to the net via a proxy server WITH authentication (username/password)?

Our work network connects via a proxy server that communicates with our Windows domain active directory. So if a user is logged into their Windows PC using a domain account, it automatically authenticates on the proxy server as well when they attempt to connect to the internet.

I would hope that this sort of support is available in WP8.1.

So far the only mobile OS that supports proxy with authentication is iOS... and I'm not about to start using an iPhone or iPad. Eugh.

I have the Dev Build... it is very visually attractive and Cortana seems useful, and there are some definite improvements. But why did they drop agenda view from the calendar? and when will they allow direct attachment of docs and vids in email chains?

After all of this obvious work to improve the platform and the damn phone still can't play a flash video from websites? what a joke

why would you think a mobile phone would be able to play flash content????
do iphones play flash video from web sites?
flash for mobile is dead, no longer being made or updated.
I think you are the joke.

So now that Cortana has replaced Bing in the OS, is there still a built in way to detect a currently playing song (like Shazam)? I use Bing Music quite frequently currently.

xTdub said,
So now that Cortana has replaced Bing in the OS, is there still a built in way to detect a currently playing song (like Shazam)? I use Bing Music quite frequently currently.

The button for Bing music searches is still there. It's just on the upper right of the screen now, next to the hamburger button for Cortana's notebook.

xTdub said,
So now that Cortana has replaced Bing in the OS, is there still a built in way to detect a currently playing song (like Shazam)? I use Bing Music quite frequently currently.
There's a button on the Cortana screen, or just ask her.

Based on the screenshots, I wasn't impressed with the customized background images on the start screen, but after seeing it in use on a phone I've change my mind.

I lost my integrated image search.. That's not cool!!! I loved to scan barcodes and page covers with a breeze. Now I guess I will have to download an app for that :(

vhaakmat said,
I lost my integrated image search.. That's not cool!!! I loved to scan barcodes and page covers with a breeze. Now I guess I will have to download an app for that :(
Yeah. There's a number of steps-back for usability. Some of the elegance is lost but hopefully they can bring it back later (like "Find on page" returned to IE).

Chikairo said,
Yeah. There's a number of steps-back for usability. Some of the elegance is lost but hopefully they can bring it back later (like "Find on page" returned to IE).

Find on page was in Windows Phone 8.0.

Go to camera --> Lenses --> Bing Vision.
OR, remove "location" capability from Cortana, then I believe you get your icon back in the standard Bing search

vhaakmat said,
I lost my integrated image search.. That's not cool!!! I loved to scan barcodes and page covers with a breeze. Now I guess I will have to download an app for that :(
It's a lense.

uxo22 said,

It's under themes.


Hmmm I looked under Start & Themes but couldn't find it. Wasn't under Lock Screen, either. The new animated lock screens were one of the minor features I was looking forward to.

uxo22 said,

It's under themes.


Hmmm I looked under Start & Themes but couldn't find it. Wasn't under Lock Screen, either. The new animated lock screens were one of the minor features I was looking forward to.

Chikairo said,

Hmmm I looked under Start & Themes but couldn't find it. Wasn't under Lock Screen, either. The new animated lock screens were one of the minor features I was looking forward to.
It's an app that's not out yet

Chikairo said,
I couldn't find where/how to customize my lockscreen with the nifty new goodies :(

My Apoligies Chikairo, I thought you were talking about the desktop background photo. I read lock screen and totally spaced it. My bad.

Sir Topham Hatt said,
Looks good but I am happy to wait a few more weeks for the real release.
I'm not that desperate to get it :p

A few more weeks?
You must have a great imagination to think you'll get it that early.
OEM and carrier approvals take months each. You'll be lucky to get it by August.

I'm waiting for every person who said WP doesn't need a notification centre to rave about notification centre.

Kalint said,
I'm waiting for every person who said WP doesn't need a notification centre to rave about notification centre.

Don't wait. You'll get a notification later.

Kalint said,
I'm waiting for every person who said WP doesn't need a notification centre to rave about notification centre.

Still doesn't need it, if tiles had a way to mark as read, the action center would be modtly redundant. The quick access to settings is good though.

I had a play with it and really don't see the point of it. I doubt I'll use it much if at all. The only thing I like is the percentage on the battery but they could have done that anyway. I'd prefer not to have the status icons permanently visible too.

