Windows Phone 8.1 Review

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

Move over Siri, here’s Cortana

If there’s one feature that is perhaps overrated in smartphones, it’s voice assistants. Sure, it feels futuristic to bark commands at your phone, only to have a semi-robotic voice acknowledge and bend to your will. It feels good. It feels empowering. It’s occasionally even helpful.

But while Siri gets all the attention, I’d personally say that Google Now found on Android phones – and exemplified on the Motorola X – is the real game changer. Google Now is not merely a voice assistant, as the service learns about your activities e.g. where you live, where you work, and it predicts behavior, presenting information to you without prompting. That is different. That is also Microsoft’s Cortana.

I don’t want start a tirade on Google versus privacy, as many others have – and will do – a far better job than I. But let’s just say letting Google know everything about you is not without its concerns. That’s where I think Microsoft has some leverage with consumers. Cortana is beyond Siri, but it is also more than Google Now in that it puts your privacy first.

While Cortana can learn things about you, it stays local on the device, isolated in her ‘Notebook’. Cortana’s Notebook can be edited by the user, and it leaves control in their hands as opposed to Microsoft’s. Microsoft is even eager to point out“we do not show advertising within the Cortana experience and currently do not use the information gathered in the notebook to send targeted ads to the user”. That’s somewhat refreshing, although one could make hay of the “currently do not” as something that may change in the future. Let’s hope not.

Cortana is leaps and bounds better than the TellMe service that it’s replacing. Like Google Now, it’s powered by a search engine (Microsoft’s Bing) and it is really something of a cornerstone technology for Redmond, as Cortana will presumably be incorporated into Windows, Xbox and who knows what else in the future (smartwatches?).  Named after the fictional, artificially intelligent (AI) character in the Halo video game series, Cortana for Windows Phone is certainly something worth talking about. Microsoft calls Cortana “a more personal personal assistant” than the competition. So, is it?

Here’s what I can say about Cortana after using the service for a few days:

  • The speech recognition is far better than TellMe in Windows Phone 7/8
  • The setup guide, which allows you to input likes and interests, is smart
  • Cortana’s design is excellent. It’s minimalist and keeps in line with Microsoft’s Modern UI
  • The Daily Glance, which features news and information you’re interested in, works well
  • Cortana is relatively easy to use and understand

As far as raw functions, here’s what Cortana is capable of:

  • Phone – make a call
  • Messaging – send a text message
  • Calendar – Add an appointment
  • Flights (e.g.: “what’s the status of AA 125?”)
  • Reminder – create a reminder (more on that below)
  • Note – create a note (saved to OneNote) including speech to text and audio recording
  • Alarm – set an alarm
  • Music –play music; ID music e.g. ‘What is this song?’
  • Places – get directions
  • Settings – e.g. ‘Turn on Wi-Fi’ or ‘Turn off Bluetooth’
  • Search – Ask a question, search for something, etc.
  • Search on device – Search for an email or text message from a contact
  • Third-party app integration – Cortana can deep link into apps, so that you can make a call on Skype, post a Tweet or check-in via Foursquare

Other little gems about Cortana include the ability to set people and location reminders, in addition to your run of the mill time/date ones that we’re all familiar with. A location reminder works by telling Cortana to set a reminder. Once she starts listening, record the reminder and mention a specific location e.g. Harry’s Restaurant (or even something vague like Dunkin Donuts). Cortana, using Bing, will then match the location ‘Harry’s Restaurant’ with local search. If found, Harry’s Restaurant will then have an address below it, displaying a hit in the results. If you say something vague like ‘Dunkin Donuts’, Cortana will ask you which location with a pre-sorted list based on your current whereabouts. The next time you are at that particular place, Cortana will automatically pop up a reminder for you. Microsoft calls this experience ‘geofencing’ and it’s certainly a powerful tool (third-party developers will also have access to this via the 8.1 SDK).

Likewise, you can set a people reminder. This prompt is based on one of your contacts, and it is triggered the next time you interact with that person via text, email or phone. It sounds pretty amazing: “Remind me that I owe Mark Guim $20” but, unfortunately, I had a hard time getting it to work as a voice command. However, I was able to do it under the ‘Remind me’ section of Cortana, where you can manually enter in the information and the corresponding triggers (time, place or person). According to Microsoft, “Cortana is the only digital assistant which can set reminders based on the people in your life” and I have to admit, it’s quite attention-grabbing.

  • TIP: When on the Lock screen, hold down the Search key to launch into Cortana’s voice mode for a quick search or request!

You can also pin Weather or your News items to the Start screen for quick access. Weather wills how the current temperature at your present location.

