The Windows Phone 8 OS is finally getting its first major update. While the phone’s software has had three smaller updates, this is the first one big enough to move it from 8.0 to 8.1, bring the phone software up to speed with its desktop counterpart.
The Main Features
Wallpaper: Something we assume is universal to all smartphones, but which Microsoft had stubbornly left out of its phone OS updates, is the ability to customize your wallpaper and/or lock screen with any image. With Windows Phone 8.1, users now have this much-requested feature — sort of. Due to Windows’ “tiles” design, which displays a user’s apps in a blanket of tiles that take up the whole screen, the wallpaper aspect isn’t quite the same as and iPhone or Android. The tiles themselves can now become semi-transparent, so that you see the wallpaper image through the tiles. But, similar to Apple’s iPhone update which transformed the look of app icons and left developers playing a bit of catch up to change their icons, not all apps available on Windows phones have updated to the new transparent mode, making some users’ phones into a patchwork of tile opacity. Still, the feature is one many Microsoft customers have been wanting.
‘Action’/Notification Center: Windows Phone 8.1’s version of a notification center, the ‘Action Center’ has also been updated. Now it is split into the Action Center with ‘Quick Action Center’ buttons, and the Notification Center. The Action Center drops from the top of your screen when you swipe down; the Notification Center is accessed by swiping up from the bottom. You have four or five Quick Action buttons (depending on your phone model) which you can customize from a pre-determined but wide selection of actions, like accessing your camera or wi-fi settings. You can easily clear your notifications and rework your settings.
Your notification center also won’t pop up in wide chunk of your upper screen if you’re on an app in widescreen mode, instead showing in a small bar, good for mobile gamers or anyone who has a habit of accidentally clicking notifications.
Other updates and features worth mentioning:
- Several font and design tweaks including People Hub and the time display on your lock screen
- S/MIME email encryption
- Sync your visual ‘Accent’ settings on your phone with your other Windows OS devices
- Restrict background data when roaming (Data Sense)
- ‘Suggest emoji’ alongside suggested words in auto-correct for some terms
- Improved YouTube experience
- Upgraded Microsoft Camera app + photo sorting
- New podcasts app
- Swipe down app closing similar to iPhone
Siri might be the famous one, but in comparing actual functionality, Cortana is light years ahead. Like Google Now (“Ok, Google…”), Cortana actually remembers what you’ve said and searched for and uses it to customize itself for you. Over time, it will be able to give you tailored results to your inquiries and even predict how you’ll interact with the OS. Unlike Google Now, however, Cortana doesn’t send all your info back to Microsoft, but keeps it local and in the easy to reach ‘Notebook’ in your phone. With rising irritation over how tech companies store and use consumer information, this is a feature Microsoft will want to avidly promote. The company made sure to note that “[Microsoft] do[es] not show advertising within the Cortana experience and currently do[es] not use the information gathered in the notebook to send targeted ads to the user”. Awesome.
Cortana is powered by a search engine (surprise, its Bing), which makes it a bit more convenient than Siri, which will often ask you if you want it to do a web search rather than, you know, do that already (recent iPhone OS updates finally fixed this). It can do all the things Siri and Google Now are capable of, like make phone calls and send texts, add appointments to your calendar, set alarms, play music from your phone’s library, and search through your phone for you.
You can also access apps through Cortana, a less common but extremely convenient feature. A notable feature unique to Cortana is the addition of ‘people reminders’ and ‘location reminders’. These function like date and time reminders, allowing you to set a reminder for a specific location that will pop up when you go there again or a people reminder for one of your contacts that will display the next time you interact with them on your phone.
For the user who wants to limit their incoming phone traffic or get some Z’s without constant buzzing, Cortana has a ‘Quiet Hours’ feature. The iPhone has an existing ‘Do Not Disturb’ feature, but this has been buggy or difficult to customize. The ‘Quiet Hours’ feature let’s you specify a group big or small called your ‘Inner Circle’ which you can allow to reach you when your phone is in Quiet Hours mode. You can also specify under what circumstances people outside of your Inner Circle can reach you while in this mode using the ‘Breakthrough’ rules feature. Options include sending text alerts when some tries to contact you during Quiet Hours or allowing calls to go through if the person calls you more than once in a certain span of time. Nifty for those who want the quiet time without worrying about missing an emergency phone call.