Kalint said,
I'm waiting for every person who said WP doesn't need a notification centre to rave about notification centre.

I'm actually annoyed by it. The Notifications in the me tile were enough for social and I had Status Tiles app for what the rest of the notification center offers.

I think MS went the wrong route in unifying by adopting the desktop paradigm on the phone instead of moving the phone paradigm to Windows.

Unified messaging was great, now it's gone.
Unified social network updates were also great, now gone.

Ugh.
Almost makes me want to go back to a 7.8 device knowing they won't mess with me anymore.

This turned out to be a great update, despite people saying MS is trailing behind Apple and Google again.... MS = nagging... <sigh>

But it finally might be time to lay my trusty 710 to rest, and move on to a new phone ;-)

One of the most important tasks they need to do is update or fix is the Zune desktop client.
They should just re-brand it as Xbox Music Pro or whatever and make it the default media player on Windows desktops and Notebooks. RT and pro tablets users can then install the gimped down Xbox Music app that's in the Windows store if they need it.

The Zune software had so much going for it. The software is still one of the best designed UI out there, Wireless sync, a place to organize all your media, as well as doing regular backups.

Now I know they are trying to push people to the cloud but those of us who have massive media collection, 400GB of music in my case, the new Xbox Music app is just not good enough. Plus there are a lot of independent materials that will never be available on Xbox Music. I can count on one hand how many times I've use the Xbox Music app , it's too cumbersome to use.

Fallow this link, vote and make some noise about this issue, hopefully we make enough noise to make them take a second look at updating the Zune client

http://windowsphone.uservoice....e-zune-for-media-sync-in-wp

Yeah, wireless sync with a Nokia wireless charger, why on earth would you abandon this?

Zune wasn't perfect, but if you were to add the powerful dynamic playlists from WMP with Zune's wireless sync, this would be absolutely fantastic!

Oh, and play counts, they have to come back! It allows me to sort the sheet from the good stuff, coupled with dynamic playlists, it ensures the music on my phone was actually the stuff I wanted to listen to.

Nice update, but once again Microsoft is late to the game. These are features Android and iOS have had for a while. I want to like WP, but it's always lagging behind and the app. market is too lacking for me.

There are also features that windows phone has that android and iPhone don't have. No one is whining about the other guys being late to the game, or is it that people just seek out things to whine about when it comes to Microsoft.

uxo22 said,
There are also features that windows phone has that android and iPhone don't have. No one is whining about the other guys being late to the game, or is it that people just seek out things to whine about when it comes to Microsoft.
Curious what features are unique to Windows phone? I'm not looking to whine about Microsoft - I use many of their products on a daily basis (Windows 7/8.1/Surface Pro 2/Office 365, Xbox 360/Music/etc). I'm platform neutral and like I said I want to see WP succeed, but it lacks so many features and app marketplace is lacking compared to iOS/Android.

tsupersonic said,
Curious what features are unique to Windows phone? I'm not looking to whine about Microsoft - I use many of their products on a daily basis (Windows 7/8.1/Surface Pro 2/Office 365, Xbox 360/Music/etc). I'm platform neutral and like I said I want to see WP succeed, but it lacks so many features and app marketplace is lacking compared to iOS/Android.

Well for starters, a couple of features on windows phone that I like that I couldn't do on my android device were, Dedicated camera button, hubs (music, video, Etc), Rooms, True Personalization of the UI, Consistency (limited carrier branding), Consolidated social integration without the need to run and external app, Local scout, a browser that's not constantly lagging.

All of these things are built in without the need to download 3rd party apps. Which allowed me to keep my phone fast & clean.

Just my opinion. I think the only thing Windows phone lagged behind on were apps, when it comes to built in features, I think windows phone is ahead of the rest.

brainsuck said,
Just Updated My HTC 8x It all good Like it

Updating mine as I type this, can't wait to see it in action! what is your carrier?

Neat so far.

Found out that if you don't start cortana via the tile, you don't get the initial setup prompts. You will get them eventually if you do use the tile.

Great OS, well designed, fast and good looking (way better than iOS and Android imo, and I'm a Android user)

Now if only the apps could arrive... When Microsoft release its mobile apps on iOS and Android before their own platform, it doesn't send a positive message. When an app is better on iOS and Android than WP, for no apparent reason, it causes incomprehension and doubt.