Finally, another flagship feature for Cortana is Quiet Hours. That feature is what it sounds like: the ability to control alerts and notifications for certain times of the day. But while a certain blanket setup would have gotten the job done, Microsoft added an ‘Inner Circle’ and ‘Breakthrough rules’. Your Inner Circle is a select group of users who will get special treatment with Quiet Hours, giving them the ability to bypass the filter. The ‘Breakthrough Rules’ are various options, including:

  • Anyone breaks through if they call 2 times in 3 minutes
  • Inner circle breaks through
  • Texts: Inner circle breaks through; Ask Inner Circle: Break through?; or No one can break through; Reply that I’m busy right now to contacts who aren’t allowed through

That final option, with the auto text reply is really brilliant. Users are told that you are working but if they reply with “Knock knock” and their message that is so imperative, it will bust through the Quiet Hours wall. It’s perfect for emergencies and messages that need to get to the user. Once again, Microsoft has taken a feature and added their own distinctive twist to it. That’s how smartphones should be in 2014: not just a set of rules, but something that is reactive and well, smart…

When put up against Google Now and Siri (we’ll have that in a follow up article today) Cortana certainly held her own. Even though Microsoft is behind on releasing Cortana and it is still technically ‘beta’, the service is at least on par with Siri and even Google Now for almost every function. Whereas some may lament that it’s ‘too little, too late’, I have to give credit to Microsoft for making a compelling service all on their own.

Cortana’s story though will become more interesting in the coming months, when the public begins to use the service collectively. It’s only then can Microsoft fully refine the algorithms and bring Cortana completely online. Likewise for Cortana’s voice, which is a mash-up of Jen Taylor (voice of Cortana in the Halo franchise) and Microsoft’s current generation text-to-speech engine. That will begin to change as Taylor records more and more voice clips for the Cortana service, growing alongside the burgeoning personal voice assistant tech.

For now, Microsoft’s Cortana is a solid first effort for their next generation service and is more than just a novelty.

Action and Notification Center

While Cortana will garner a lot of headlines and pop-culture references, it’s the Action and Notification Center that users will end up using dozens of times a day. For a long time, Microsoft’s customers have asked for a proper notification center for Windows Phone, and while Live Tiles are certainly helpful, in today’s complicated mobile world, a single repository for all alerts is a must.

Windows Phone 8.1 breaks the Center into two parts: the Action center with Quick-Action buttons and the Notification Center, which falls below it. The Center is accessed by swiping down from the top of the screen, and it even works while the phone is on the Lock screen. However, if you have the device PIN locked, you can dismiss items and even toggle the Quick-action buttons, but you can’t pull up emails, text message or read the alerts in full.

The Center is smart too. If you’re in a game or a ‘full screen experience’, the Center won’t pop up. Instead, you’ll get what Microsoft calls the ‘handle bar’, which is a little colored handle the pops down. If you did want to get to the Notification Center, just pull it again. This ensures that accidental swipes won’t disturb your game or video. Clever.

For the Action Center, you have four quick-action buttons (five if you’re on a Lumia 1520 or other large screened device). Those buttons are configurable and can be set to toggle Wi-Fi on/off, enable Location based GPS, launch the camera, turn on VPN and more. While the list is pre-determined, it’s a solid selection. The only complaint I have is that there is there is no toggle for data, which is important for emerging markets.

Below the Quick-action buttons are a ‘Clear all’ and ‘All Settings’ quick links. The former is to dismiss alerts in the Notification Center, while the latter is shortcut to the device Settings. I like both and found myself using them equally in frequency.

When it comes to notifications, the Notification Center behaves as you would expect: items show up and are sorted by category (emails, messages, app alerts) and time of arrival. It’s obvious, clean and easy to use. To dismiss, you swipe to the right, just like how you dismiss Banner notifications (what Microsoft used to call ‘Toast’ notifications). A little icon also appears at the top of the screen that signals you have alerts waiting in the Notification Center. It looks like a little newspaper, and it’s easy to spot.

For alerts, users can now configure each app to their liking. If you want Facebook notifications but not the Banner alerts, then you can configure that under Settings > Notifications + Actions. Simply pick the app you want, e.g. Facebook and from there you can:

  • Toggle if the alert is shown in the Action Center
  • Toggle notification banners on or off
  • Select the notification’s sound for that app (users can copy their own sounds via the PC or Mac sync client)
  • Toggle vibrate on/off

The choices Microsoft has given to users in 8.1 for alerts and notification is much more powerful than what was found in 8.0. It’s easy to use, easy to understand and if my experience is anything to go by, the Action and Notification Center will be one of the first things you do each time you turn on your device.  In fact, when I would go back to using an 8.0 phone, the Action Center was the feature I missed most. I’m simply blown away by how often I use it, and I think it will be a huge hit for users of Windows Phone. Like I said, Cortana will get the headlines, but the Action Center will be your go-to baby each day.

