Following the many visual, performance, and functional updates to Google’s Android platform over the last year alone, as well as the major UI overhaul in Apple’s iOS 7, Windows Phone was the last remaining major mobile OS in need of some new finishing touches.
That’s exactly what the platform will soon receive once the Windows Phone 8.1 update rolls out to the public.
Currently anyone can download the developer preview to get a feel for what the next version of Windows Phone will feel and look like. Our own Adam Lein and Michael Fisher spent the last six days tinkering with the new OS. Their thoughts on the update, in full, can be viewed in the video review, published earlier this morning.
As comprehensive as that video may be, many of you are likely wondering what the high points of the update are. What are the most important and impressive features of the 8.1 update? Read on to see for yourself!
Essentially, one of the most prominent features added to 8.1 is Microsoft’s answer the to the voice-powered digital assistant services found on the two major competing platforms: Siri on iOS and Google Now (available on both Android and iOS).
Named after an AI character from the popular Halo game series, her name is Cortana.
As I explained a few weeks ago and Adam Lein extensively covered in a very in-depth, comprehensive overview earlier today, Cortana is sort of the necessary middle ground between the snarky Siri and sterile feedback given by Google Now. The voice of Cortana is (partly) powered by the very same voice actress from the games, Jen Taylor, and given the proper prompts, she will respond with a humorous answer. But Cortana is much more like Google Now in that she learns you, your habits, your interests, and your relationship to other people. As such, Cortana can better serve you as a digital assistant, providing you far more relevant and current information than Siri.
What’s more is the Notebook feature of Cortana, which gives you more transparent and granular control over the information and services than with Google Now.
To see what all Cortana can do and how it compares to the competing contextual digital assistants, be sure to check out our other Cortana coverage.
More flexible and customizable interface
One of the most standout features of Windows Phone – the Modern UI – has also been on of the most limiting features. From the beginning, customization options have been limited two just a few functions: a limited number of accent colors and the order and size of the Live Tiles.
With Windows Phone 8.1, the reigns over home screen customization have been loosened … slightly.
You can now select a wallpaper for your home screen, except it’s not really a wallpaper in the traditional sense. Instead, the selected wallpaper becomes the background of most of the stock tiles, as if the tiles themselves are windows to another layer inside the operating system – not terribly unlike implementation of a UI hierarchy in iOS 7. Another vague comparison between the Windows Phone wallpapers and iOS 7 is a subtle parallax effect. When you scroll through your tiles, the icons and wallpaper move at different speeds, creating the illusion of depth.
With the addition of larger smartphones came the need for a more efficient and effective tile layout. Microsoft put the extra real estate to use by simply addicting a third column of tiles. With 8.1, that extra column can also be used on smaller devices, simply by flipping a switch within settings.
These changes are subtle and don’t really bring any additional functionality to the platform, but they’re the polish Windows Phone needed to transition from an infant mobile OS to a refined, matured platform.
More so than the lack of a solid voice assistant, one of the biggest feature gaps in Windows Phone to date was no centralized location to check missed notifications.
Sure, most users have learned to cope with the gauche, disorganized notification delivery of the Live Tiles feature, which … works. But at the end of the day, it was a broken, inefficient way of handling missed notifications.
In 8.1, Windows Phone has been given a unified notification panel, where all missed notifications will appear. It’s accessed by swiping down from the top edge of the display (go figure) and works similarly to the Android notification Shade and Notification Center on iOS. The major difference is the inclusion of user configurable toggles. At the top of Action Center, there are either four or five (depending on device size) quick settings toggles which can be customized and rearranged by the user.
According to Michael, this Action Center shade isn’t perfect. For instance, you can’t dismiss individual notifications, but only whole groups of related notifications at once. But it’s a welcomed feature nonetheless.
More flexible sharing
Sharing is a big feature for mobile platforms. Android, by and far, has led in this space for some time, allowing practically any sort of information between tons of third-party apps – links from browsers to social apps, images to online storage services and social clients, practically any other type of data to an arsenal of third-party apps.
In particular, iOS has been horrible at this until recently – it still isn’t great, but Apple has improved it.
Sharing in Windows Phone has never been awful. But now it’s quite simply better. It works much more like Android’s implementation, in that you can share all sorts of data and content between third-party and first-party apps, seamlessly.
An overall smarter, more competitive OS
Sure, Cortana helps your personal Windows Phone experience by automating some simple tasks and learning your interests to better serve you. But Windows Phone was certainly in need of some more spice. The OS felt sterile and too … minimal, at least in comparison to Android and iOS.
Microsoft installed tiny refinements throughout this update, many of which come in the form of small apps and functions that both give you more control over the device brings more intelligence to the device itself. For instance, tab sync within the Internet Explorer can now be synced across devices. Data Sense, WiFi Sense, Storage Sense, and Battery Sense allow you to see and control how apps are affecting your device, data usage, power, etc., and control those applications. And even more simple, you can allow applications to automatically update in the background.
As much as we hate to make the comparison, these are all features that have been present on Android and iOS for quite some time. But rather than highlighting that in a damning way, we think it’s great Windows Phone is finally becoming the mature OS we’ve been wanting all along.
This update alone should fill the most the remaining feature gaps that have made Windows Phone intolerable or unusable for some people. The app gap still exists, and it’s still far from perfect, but this minor point update just gave the platform the spit shine it’s needed for years now.