Windows Phone 8.1 review: transparent tiles and a cybernetic sidekick to the rescue

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Windows Phone 8.1 is not Windows Phone 9.

It might seem merely a bland truth or a bit of farcical arithmetic, but the above statement is important to keep in mind when considering Microsoft’s latest update to its distinctive smartphone operating system. After over a year since the last major upgrade, it’s natural for advocates and casual users alike to pine for something profound – a ground-up rewrite that propels the third-place contender to the top in one fell swoop.

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Windows Phone 8.1 is not that rewrite. Less a reinvention than a honing of what came before, the new Windows Phone seeks instead to fill gaps that have long plagued the platform, cracks in a four-year-old foundation that have widened into fissures threatening the contender’s viability … or at least its ability to be taken seriously. In that sense, version 8.1 is a fairly typical upgrade.

But even the world’s most straightforward smartphone OS is a monumentally elaborate piece of software, and the improvements brought by this update touch nearly every corner of that elaborate framework, solving some of the platform’s most glaring shortcomings in the process. So despite its unimpressive version number, 8.1 is huge news for everyone who was, is, or will be a Windows Phone customer. Let’s see how it works.

Windows Phone 8.1 Review Video

Windows Phone 8.1 Review Roundtable

Test Notes

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Adam Lein and I have spent the past six days testing Windows Phone 8.1 between New York City and Greater Boston. Our review device is a Nokia Lumia Icon provided to us by Microsoft, with software version 8.10.12349.825. The phone features the Lumia Black software package from Nokia, and as such doesn’t include the improvements coming with Nokia’s Cyan update this summer. Due to the pre-release nature of the software, buggy behavior was expected and encountered; where relevant, it’s called out below.

A Fresher Look

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Sometimes, the surest sign of an update’s success is how quickly it makes its predecessor look like old news. Microsoft is well versed in the art of subtle iterations, having stuck to variations on the same Metro/Modern interface since 2010, but usually those updates have been either functionally useful or aesthetically pleasing.

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With 8.1, the company has managed to achieve both at the same time. The extra tile column first seen on the Lumia 1520 is now available across the entire lineup, significantly increasing the amount of information a user can squeeze onto the screen. And now, many of those tiles can be rendered transparent with a single toggle tap, allowing the wallpaper or custom graphic beneath to shine through. This adds a needed dose of customizability to the Start screen, while also retaining the distinctive look and functionality of Windows Phone’s Live Tiles. As with Android, the graphic scrolls ever so slightly along with the homescreen, but at a different rate: the result is a nice parallax effect that stands out without being too flashy. Pick the right backdrop, and the effect can be truly striking. After just a few days of this rich visual feast, Windows Phone 8.0’s limited palette starts to look like an unfinished elementary school art assignment by comparison (but it’s still available for the more reserved among you).

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Microsoft has also made many more subtle enhancements to the Windows Phone interface in this version: the move-in process is much brighter out of the box, providing a reminder right up front that a black background isn’t your only choice when you go Windows. (Incidentally, neither is a bumpy Google login experience: our test unit logged us in to our two-step-verification-protected Google Apps account without complaint, and even provided full push support.)

Echoing the common-sense moves of competitors, Microsoft has made WiFi selection one of the first steps in initial setup, preventing users from burning a bunch of cellular data on the post-unboxing app-download binge. Additionally, those apps can now be set to auto-update if you prefer not to be bothered with daily notifications of available downloads – and every title you download will feature a tiny “NEW” tag in the app list to help you find it.

Microsoft left few tiles unflipped (sorry) in its quest to modernize its famous UI without stepping over the line into excessive tweakery. Apps in the multitasking view can now be dismissed by swiping down, a fun –if unintuitive– means of clearing background processes. The new double volume slider offers more control while retaining the one-touch silence functionality of its forebear. And the transitions between screens have also been slightly rejiggered, with tightened animations making the whole system feel zippier, resurrecting some of the hip modernity first brought by Windows Phone 7 nearly four years ago.