Microsoft has done well with the duo Action and Notification Center for 8.1. While it’s not revolutionary, or game changing, it is well thought out and in many ways, that’s more important new feature.

Word Flow and Shape Writing

Typing on Windows Phone has always been a very good experience. In fact, the default (and only) keyboard on Windows Phone has served users well over the last few years, mostly due to Microsoft’s excellent text-prediction engine, which is unrivaled by the competition. With 8.1, Microsoft is adding a new feature, Shape Writing, to what they are calling their Word Flow keyboard.

Shape Writing is basically Swype for Windows Phone. Swype is a popular third-party app on Android that allows users to drag their finger to form words instead of touch-typing. But Shape Writing is not Swype. Microsoft did not license their technology nor is it from SwiftKey. The Shape Writing found on 8.1 is Microsoft’s own technology, developed by their Research team. It works with their existing text-prediction and truth be told; it’s damn powerful. I found myself using Shape Writing whenever I had to write something more than a few words, and it felt much better than touch-typing.

That’s not to say auto-correct, and text-prediction are the same either. Microsoft has added a few addition to that in 8.1 as well, including:

  • Suggest emoji – now, when you type certain words, not only will you get the auto-complete full version of that word, but next to you’ll have its representative emoji (aka emoticon). It’s shrewd and gets you to use emoji you may have been oblivious to
  • Adding contacts – Word Flow will automatically add the names from your contacts into your library, auto-correcting and auto-suggesting proper names right away

The Word Flow keyboard has also set the Guinness Book of World Records for the fastest keyboard on the planet, besting Swype on the Galaxy S by a full 7.5 seconds. It’s no gimmick.

Granted, Microsoft has still not opened up keyboard access to third-party developers, so don’t expect Swype or SwiftKey to appear anytime soon. But considering how good the typing experience is on 8.1, I’m not entirely sure there is a strong need for it. Choice would be virtuous, but it’s not something that users are dying for, either.

If I had to choose one of my favorite features on 8.1, the Shape writing experience in Word Flow is near the top. I was never a huge fan of touch-typing (in comparison to a physical keyboard), but Shape writing goes a long way in ameliorating my fat finger mistakes when typing.

Back up this, back up that; Sync this, sync that

Backing up. It automatically ranks up there with filing taxes. It’s tedious, but it’s necessary and up until now, it’s been a feature missing from Windows Phone. Users currently have the ability to back up some things on their current Windows Phone, including a list of apps and games installed and even some basic settings. But it pales to a full device restore.

Microsoft completely changes that in Windows Phone 8.1. There are now a few things that are optimally (and optionally) backed up to the cloud, including:

  • Apps + Settings – Save browser favorites, Start screen design, passwords, and most settings to the cloud
  • App backup – Save app content like high scores, notes, and settings to OneDrive for participating apps
  • Text messages – Download messages from last month, last year, any time
  • Photos + Videos – Photos (Don’t upload, Good quality, Best quality via Wi-Fi); Videos (Don’t Upload; Best Quality via Wi-Fi)

Those features are found under Settings > Backup and users can opt in or out of the saving feature and even manage those backups. As you can tell from the wording, app settings, notes and high scores for games will require developers to configure their app to “participate”. That means we’re not out of the woods yet, since apps and games will need to be updated in order to take advantage of these tools. But at least Microsoft has now provided the resources. Start screen layout is a big change, as previously you could restore app installations, but not their placement on your Start screen.

Clearly, backing up was no trivial task to implement and Microsoft appears to have made a great job of giving developers the necessary tools. Let’s hope they take advantage of them.

Likewise, users can now sync settings across devices. I mentioned this above with Theme syncing, which can be found under Settings > Sync my settings. Other options include:

  • App Settings
  • Internet Explorer
  • Passwords

For Internet Explorer, if you’re using IE11, you can now sync bookmarks across your devices and even bring down passwords. Likewise for App settings, which will become more important once apps become more unified on Phone and Desktop.

Look, backing up is never fun but 8.1 does an admirable job of making device restores, picking up a new phone and saving old game scores much easier and painless. It remains to be seen just how well in functions “in the wild”, but I’m content with the effort made with this release.

