Windows Phone 8.1 review
Microsoft chose to open its Build developer conference this year with the latest update to Windows Phone, and with good reason. Although only a point upgrade, Windows Phone 8.1 brings a significant number of improvements to Microsoft’s smartphone OS, which we’ve been testing courtesy of the Developer Preview. No specific date has been announced for the rollout of the software onto consumer Windows Phone handsets, but it’s expected to be very soon.
The biggest upgrade in Windows Phone 8.1 is Cortana, Microsoft’s answer to Siri and Android’s Google Now. Cortana is a “digital personal assistant” that can answer spoken questions, ferret out useful information based on your interests and activities, and carry out tasks, such as setting up calendar reminders or getting navigation instructions.
In practice it works well. Despite the fact that Cortana is currently US-only, the speech recognition interpreted our British mumblings accurately. The personal-assistant features are interesting, too, particular the email and calendar tracking facilities (you can read our first impressions of Cortana here). The catch is that Cortana won’t arrive on UK phones until the back-end of 2014.
In the meantime, there’s plenty else to get your teeth into in this latest release. First on the list of changes is the ability to add more tiles to the Start screen, with three columns of the larger square tiles now available to play with, rather than two. There are still three sizes of tiles, as before, so you can add up to six of the smallest tile type across the screen if you like.
There’s now also the ability to use a photo as a background to the Start screen, although this doesn’t work in quite the same way as it does on Android or iOS. Instead of placing the wallpaper behind your tiles, in Windows Phone 8.1 your photo becomes the background to the Live Tiles, and moves in parallax with them when they’re scrolled up and down.
These sound like small changes but they add some much-needed visual pizzazz to the Start screen. Something else the OS desperately needed was a way to aggregate notifications, an area in which it has lagged behind its rivals since day one. That problem has been largely solved by the introduction of the Action Center, accessed with a drag down from the top of the screen.
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