Sadly, not all of the original intention has survived intact. The signal strength and battery life indicators which used to elegantly slide into oblivion when not needed are now displayed almost constantly, a change we don’t think was necessary.

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Also, you don’t get something for nothing: a few of 8.1’s new features come at the cost of long-standing visual hallmarks. The new Photos hub no longer features the gorgeous panoramic images of yesteryear, which would have interfered with its new album tree. The Music & Videos hub has been completely removed, along with its accompanying live tile (though Microsoft says this will eventually make a return). The Me tile, once a hallmark of the Windows Phone experience, has been relegated not just to the sidelines, but to the parking lot outside the stadium: out of the box, it wasn’t even enabled on our demo unit.

Me and People, People and Me

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Like Palm’s webOS before it, Windows Phone 7 launched with the vision of redefining how a smartphone should handle your communications. Setting up a WP7 device in 2010 meant giving it access to your Facebook, Twitter, email and IM accounts, and PIM info, whereupon the phone would mix them all together and act as your surrogate messenger. Through the People and Me hubs, two special live tile-topped silos on the Start screen, you could monitor all your social feeds, remind yourself what you’d posted recently, and broadcast new posts across Facebook and Twitter. The Messaging hub played a part too, commingling your Facebook Chat messages with your texts in single, unified threads. It was exactly what we expected of a truly “smart” phone, an elegant use of technology to simplify our communications.

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In theory, that is. In reality, it was a long-festering disappointment – as we discussed at length in our After The Buzz report on the Nokia Lumia 925. Chat integration was often unreliable, and both Facebook and Twitter quickly outgrew the simple tools provided by the People and Me hubs. With no updates from Microsoft, the tools sat quietly stagnating on our in-house Windows Phones, dusty monuments to a grand ambition unfulfilled.

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All that changes in Windows Phone 8.1. As mentioned, the Me hub has been shoved off into near-extinction, its existence now almost entirely redundant thanks to Action Center (which we’ll get to in a second). While the People hub remains, it serves principally as a feed aggregator: Twitter and Facebook posts still show up within, but tapping on them takes you not to a custom People page but to the post within the appropriate app. Facebook integration in the Messaging hub has been completely dropped, freeing up space for the new Facebook Messenger app to do its thing.

While this might sound like a mixed bag of progress and backtracking, the result in day-to-day use is a huge positive. The Facebook Messenger app does a better job than Windows Phone’s unique interface ever did, with more features to boot. The “platformization” of the new People hub means you’re given the full functionality of whichever app you’re dumped into, rather than a limited framework which needs Microsoft updates to stay current. And the People hub’s extensibility also means that app developers can choose to plug their titles into it as they cook up new hotness. Assuming Microsoft’s continued aggressive courtship of developers leads to an ever-more-engaged and active dev base, it’s not unreasonable to expect the People hub to grow into something truly powerful, a phoenix from the ashes of an ill-fated ambition.

 

Action Center

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If you listen closely, you can hear the hallelujahs.

Alert management has always been a pain point with the Windows Phone experience, Live Tiles notwithstanding, and it’s an issue Microsoft has finally addressed in 8.1 with Action Center. To no one’s great surprise, this takes the form of a pull-down shade containing system toggles alongside a unified list of notifications grouped by app. The two sections are segregated by a slight “speed bump” that allows you to deploy the entire shade or just the toggle area, depending on what you’re trying to manage. You can choose which apps are displayed in the Notification Center, which system toggles are shown up top, and the same settings screen gives you access to another feature enjoyed by Android and iOS users for years: customizable alert sounds for different email and social accounts.

Importantly, Windows Phone’s Live Tiles are unaffected by Action Center: they still display unread messages the same as ever, so if you were one of the many users well-served by Live Tiles, you’re getting the best of both worlds with this addition. Our pre-release build of 8.1 didn’t always effectively sync notifications across tile and Action Center, but we expect these problems to go away once the official build is released.

