Finally bringing Windows Phone up to par

Review: Windows Phone 8.1




win81In the Microsoft camp, much excitement has been created over Windows Phone 8.1 and for good reason. Many improvements have been made to Windows Phone including adding new features that have been missing since the very beginning. These new features also help give Windows Phone a fighting chance against its iOS and Android competition.

So let’s find out just what it is that’s got the Microsoft guys so excited. The review, as always, starts after the break.

Currently, the only way to get your hands on Windows Phone 8.1 is through the Preview for Developers program. To do that, all you have to do is have a developer unlocked phone, have the app installed and then check for OS updates. Later this year, you’ll be able to get ahold of Windows Phone 8.1 through a carrier OTA update or buy buying a new Windows Phone like the Lumia 930 or Lumia 630/635. However you get it, this is what you’ll be seeing.

lockstart-81The lock screen and Start Screen haven’t changed too much. The lock screen, in this configuration, is mostly the same as it was before but during //BUILD/, they showed the ability to highly customize the lock screen into just about anything. The Start Screen remains largely unchanged… for now. It can be customized in several ways which we’ll get to later on in this review.

 

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A rearranged set of status icons now lives at the top of the screen which is where the new notification center (called Action Center) also lives. Swiping down from the status bar brings up the Action Center and as you would expect, it offers up notifications on various apps. It also serves as a quick-access panel for commonly used tasks and can be changed to whatever you use the most. Also present is a percentage indicator of battery life and the month and day under the clock. When you’re done here, it only takes a swipe up from the bottom of the screen to put the Action Center back into hiding.

customstart-81In addition to the lock screen customization options, the Start Screen can be further customized as well. There aren’t any new background colors to choose from and that may be because they now let you set an image as the tile background, which would also include making an image of nothing but any solid color and setting it as your tile background. If you just love those live tiles, it’s also possible to set your phone to display three rows of tiles, a feature previously reserved for the Lumia 1520. And for the time being, it does work on the Lumia 52x.

newstorelisting-81As also demoed at //BUILD/, the Windows Store experience has been changed. The app listings now put the info and screenshots right on the front page and the reviews tab gives you at-a-glance information on the app rating and reviews. The main Store listing view has also been changed, pushing ease-of-use in the store.

 

wp_ss_20140414_0016Now it’s time for one of the biggest features of Windows Phone 8.1, and that’s Cortana. It (or should I say “she”?) is really called Cortana and not one of Microsoft’s typical names like “Microsoft Personal Assistant v1 2014, Service Pack 1” which they did joke about at //BUILD/. The service is voiced by none other than Cortana’s voice actor from the Halo series, Jen Taylor. It is Microsoft’s response to Siri that is far more capable. You can basically control the entire phone and any supported apps right from Cortana. She also has a bit of a personality, which this video shows off:
[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tuUsBpmtCKk&feature=youtu.be?rel=0&w=640&h=360]
Unfortunately, as of this writing, Cortana doesn’t work very often. Most times, she just responds by saying “I can’t connect right now” and restarting my phone or connecting to a different wireless network has no affect. The video you see above had to be done in several takes over this very problem. Not only that, but as Cortana is currently in beta, it only works in the United States right now. When it works, it works well.

Windows Phone 8.1 is very much a major update to the Windows Phone line, even if the naming implies it’s not that big. From the UI improvements, to Cortana to all the highly technical under-the-hood changes, Windows Phone 8.1 is a very solid OS. Even with all of these changes, it ran just as fast on my Lumia 521 as Windows Phone 8 did which is always welcome. But for all the good things that are present here, there are some negatives to balance it out.

A minor annoyance is that they changed the screenshot key combo. It used to be Power + Windows to take a screenshot but if you try to do that now, you’ll receive a messagebox saying that the key combo has moved to Power + Volume Up, the same combo as found on Windows tablets. Next, the volume buttons have been changed around. Instead of a universal volume control, it’s been split into two sliders: one for ringer and notification volume and the other for app volume. If you’re at the Start Screen and bump the volume buttons, you’ll change the ringer volume which may not be appropriate in some situations.

Microsoft can never decide whether they want to keep the alphabetical tile groups in the all apps view or not. I personally found it to be annoying and a bunch of clutter and given how Microsoft puts that feature in and then takes it back out by the next update, I wouldn’t be surprised if the alphabetical tile groups are gone in Windows Phone 8.1 GDR1.

There’s still work to be done with Cortana, from keeping the service up and running to making speech recognition better. Granted, these are still the early days and things will get better as time goes on; it’s just annoying that things don’t work quite right all the time. And then there’s the matter of apps. I don’t use very many apps myself but there’s still practically no apps in the Windows Store. People are slowly writing cool apps for it and big-name iOS and Android developers are pushing out apps for Windows Phone, just some years after nobody cares about them on iOS and Android anymore.

As it stands, Windows Phone 8.1 is the first version of Windows Phone that brings it up to par with its competition. It’s a fine OS for what it is but as long as there are no apps, it will forever be stuck with practically no market share. And as long as there’s no market share, there won’t be any apps. Would I recommend Windows Phone 8.1? To existing users of Windows Phone 8, it is well worth the upgrade. To users of other platforms looking to switch, ask yourselves how many apps you can live without.