Internet Explorer 11, a new Store layout, Skype integration, new calendar and more

All the above is impressive for a “0.1” update, but 8.1 certainly has much more under her belt. Here are a few other very significant changes:

  • Internet Explorer 11InPrivate browsing (secretive browsing mode), Reading View optimizes text in articles; Unlimited tabs, up from the previous six limitation; Password and bookmark syncing with your PC; Pre-fetching, pre-rendering of pages and Browser Optimization Service (BSO), which “compresses images, JavaScript, and HTML text on webpages to reduce data consumption by up to 70 percent for browser page loads”
  • Store – The Store now has a new design and features analogous to Windows 8.1; App updates can be automatically updated; Choose to update apps only over Wi-Fi; Download history; App history; Reviews have their own page and ability to be sorted based on most helpful, most recent, highest rated or lowest rated; previously purchased apps and games now consider that, without the confusing “purchase” screen; Location-based app suggestions and finally, Force check for app updates
  • Skype integration – Believe it or not, Skype and other VoIP apps get even better in 8.1, with Skype tying into the in-Call screen. When you are on a phone call, you can now “upgrade” the standard carrier call to Skype with a single tap. The process hangs up the current call and automatically dials the contact on Skype, initiating a video call. It’s not 100% seamless, but it’s certainly easy to use and crafty. If you don’t like Skype, other VoIP apps can be selected as the default video-calling app under Phone > Settings > Video calls
  • Calendar and week view – Finally, the calendar app gets updated with a day, week, month and even year views. Users can swipe to reveal the following day, week, month and year and even optionally display the weather forecast for those calendar days; Tasks are now integrated as are multiple calendars from Facebook, Outlook, Gmail and Reminders (from Cortana)

Those are all really excellent improvements over 8.1, and I’m glad to see almost every nook and cranny of the OS get a fresh polish with this update. The new Store is really fantastic, although it is a bit slower to load graphics upon first loading than the current version, and I do kind of miss the banner background images (it’s now just plain black instead). Automatic app updates, forced-update checks, downloads only over Wi-Fi and seeing previously purchased apps are all exactly what the Store needed to make it one of the best around. Combined with the “One Store” unification that 8.1 brings for Desktop and Phone, consumers will also begin to see single-app purchases across both platforms going forward, including in-app purchases and settings. Want to buy a game on Windows Phone and get it on Windows 8? Done. That should will be the coup de grâce for the last of user complaints about Microsoft’s Store and give them an advantage of Android and iOS.

Sense is everywhere

Wi-Fi Sense, Data Sense, Battery Saver, Storage Sense. Microsoft is going all out in making the services that power Windows Phone much easier to manage. I think this is an inevitable problem with smartphones and Microsoft is not immune from it: the more advanced an OS becomes the more complicated it gets. Apple’s iOS was easy to use in 2007. Today, iOS 7 is just almost as feature packed as Android and its complexity reflects that.

Microsoft is addressing some of that with their ‘Sense’ initiative on Windows Phone. It’s a good idea, as it helps users manage things that otherwise could be a little tedious or convoluted. Let’s take a look at what 8.1 brings and builds upon.

  • Wi-Fi Sense – You can now share your personal Wi-Fi login credentials with other Wi-Fi Sense users who are also in your contacts; Automatically login into public Wi-Fi networks and agree to their Terms & Services without touching anything on your device
  • Data Sense – Find free Wi-Fi hotspots on the map with Wi-Fi Guide  (ties into Wi-Fi sense for logins); Set data limit and frequency, reset date, etc.; Browser data savings including new “Automatic Savings” mode, which will “switch from Standard to High Savings mode when you are within less than 5 percent of your data plan limit.”
  • Battery Saver – Previously, Battery Saver would kick in when you only had 20% of battery left. It still does that, but you now get an app by app breakdown of what is consuming your precious power, including when active versus in the background. You can also set an app to override the Battery Saver function, so that you can continue to get WhatsApp or Facebook update while the rest of your phone has restricted power consumption; Users can pin the Battery Saver app to their Start screen for a Live Tile that reflects the current battery status
  • Storage Sense – This is a tool to help you manage your data on your Windows Phone by allowing you to move photos, downloads, music, videos and now apps and game to a storage card (if your device supports it). Not only can you store media on a storage card, but the OS will move them there as well; Users can pin Storage sense to your Start screen to get a new Live Tile that will flip to show your current remaining storage

The Sense and Battery Saver services certainly help in making things easier to manage on Windows Phone. Microsoft traditionally has shied away from giving users tools to “manage” things because they believe users really shouldn’t have to do such things. I agree, but the reality of smartphones in 2014 is they are still complicated, and users want the control. Microsoft has given that but with some bonuses, like Wi-Fi Sense. Sharing of Wi-Fi passwords is great but like Rooms (which is still in 8.1), it assumes the user has a Windows Phone to take advantage of the function. That’s not Microsoft’s fault, but it certainly limits how much you can use that new feature.