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Such a paradigm shift doesn’t come without bumps, of course, and Action Center is one of the “greener” elements of the new Windows Phone. While message groups can be dismissed with a swipe, individual messages can’t; it’s all or nothing. Message previews are limited to the subject line or first few words of a missive. And while we understand the reason Microsoft chose to honor tradition by placing it at the top of the screen, we wish the company had taken the opportunity to put it somewhere that makes more sense  on a 5-plus-inch smartphone (i.e., anywhere else).

We’re looking forward to seeing what comes of Action Center as it matures. For now, we’re just happy to have a working notification center on Windows Phone – and slightly surprised at just how quickly we’ve grown accustomed to the impulse to reach for it on every smartphone we maintain.

 

Cortana

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After months of speculation, Microsoft’s new voice assistant finally breaks cover in version 8.1. As announced at the company’s Build conference earlier this month, Cortana replaces the old Bing functionality of the capacitive search button, pitching the beautiful Bing search artwork into the dustbin alongside the other fluffy bits of Windows Phone past. But here the sacrifice doesn’t sting quite as much, partially because we were never particularly attached to the Bing search screen – but also because Cortana is so much better than any previous Windows Phone voice interface.

In addition to sprucing up the typical search capabilities with handy supplements like device-level search, Cortana brings a fully-fledged “personal assistant” to Windows Phone 8.1. And she’s more than just a clever, Halo-inspired name: in day-to-day use she feels about as smart as Siri first did on the iPhone 4S, allowing you to set reminders and alarms, perform searches, dial by voice, and so on.

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You’re probably thinking that all this sounds very familiar. Indeed, even in her personality Cortana is a mashup of voices we’ve heard before: her demeanor falls somewhere between Siri and Google Now, with most of the personality of the former and some of the efficiency of the latter. So despite her authentic vocals, Cortana is much more a me-too reactionary product than a natural evolution of Microsoft’s more powerful Voice Command of yore.

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Ordinary folks probably won’t mind that sacrifice: after all, you’re getting a more friendly, familiarinterface which brings much of the power of the better-established boxed voices across the landscape. But if you’ve been toting a Windows product in your pocket for the better part of the decade, you might be a little miffed by just how much Cortana leaves behind here. As Adam Lein explains in an in-depth exploration of Cortana’s ups and downs:

The old Windows Mobile Voice Command did a lot of other things that still don’t have an equal. For example, I could ask my smartphone, “What is my battery level?” and Voice Command would respond by speaking the percentage level to me in my Bluetooth headset. If only Cortana had that capability, perhaps I could ask her, “When am I going to have to recharge my phone again?” and she could say, “You have about 2 hours of remaining battery life.” Voice command also supported asking about signal strength, listing missed calls, changing the ringer volume, and turning on vibrate mode. How strange is it that we still can’t say, “Cortana, mute all sounds” or “Set my phone to vibrate mode”?

While it’s unfortunate that we don’t live in that world (because it sounds both awesome and totally doable with today’s technology), Cortana is by no means a flop. She comes packing the dynamic Notebook which acts as her repository of data about you – data you’re free to update, expand, or restrict at any time. Her landing page is a kind of Microsoft-ified version of Google Now, showing weather, reminders, relevant calendar appointments, and sometimes throwing a headline or two up onto the Cortana live tile if she thinks you might be interested. And Cortana herself is always somewhere in sight, presiding over the action with her slowly breathing orb whose animations convey her current “mood.” It’s all very slick.

cortana 7Some of her features show real innovation on Microsoft’s part, too. Cortana’s ability to interact with third-party apps means you can kick off a VoIP call by saying “Skype, call Taylor Martin” – and she’ll dial him up without missing a beat (incidentally, you can also magically transmute a voice call to a VoIP call if your contact has a Skype account and your contact list is in order). You can ask her to read headlines aloud from a news app (“NBC News, read headlines”). Since she’s basically an extension of Bing, you can ask her to track a particular flight; she’ll respond with departure and arrival times. If it’s too loud for her to hear you, Cortana will accept typed input.

