Our comprehensive overview and review of Windows Phone 8.1
After eighteen months of being, Windows Phone 8 is getting its first major OS update from Microsoft. While Windows Phone 8.0 has had three minor updates between late 2012 and 2013, it is Windows Phone 8.1 that will finally bring a small avalanche of new features and improvements to users. The update is free and expected to arrive for all current Windows Phone 8 devices in the coming months, though starting today, a Preview for Developers is now live should you want to take the OS for an early spin.
I have been using the Preview release of Windows Phone 8.1 for nearly the last two weeks on a Nokia Lumia Icon. Reviewing a whole OS, especially one as robust as Windows Phone is no small feat. Regardless, I’ll go through what I think are the biggest new features and even some small changes that I think users want to hear about.
Is Windows Phone 8.1 really a game changer? And has Microsoft finally delivered a product that the masses can adopt? Let’s find out.
This is one huge update
Let’s just get this out of the way. Windows Phone 8.1 could easily be called Windows Phone 8.5 or even 9. This doesn’t feel like a 0.1 update. This feels like a long-term project that Microsoft has been working on, delivering a massive set of new features to end users. Heck, the ‘reviewers guide’ could pass as a short novel, coming in at 239 pages.
The changes to the OS are significant, not minor patchwork. The only reason Microsoft is calling it ‘8.1’ is to align it with its bigger brother, Windows 8.1 for desktop. That’s fine, although it does slightly downplay this update’s significance.
If I had to cite history, this is equivalent to the Windows Phone 7.5 update dubbed ‘Mango’ from back in 2011. Windows Phone 8.1, nicknamed ‘Blue’ is just as substantial. Mango was a much needed update as Windows Phone 7.0 was a re-launch of Microsoft’s mobile platform. Windows Phone 8 was also another re-launch, as Microsoft had to reboot the kernel and the entire architecture of the OS. In that regard, 8.1 makes sense. It’s a catch up update. But it’s also more.
New Start screen experience, Theme syncing and UI changes
For the most part, Windows Phone 8.1 keeps the core of Microsoft’s design intact. There is no backing away from existing UI principals, just expansion and refinement.
The most interesting feature in that regard is the option for backgrounds on the Start screen. Many people had requested this ability to customize further the look of their device, as iOS and Android both have the ability to set a ‘wallpaper’. Many thought Microsoft would follow suit, with a background image replacing the dark or light themed background and the Tiles on top of the new wallpaper.
But this is Microsoft, and they wanted to be different. So with 8.1, users now have the ability to basically skin the Tiles by overlaying an image of their choice. That’s not entirely accurate though as what is really happening is some Tiles are becoming transparent, with the user image showing through the Tile.
How it works is if an app uses the ‘Iconic design’ for its Live Tile, it will show the image behind it. If the tile uses a ‘Flip layout’, any area of the background that is transparent will show the background image. As a result, some apps will have a ‘see through’ ability with the new background images, while others will remain a solid, preselected color e.g. Facebook. The effect can be seen within our own WPCentral app, where we let the user choose between an Iconic or Flip design for their Live Tile. If the user chooses Iconic and it’s pinned, within a few minutes the Tile will update with the transparent background effect. That may cause some confusion amongst users, at least initially, but I think developers will adjust their apps going forward.
Still, the effect is daring. Microsoft once again has chosen a different path, and while not everyone may like it, I think many will appreciate the feature once they find that one right photo. Users can choose from a loaded library of 41 images from Microsoft, or they could choose photos from their Camera library, Saved library, OneDrive or even Facebook. Heck, you could even make a background of a solid gradient color and use that. It’s up to you. If you don’t like the new background image, you can still choose from one of 20 colors for the system Accent. Unfortunately, Microsoft has not given users a color selector for Accents, so that is one area where I would like to see improvement.
Speaking of Accents, if you’re running Windows 8.1 on your Surface or PC, your Accent theme color can now sync between your Phone and that device. The process is fantastic and works when you choose an Accent color under Settings > Start + Theme. Once chosen, within 30 seconds to a few minutes your PC and all Microsoft linked devices will all change their Accent colors, as well. This is a user option, found under Settings > Sync My Settings > Theme, and it can be disabled should you want to keep them separated.
Finally, here are few other notable but small changes in Windows Phone 8.1
- Signal strength, data connection, Wi-Fi, Battery, Location and more all remain on the screen; they no longer auto-hide
- New People Hub redesign with smaller fonts
- Phone history now groups repeat calls from a user with ‘(#)’ representing number of calls
- Speed Dial is finally here under Phone
- Larger font for Time on the Lock screen; moves down on the screen if there are notifications
- Charging notification alert has changed to a shorter, less annoying sound
- Freshly installed apps say ‘new’ under their titles in the App list
- Games are installed under the App list in addition to the Games hub
- Games hub removes SmartGlass linking and adds new Friends and Messages icons
The changes that Microsoft have brought to 8.1 are welcomed. Don’t get me wrong, there’s still room for improvement, but there’s enough here to make the OS feel very fresh and to keep users busy with some new customizations. However, I’d still like to see:
- Large Tile size, similar to Windows 8.1 (basically 4 medium Tiles, combined)
- Accent color chooser
- Background images look better blurred; give users a tool to blur images before setting as background