I really like the auto-login to public Wi-Fi. There’s nothing more annoying than having to launch Internet Explorer to hit an ‘agree’ button or even worse, type in some bogus user data so that they can collect the information for marketing purposes. I get how ‘free’ Wi-Fi works, but it’s still tedious. Microsoft has done something previously only the hacking or modding community did: give users a way to circumvent annoying prompts. It’s useful and devious, so much so you wonder how some free Wi-Fi provides would react to it (assuming Windows Phone has substantial market share).

The new Battery Saver is impressive as it gives users an idea if a certain app is sucking down too much in resources. Microsoft’s Store certification process should catch such apps, but it’s still a good tool to have just-in-case.

Finally, Data and Storage Sense gives users even more control over their device and helps control costs. Data Sense is still something carriers need to support, so while those participating in the Developer Preview may get the tool, it may not appear in the official builds due later this summer. That’s unfortunate, but not exactly Microsoft’s fault either. Hopefully even more carriers will embrace Data Sense for 8.1 in 2014.

Wrapping it up

I covered a lot in this review of 8.1, and I still feel it’s incomplete. Over 5,000 words, seven new hands on videos and over 20 photos still does not capture all of the improvements, changes and new features in Microsoft’s massive update. What did I miss? How about:

  • VPN support built in
  • S/MIME for encrypting emails
  • NFC ‘trusted apps’ to bypass the confirmation screen
  • Tap to pay moves from Wallet to NFC
  • Social Extensibility framework – Installing certain social-network apps will tie into the OS, allowing you to sign in once and have their data integrated into the People Hub e.g. Facebook
  • Facebook Messaging is removed, replaced by a new app; Facebook integration is still included in the People Hub and Me Tile
  • Set default ‘Post an update’ and ‘Check in’ apps under the Me Tile; opened up to third-party developers
  • Local Scout has moved to Maps
  • Microsoft Maps now has new 3D aerial view
  • Mute thread in text messages
  • Restrict background data when roaming (Data Sense)
  • Custom volume settings for Ringer/Notifications and Apps/Media
  • Dual SIM support (for new hardware)
  • Enhanced YouTube and HTML5 in browser experience
  • Miracast and USB support for screen projection
  • Revamped Microsoft Camera app with Burst Mode, configurable settings for the viewfinder
  • Collections in the Photos Hub, grouped based on location + date/time + activity
  • Podcast integration with new app and Bing services
  • Swipe down in task-switcher display to close out app (the ‘X’ still remains, too)
  • Auto-download of images in email
  • Xbox Music and Xbox Video are now separate apps (still no HD video, though it is coming)
  • All the backend changes for developers and OEMs, including Qualcomm Snapdragon Sensor core support, UMDF 2.0 driver support for driver unification across Windows hardware, etc.

And I’m quite positive even with that bulleted list, I’ve overlooked or forgotten to mention something.  

But forgetting a feature list and overview—how is the OS now? As a long time Windows Phone user, I’m quite impressed with it. It has certainly changed the way I use my phone, including the following features:

  • Action Center
  • Cortana
  • Shape writing
  • Install apps to SD card
  • The OS is just smarter

That’s not to say everything is perfect in this ‘preview’ release. Instagram, which itself is still in ‘beta’, had some network issues (they seemed to be resolved now); I’ve had issues with the power button not turning the device on and occasionally IE would bug out. Miracast, while supported by the OS, is not quite ready for Nokia hardware as they will need the Lumia Cyan update for new drivers. Likewise with USB screen projection, which I could not get to work.

But overall, these were minor inconveniences for a ‘preview’ release. The OS feels fast; animations have been tweaked for an improved user experience. The new features don’t feel tacked on, but rather well thought out in advanced. And they work. That’s the beauty with this update as almost all of you will get something you really wanted. There’s still room for improvement, but the gap between Microsoft, Apple and Google is certainly getting narrower with today’s release.

I’m done saying Microsoft has finally caught up to the competition. I’m done predicting whether or not Windows Phone will finally catch on in the United States, where it sits at around 4% market share. I think 8.1 is a fantastic update from Microsoft, and it shows a new level of commitment to their mobile OS. I’m not sure it’s enough to catch up to Android or even iOS, but I’m not sure Microsoft really needs to. The OS is solid, hardware – especially from Nokia – is outstanding, and the apps are finally being built for Windows Phone at the same time as Android and iOS.