She’ll respond to a request to “play some country music” by spinning some K.T. Oslin, assuming you have her in your collection (which you should if you’re any kind of country fan). Cortana will also identify what music is playing (“What song is this?”), and tell you when you need to leave the house to make that concert on time; she’ll also tell you how to get there. One of our favorite features is the conditional reminder: you can tell her you’d like to receive a nudge the next time you speak to a particular contact, and sure enough, the next time you text or call your drinking buddy Calvin, Cortana will pop up a dialog reminding you to apologize for “the noodle incident.” Or whatever.

Cortana has some growing up to do. She’s far too rusty on the English language to hear many commands correctly on first listen, she’s far too particular about syntax to keep up her end of a back-and-forth conversation (an important part of her call-and-response style of confirmation), and she’s lacking some of the local-search features that made Bing so handy on previous versions of Windows Phone. Also, speech-to-text for the purposes of dictating text messages and emails is just shy of atrocious, and Cortana’s direction finding is only going to be so good if she’s relying on HERE and Bing Maps (Why, in 2014, are Windows Phone users still dealing with two same-but-different mapping solutions on their smartphones?).

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But we levied many of the same complaints at the Moto X’s Touchless Control when it first debuted, and in less than a year, that service has matured into a priceless convenience. Microsoft predicts the same will happen with Cortana once she’s exposed to the vocal input of millions of users. We’ll have to wait and see, but based on what the company has been able to achieve with almost no user input whatsoever, we can definitely see the potential for Cortana to grow into a potent personal assistant given enough time. Until then, even under the prominent “BETA” tag that trails her all over the OS, she’s worlds better than anything Windows Phone has offered thus far.

Camera and Sharing

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Fortunately for Windows Phone 8.1’s footprint (and review readers’ eyeballs) Microsoft’s other new “C”doesn’t bring as much to explore. Since most high-end Windows Phones are likely to continue using some form of the pro-level Nokia Camera, it’s tough to get too excited about the new stock camera viewfinder … but with low-end buyers making up a significant portion of the Windows Phone userbase and new OEMs signing on all the time, it’s an important segment that Microsoft can’t afford to ignore.

The new camera software retains old favorites like tap-to-focus-and-capture and the swipe-directly-to-gallery gesture, while introducing a prominent new capture button and flanking it with straightforward, easy-to-understand controls. It also makes those controls customizable, and bundles burst shooting capability as well.

While auto-upload capability remains for those who prefer to offload their shots to the cloud as soon as possible, Microsoft’s new Share menu is here for the more typical user. While we’re not crazy about the imported Windows 8 Share icon itself, the menu’s functionality is a blessing. It’s essentially identical to Android’s share menu in that it contains links to apps capable of handling the media, with small icons for guidance and a Recent field up top for convenience (we’re all creatures of habit, after all). As with the People Hub, the proprietary Microsoft sharing framework is gone: sharing happens within the relevant app. The new Share feature does more than make transmitting files faster – it makes it feel more friendly, more modern. Considering how often sharing happens on a modern smartphone, that’s a significant improvement, and working together with the revised Photo Hub and viewfinder software, it makes the Windows Phone 8.1 multimedia experience more pleasure than chore.

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Odds and Ends

Windows Phone 8.1 has received so many nips and tucks that it’s impossible to cover them all even in a review as ponderous as this. For every major element that went untouched, Microsoft probably added ten tiny perks (like muting threads in text messages or bringing InPrivate browsing with Internet Explorer 11). After almost a week with the device, here are some of our favorite random improvements over Windows Phone 8.

