Would you believe it? More than one-and-a-half years have passed since Microsoft announced its Windows Phone 8 platform and since then, there has been a rather disturbing silence regarding the future.
Windows Phone 8.1 is finally announced and brings several new improvements, customizations and most-importantly, features to the mix.
The biggest news in this category is the Action Centre, which is in fact a notification centre with an attractive name. From here, you’ll be able to carry out basic functions such as changing the brightness and volume settings, getting notifications and others.
Lockscreen is about to get more detailed. Developers can redesign it as per their wish and add basic app support. Action Centre is also incorporated into the lockscreen.
Keyboard has seen a change with the addition of a new name, Wordflow, and a swype-like interface, just like on Android but faster. Microsoft even claims the new keyboard to be the Guinness world record-holder for being the fastest keyboard in the world. Bing universal SmartSearch is also included.
Multi-tasking menu is now opened via a long press on the back key. Apps can be terminated from there by swiping them down.
Windows Phone 8.1 finally brings the support for onscreen buttons, following the path of Android. Most people prefer them over physical ones mostly because of the looks – so that is a nice, little addition.
On the homescreen, you can now place up to three live tiles side-by-side on every Windows Phone now.
There is also an attractive and unique background effect through which your chosen wallpaper, rather than being shown behind, is displayed as a layer on top of your live tiles. It is really cool-looking in our opinion.
Of course, the highlight of the package is Cortana, Microsoft’s rival to Apple’s Siri and Google Now. It handles all the usual tasks, such as setting up an appointment, getting game scores, bringing in news and searching the web for you.
Further more, it can also answer a few general knowledge questions (through the web, of course) and talk with you. It can also be integrated with several apps, including Bing and Foursquare.
Cortana’s availability will vary and not everyone will probably get it. The US, UK and China will be the first ones to try it out. In addition to voice support, you can also type data to Cortana through the keyboard.
Windows Phone 8.1 will come with Internet Explorer 11 pre-installed. The browser comes with support for HTML5 and WebGL support. It can sync your passwords across all your IE-running devices.
InPrivate mode allows you to browse the web from the dungeons, and is similar to Chrome’s Incognito mode.
Camera app is redesigned and now shows all the settings neatly on the left and the shooting options on the right.
Calendar has been updated to look more like Outlook on Windows. It shows weather at the top, and features a swipe-based interface that can divide your data from days to month-wise.
Quiet hours allows you to choose particular hours of the day when only a few select people can contact you.
There are also a few “Sense” apps. Data Sense intelligently directs you to Wi-Fi if you’re running closer to your allowed data consumption. Wi-Fi Sense allows you to connect to secure, free Wi-Fi Hotspots anywhere, plus those you’ve already used automatically. Storage Sense allows you to manage apps and media content between your phone’s internal storage and microSD card, while Battery Power Sense gives you much-detailed statistics on the battery consumption of your phone.
VPN support is added and just has been that for Bluetooth 4.0 LE and Wi-Fi Direct. And finally, (and I’ll say it again) finally there are separate volume controls.
Nokia Lumia Cyan update
No Windows Phone article can possibly be completed without Nokia. Not because of its influence but rather due to its activeness.
For all the Lumia phones, the 8.1 update and the new Lumia line-up features, including an improved StoryTeller app and improvements to camera roll and Creative Studio will be combined into a single package that will be rolled out to users under the banner of a single, Lumia Cyan update.
To all the people a bit skeptical about the upgrading process after what happened with Windows Phone 7 users, here’s the good news: all existing Windows Phone 8 devices will be upgraded to Windows Phone 8.1.
Microsoft already has a policy of sending software updates to Windows Phones up to 36 months into their release. Of course, it isn’t clear when will that happen, since Microsoft alone isn’t the authority in that case.
Still, expect the update to hit your phones by the start of May.
Windows Phone 8.1 is a major step over its predecessor. It’s clean, bold and fresh, something the OS has always maintained compared to its rivals. Now that quite a lot of wide gulfs have been filled within the OS, it will be interesting to see whether it can close the gap on its arch rivals or not.