For current Windows Phone 8 owners, you’ll be knocked off your socks with this update. For those who are not on Windows Phone and reading this, you may finally be swayed with all of the new and improved features. What’s more, we expect Microsoft to deliver two updates to 8.1 this year with GDR1 and GDR2. What those updates will bring, we’re not entirely too sure, but we’re excited to see what happens next.

Daniel Rubino

Daniel Rubino is the Editor-in-chief of Windows Central, head reviewer, podcast co-host, and analyst. He has been covering Microsoft since 2007 when this site was called WMExperts (and later Windows Phone Central). His interests include Windows, laptops, next-gen computing, and for some reason, watches. Before all this tech stuff, he worked on a Ph.D. in linguistics, watched people sleep (for medical purposes!), and ran the projectors at movie theaters because it was fun.

  • That didn't take long :P
  • Awesome detailed review.. it's almost like he had it working on his phone before it went live!  :)      Very Detailed and will constantly revert back to this post to make sure i don't miss anything.  I'm very VERY VERY excited about the notification system.  It was such a major drawback for me.  Finally i can remove the shortcut tiles that wasted so much valuable space on my start screen
  • I'm guessing you didn't read the article. "I have been using the preview release of Windows Phone 8.1 for nearly the last two weeks" -Daniel
  • how did you get the preview release? I also have a nokia lumia icon. I cant find it in the shop, and when i do a "search for updates" It comes back with nothing.   
  • You have to go get the Preview For Developers app and sign in. After that, the app will tell you that you can now install updates. You go to settings and then, phone update. You will have at least 2 updates of more versions of WP8 before you can finally download WP8.1. I have had WP8.1 for the past 2 days and I absolutly love it. I think you will too. If you want a clearer description of how to get Windows Phone 8.1 before anybody else, you should look it up on YouTube.
  • Hey
    can you help me out through this?
    Actually i did the same as you said.I came up with two respective updates but the update i have been hunting for i.e 8.1, I cant download it.They give me an error code.
  • You have to reset your phone
  • He says right in the article at the beginning that he's been using it on an icon for 2 weeks.
  • Sarcasm folks...
  • Wooosh!  lol
  • Funny, I totally got the sarcasm this time too, lol
  • Hi Daniel,   Thanks for the wonderfull review, Iam from India and i have lumia 720 and i have updated it to windows 8.1, but i did not get Cortana, Even after changing location, pls Help...
  • You must change region, keyboard, speech, and language to English United States...language across entire device must match! Ironically, I live in the United States and lost Cortana because I wanted an Indian female voice for Cortana and after I downloaded the speech pack...Cortana was deactivated saying that the language had to match my display language... So then I tried changing the display language to match and restarted my phone... Then I lost Cortana altogether... So I had to revert everything to get her back
  • Hi Nazeem, Can you tell how did you update to WP8.1, I am not able to find it. I tried by checking in phone update but its showing as no updates for your phone. I am using Lumia720. Thanks, Sathish
  • Hi, Can any one tell , how to update to wp8.1 . I am using Lumia720.   Thanks, Sathish
  • It's available to developers right now.Watch your provider for the retail launch.
  • Hi Satish. Kindly follow the link for the detail on how to download preview for developers.
  • Dan, is it (finally) possible to scrub to a specific part of a song instead of pressing and holding the fast-forward button? I listen to a lot of mixes and compilations which often are longer than 1 hour, and having to use the fast-forward button to get to a specific part is a major pain in the butt...
  • It's still not possbile. :( That was a feature I wished for.. I hope in the next update GDR1 we finally get that. 
  • This is one of the main reasons I left Windows Phone.  The music apps are subpar at best.  Not being able to scrub with a slide bar, creating a playlist easily and overall look of the apps is terrible.  The syncing of music is garbage as well.  Hopefully they will wisen up and fix this as there are many people out there that use their phone for music playback.  If this gets fixed to be like other mobile OS functionality I may return.  I really did like WP but there was just too many things that irked me.  They should have included anything that Android and IOS already have.  This would have helped gain more people adopting the OS from the get go.
  • If it offered the same things as the other platform but had less apps, why would anyone chose WP? They need to do things better. The scrubber though, no excuse for its poor for so long.
  • Hi Daniel,
    I wanted to know if wp 8.1 supports USB OTG & secondly can we transfer all apps & games to the SD card?
  • Don't know about USB OTG but most apps can be transfered back and forth between the phones memory and the SD card. No need to redownload them. As far as I know only system apps and certain 3rd party apps can't be installed on the SD card such as some file managers.