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In a big win for convenience, Windows Phone now remembers passwords for the WiFi access points that we’ve previously logged onto from other devices. And while we’re talking “continuous client,” we were also pleased to see tab syncing across Windows-powered devices in IE11: we easily picked up reading on our phone where we left off on our 2520, and we found we could juggle tabs between devices at will. While Chrome has been doing this for a while on Android devices, it’s a first for Windows Phone – and it’s a convenience we could very easily get used to.

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The excellent Data Sense app now has some company in the form of WiFi Sense, which logs in to familiar or free networks on your behalf and also lets you share your own access point without also sharing your password with guests. Also in the “sense” category: Storage Sense lets you see what apps are taking upspace on your device, and Battery Saver functions as a kind of “Power Sense,” allowing you to see which apps use the most battery and govern which are allowed to run in the background.

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Not all of us are Swype lovers on the Pocketnow team, but those of us who’ve used Microsoft’s Word Flow keyboard find it very comfortable, quick, and accurate.

Microsoft has brought its A-game when redesigning the Calendar: while it no longer works in landscape mode, it’s more easily scrollable and it displays more information at a glance. It also packs nice touches like Outlook-style weather indicators.

Between VPN support, S/MIME encryption and S/MIME signing capability in email, and administrator-friendly “workplace account” settings, Windows Phone 8.1 is likely to be much better liked by your company’s IT department than earlier versions. And even if you’re not the corporate type, auto-attachment download and smarter fetch options in email should keep you pretty happy (or at least compensate for the lack of native Mailbox or Gmail options for you transplants out there).

Pros & Cons

 

Nearly every major element has been modernized

Performance (on Snapdragon 800/Lumia Icon) is as smooth as ever

+ Nice balance of aesthetic improvements with functional enhancements

+ Renewed focus on platform, diminished emphasis on proprietary features

Improvements so numerous that overall usability is significantly higher

 

“App gap” is smaller, but still exists with respect to Android/iOS, both in quantity and quality (especially in gaming)

– Current state of multimedia offering questionable (awaiting final version for evaluation)

– Unclear how well current enhancements will age given competitors’ development pace

– Significant sacrifices of legacy features

– No real “must-have” feature

 

Wrap Up

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While we’re buoyed by the depth and sheer scale of improvements Microsoft has brought to Windows Phone 8.1, we’re concerned that the company still seems unable to deliver a real zinger, a “must have” hook that would actively draw people from other platforms. While we’re excited to see so many standard features from other platforms finally landing on Windows Phone’s shores, Android and iOS aren’t standing still: it’s an open question whether Microsoft has the ability to inspire people with Windows Phone, and we don’t see Office, Outlook, or even Cortana filling those shoes.

That’s the “Windows Phone 9” perspective we talked about up top.

Now here’s the other side: remember, it’s called 8.1 for a reason. The cracks Microsoft wanted to fill, it filled with alacrity (if not promptness). While this iteration doesn’t reinvent the wheel, that’s a good thing: we’ve always liked the clean, modern look and feel of Windows Phone – it was the gaps in functionality that we often bemoaned. Version 8.1 fills an awful lot of those gaps while preserving the soul of the platform’s Modern design and its glanceable-information aesthetic. Striking that balance doubtless wasn’t easy, and Microsoft is to be commended for the accomplishment.

More importantly, now that Windows Phone is closer to parity with its competitors from a UX standpoint, there’s less preventing the curious, the deal-seekers, and the shutterbugs from coming over to take a look – and once Windows Phone gets its talons in you, it’s tough to break free. Even if it’s not Windows Phone 9. Yet.

Adam Z. Lein contributed to this review.

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About The Author
Michael Fisher
Michael Fisher has followed the world of mobile technology for over ten years as hobbyist, retailer, and reviewer. A lengthy stint as a Sprint Nextel employee and a long-time devotion to webOS have cemented his love for the underdog platforms of the world. In addition to serving as Pocketnow's Reviews Editor, Michael is a stage, screen, and voice actor, as well as co-founder of a profitable YouTube-based business. He lives in Boston, MA.Read more about Michael Fisher!