Windows Phone 8.1 has finally made its debut. Some of the changes are great new features that we’re looking forward to trying out ourselves, others are useful additions that have been in other OSes for a long time and have at long last made their way to Windows Phone.
The new OS will debut in the coming months, and will be available on most phones currently running WP8, and all Nokia Lumia devices running WP8.
New home screen
WP 8.1 makes two very important changes to the Live Tile home screen. The first is a unique approach to customisable backgrounds. Instead of replacing the black or white motif with a picture, certain tiles instead become ‘transparent’, letting you view the picture through them as if they were windows through the black setting. It’s a funky and innovative approach, but it does look like the app icons could get easily lost if you chose the wrong picture.
If this concerns you don’t worry, you can turn the feature off and use the old coloured tile system. Unfortunately no new colours have been added, but you could get around that by adding a monotone colour image yourself and setting it as the transparency image.
The second change is the ability to choose between a 2 and 3 column layout on devices with 4.5 inch screens and above. The three-column layout is one of our favourite features of recent WP8 memory, and we’re very happy to see it instituted in a way that lets users choose their preference.
This is one we’ve been waiting on for a while. There’s just so much that a good dev can do with a keyboard app to make it more efficient, yet the only OS to really spice things up has been Android.
Windows Phone 8.1 will introduce a built-in “Word Flow” typing method, which is pretty much a Swype clone. There’s no issue of copycatting here; swipe to type systems are becoming more popular everywhere. Once you get the muscle memory down they’re faster, usually have superior text correction and make typing one-handed incredibly easy.
Tap to type is so 2010. It’s nice to see the Swype method finally spreading to other ecosystems. It can feel a bit intimidating at first, but you’ll be surprised how quickly you pick it up with a bit of practice.
Cortana voice assistant
Cortana is Microsoft’s new Siri-esque service. Through the voice interface you can make calls, set alarms, schedule appointments, perform searches, check sports scores and more. You can also set ‘her’ to give you specific automated information by telling her the people you contact most frequently and the sports teams you follow.
She can also dig through old emails for you to find lost info like travel plans and flight info, but by far our favourite feature is person-based reminders.
Say you need to remember to tell your sister something important. You can tell Cortana to remind you to mention it next time you're talking to her. When you are speaking with your sister on the phone next, or you receive a text message from her, Cortana will bring up your reminder.
Right now the service doesn’t sound even nearly as fluid or natural as Google Now or Siri, but it’s still in beta. In fact, it’s going to be in beta until well after it launches. The good news is that, even though it’s not the finished product, users will still have access once Windows Phone 8.1 goes live in the next few months.
The drop-down tray for WP is a great addition. It’s probably the least inventive of all the new stuff, seeing as both Android and iOS have adopted almost identical systems, but it was a desperately needed feature.
To Microsoft’s credit, no corners have been cut. You can scroll through notifications, swipe to delete, access Quick Settings and even view the date and exact battery percentage in the Action Center.
The quick settings can even be switched in and out, depending on what you feel will be most useful to you. Alternatively, you can easily access the general Settings menu from the tray as well.
Individual apps can be adjusted to only give certain notifications, or to provide different alert sounds from the settings menu.
Better cross-platform app support
From WP8.1 and onwards, purchasing a Windows app now means that you can have access to it on WP8.1 and vice-versa. This is a fantastic addition, but it echoes promises we’ve heard from Microsoft before that never rang true. Hopefully this time we’ll finally get more of that unified ecosystem feel that Microsoft can, and dearly needs to deliver.
Building apps for the whole ecosystem will be easier too. Apparently now you can just build the one app and all you need to do is include support for multiple screen sizes and interfaces. The core working parts of the app stay the same, it's just the UI that needs tweaking.
Individual volume settings
At last WP finally supports different volume settings for different functionalities. Adjusting your ring volume will no longer affect your alarm clock or your in-game sounds. This one’s been a long time coming and we’re very happy to see it.
Some good stuff, but not ground-breaking
Despite being a full 18 months since the last major WP refresh, there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot new about WP 8.1. Most of the additions are catch-up features like the notifications tray, Cortana and the keyboard. We certainly appreciate all of these, but it still doesn’t feel like WP is doing too much that’s new.
The biggest thing introduced that’s purely Microsoft is its new upcoming cross-platform app support. With this kind of thing there’s no telling just how all-inclusive it will be until it finally launches, but we’ll remain cautiously optimistic for the time being.