  • Microsoft does provide a copy to some tech writers in advance, before the live date.
  • Review seems to be quite fantastic!!! And was at a quick time. Read More...
  • yoo!!! +820
  • :O
  • Oh my God, I'm not home, I must go home now!! Damn!
  • Dont worry - the update servers are overloaded anyways
  • Yeah I'm at work smh lol
  • It'll still be there when you get home, lol. You people foaming at the mouth about this crack me up. I mean, it's not like the update is going to disappear before you get to it. :D
  • Lol I knew he had this review tucked away for today! Can't wait to read all this awesomenes xD
  • Seems faster
  • Well done! You actually managed to use that detestible term for the right reason! :D
  • Hi,if I download the update now,what happens? Will my warrenty die?
  • It wont die, but it'll be comatized.
  • Crying....!!!!
  • I'll read this during work hours!
  • Nice article, Daniel. I can only imagine how long you've had this in the can.
  • I Love you !!!  
  • Just completed the pre-update...ready for "da big one"...
  • Still migrating data (I hate this phase loooool)
  • don't worry it worth the time :)
    it's rocking my L520 :D
  • Amazing review, look like a new (the one we want) WP! Microsoft aims to the right direction.
  • I hope the video call function can be changed to something else, like WeChat etc. 
  • YES, didn't you read the article?!
  • I spy.... Me. Great review Dan!
  • That was freaking fast Dan, well done! I guess you won the challenge someone offered you back some days :P
  • He had two weeks with the update to write the article, so it wasn't really that fast. ;)
  • Excellent review and I must say you had a lot of patienece to put up this huge article. Thanks Daniel !
  • omg :) Amazing review :) I LOve You :)
      Downloading now :)
  • Please don't tell me they removed usb otg and a downloads folder to download any file type via IE? They were the features i was looking forward to!
  • update almost done. fyi, the update 8.1, is the 2nd one. the first update seems like a prep for the 2nd
  • YEAH....Awesome....
  • WPcentral Crashing when am trying to open images section. +720
  • Sorry if I missed it, but are there any improvements to kids corner?
    Specifically the need to not need a password?
  • It mentions that in the 8.1 features page, that has been fixed.
  • May i ask how did you get the Developers preview 2 weeks before the normal user (or the actuall dev like me) ? I quote "I have been using the Preview release of Windows Phone 8.1 for nearly the last two weeks on a Nokia Lumia Icon" But great review, thnx now i know what to look for after finishing installing the update
    Hope you do another podcast soon
  • Some tech journalists get a preview of the preview so to speak.
  • Wow,  haven't finished updating my own phone yet, but I hate the fact that games aren't listed separately.  It's going to clutter up my app list far too much.
  • They will be listed seperately in the games hub, but also in the app list. But I lists are going to get very long with games being included..hope there is some way for us to disclude them from the app list manually and still keep them in the games hub
  • yeah I also prefered the fact that Games was only listed in the Games Hub  and not the normal App List aswell :/
  • @Daniel, you forgot to focus on Xbox Hub, music and video apps.
  • xbox music & video is a big letdown
  • 100% agreed. Not forgeting Xbox games hub, I don't even receive notifications anymore and there's no settings option. Well this is a developer preview, lets hope the final apps will be great come june.
  • Thank you 
    What is this update size?
  • I needed to do 2 updates.  My Nokia 820 had ~900MB space left and installation said it needed additional ~500MB.
  • Thanks for the great review! However I've got just one beef with you - You guys hold out on us way too much!
  • Damn it!! I'm full of work up to my ears. Gonna have to read these later and update this evening.
  • If I use the developer version, can I get paid apps for free? And can I switch back to non-developer version? Thanks!
  • Why exactly do you need to get paid apps for free? Stop being cheap and support the developers! Also, once you update, you can't revert back to an earlier version.          
  • I keep reading this "can't revert", but no-one has mentioned if they mean "there's no undo button", or if they mean you actually can't flash an earlier firmware.
  • There's no way to return the installed version to WP8 once you have gone to WP8.1 (even if you remove the developer update app
  • This is amazing! About to begin download!
  • Its putting every album I have on my PC to my phone sweet!!!
  • What's the download size??
  • Holy crap! I have data sense on my AT&T 1520. Sweet!!
    Great review btw. Really loving the update so far.
  • Wondering if AT&T will block it out when the OTA update comes around.
  • I love it! We're moving on up. Kudos Microsoft.
  • Update size
  • It's approximately large
  • Updated and working.... no cortana here 
  • theres two updates
  • Yep