I'm open to switch from Android to WP8.1, I already switched from iOS to Android... but I need apps, I need choices. Apps should be as polished on WP than as they are on iOS/Android. Sadly, that's not always the case. (EverNote is an example. There's many more)

I like the background tile images. Makes them look better tho other apps/tiles need to take advantage of it. Looks a mess when all but a few tiles can display the background. I would imagine this is only temporary until apps/tiles are updated.

Sorry, but it looks awful, I don't know if its because I am not viewing it on an actual device, but it looks boring and confusing.

Mr. Dee said,
Sorry, but it looks awful, I don't know if its because I am not viewing it on an actual device, but it looks boring and confusing.

Well, it's either boring because it's a bunch of catch-up features, or things similar to what you've seen before (Notification center/Natural language assistant, etc.), or confusing, because you've never seen it before.

However this stuff being both "boring" *and* "confusing", is actually confusing to me. :p .

The latest version of Android looks far too confusing since I switched from whatever it was before "Kit-Kat".
Windows Phone does everything I need it to do and is a lovely change from the boring and mundane iPhone and Android look.

Kyang said,

Well, it's either boring because it's a bunch of catch-up features, or things similar to what you've seen before (Notification center/Natural language assistant, etc.), or confusing, because you've never seen it before.

However this stuff being both "boring" *and* "confusing", is actually confusing to me. :p .

WP fanboy here (see my comment history), can't agree more with you. And I've been saying this for a while, WP Metro feels outdated, messy and down right ugly.

So what's better MeowPurr? A bunch of icons on a background like a Desktop PC from 1995?

Funny then that Google and Apple have clearly taken design cues from Metro, considering how 'dated' it is.

Mr. Dee said,
Sorry, but it looks awful, I don't know if its because I am not viewing it on an actual device, but it looks boring and confusing.

I'm a 1020 user. I was not all that fond of the thought of background image but when you see it in person, it's pretty fantastic looking. You do have to have the right background or it will just look too cluttered.

The nice thing about WP is that you can change it, if you don't like it. You can make the tiles bigger or smaller.

It's nice to see WP8.1 get virtually universal praise, with various reviews saying that Microsoft got basically everything right, with many nifty features here and there, making the release feel like more than a single .1 increment.

Also - I'm curious as Cortana died in Halo 4 - what does she say if you ask her about her death? :p

blerk said,
It's nice to see WP8.1 get virtually universal praise, with various reviews saying that Microsoft got basically everything right, with many nifty features here and there, making the release feel like more than a single .1 increment.

Also - I'm curious as Cortana died in Halo 4 - what does she say if you ask her about her death? :p

Hey now, I haven't finished the Campaign. Maybe a spoiler alert? lol

blerk said,
Also - I'm curious as Cortana died in Halo 4 - what does she say if you ask her about her death? :p

Arghhh... A spoiler alert warning would be nice as I'm in the middle of the campaign as well. I'm itching to get the WP8.1 update as soon as I get a chance this week. It does look very enticing and well done.

no takeitbill because we are 500 years before she's even thought of. Well, technically she's based off of Dr. Halsey so... take it how you must. I can't wait till we see her projected ;)

I agree with the app situation, the numbers are not important it's more the quaility of the apps. I found that one of the apps i use the most was really poor on Windows Phone (EverNote) i know this isn't microsoft fault but it stopped me switching to the platform full time (i purchased and sent back a Nokia 925).

REM2000 said,
I agree with the app situation, the numbers are not important it's more the quaility of the apps. I found that one of the apps i use the most was really poor on Windows Phone (EverNote) i know this isn't microsoft fault but it stopped me switching to the platform full time (i purchased and sent back a Nokia 925).

Now that WP is clearly the 3rd worldwide and even #1 in several countries, developers are giving it the respect it needs.

Evernote for example has had several recent updates on WP with some needed and some interesting features. (I'm still a OneNote person, but I like what Evernote is doing.)

gregalto said,
Perfect reading material while I wait for my phone to update from the dev preview program!

hit the nail on the head my friend. Installing it now, whilst munching paste and reading this, perfect end to work lol