  • Hello Daniel, thank you so much for this review, its awesome. Could you tell us please if there is a T9 style keyboard option in 8.1? Thank you!
  • Kinda sucks that the Word Flow keyboard only works with the english keyboard. Had been looking forward to that one.
  • It works with 16 languages.
  • Is there any list and how do I download packs?
  • Update size
  • R u from india
  • R u from India? Did u get the preview wp 8.1??
  • Awesome! Can't wait to get home on WiFi!
  • You can trust MSFT to miss out on something like the toggle for Data. Hell, in the initial days of WP, they didnt even think FM Radio was very important in developing countries. I also notice Daniel taking a very soft stance on this point. Bad MSFT, bad - I say this at the risk of sounding overdramatic.
  • It would have been nice if the Celular Data Toggle was an option for the Action Centre (maybe that will come with final release) For now we just have to go to 'Cellular + SIM' to do it
  • Where's Cortana? I cant find her. Lumia 1020 in the UK. Thanks
  • Cortana is US only for now
  • For cortana u shld change all ur regional settings and language to us english and reboot.
  • What about video files sharing over Bluetooth? Can it b done independently from music+videos, or gotta move to camera roll folder to share with other device. My device doesn't have nfc.. So plz clarify this
  • Is This My New Year Gift :o ... Happy New Year 2071 :)
  • Can anyone comment on the camera tint? Did they fix it?
  • Great review, can't wait to get it on my phone. Keeps giving an error message, must be too many people hitting the servers right now! It's such a massive update, really should have been more than 8.1. But then if Windows had been 8.2 and this also, it's not like it would have made much difference. It's not like WP going from WP7 to WP7.5 changed the world. So if this had been 8.2 or even 8.5 I doubt it would make any difference either. It's only point releases that really get the big headlines and mindshare. Hopefully Cortana and some other big features can give MS the attention they deserve for this impressive update. I guess they really will have Windows & WP 9 ready in another year with Metro 2 and other goodness. It's also a shame MS weren't able to take over Nokia much earlier, I'm sure we'd have gotten even more great features if they had been able to work together on this update. I reckon a lot of what will be GDR1 & GDR2 will come from Nokia employees' input.
  • did the update take a long time? I still stuck on rotating gear screen almost 15 minutes
  • Anyone know if 8.1 improves the battery life.
  • it did on my L520
  • Yeah, it's got outstanding features to drain battery much faster now, unless you turn off most background services.
  • It might have already been asked but can Games be removed from the app list and remain in the games hub, as I really don't want to clog up my app list. Oh, and another query, if I change my region to US, is it going to fuck with my location apps? I have a stackload of apps that are specific to my city, is changing region to US to utilise Cortana going to balls that up?
  • Holy crap, my phone has like three hours updating. I don't know if the battery will last.
  • I'm surprised that you were able to update without plugging in. I'd think, with the size of the update, that the phone would prompt you to plug in before beginning the process.
  • If I update my lumia 920 to this, will I get the Lumia Cyan update later on from nokia?
  • Yes.
  • Simple answer, YES ;-)
  • I heard somewhere that with 8.1 live tiles are updated more frequently. Can anyone confirm?
  • Yes, they do. My battery meter tile updates all the time now. On 8.0 it wouldn't update for a long period of time.
  • And the "Clock Hub" app updates every minute now!
  • Wow
  • Mine took about 1 hour to update.
  • email improvements..attaching arbitary files? downloading files from IE?
  • No email improvement as far as attachments goes... Actually is a degrade... can only attach pictures from your picture hub. Otherwise you have to use a link or be within an app to share anything via email. No attaching files to an email (new email or existing email thread)... HUGE FAIL... HUGE HUGE HUGE FAIL.   And not happy about Skype/Messenger messages not integrated into the messaging hub. Why make Skype more integrated for calls but less integrated for messaging? WHY WHY WHY?   This update has some good features but to not deliver on these two HUGE aspects... huge fail in my opinion...
  • Wake up I use Microsoft pdf reader. Documents on my PC I want to share from my phone when needed. There is a OneDrive for PC software that adds your OneDrive to windows explorer. Paste the document to One Drive. It doesn't need to be in a folder. Office documents attached in emails. Office documents you open that are attached to emails you receive are saved in Office, places, email opened email attachments. This is default, if you open them they are saved. Pdf files as email attachments.  In the email, hold the tap on the file, select save, go to your pdf reader library, hold the tap on the file and select share, tap share on the next page and it is loaded to OneDrive. To share what you have from Office. Tap and hold on the document or pdf  and select share.  The file location can be in documents on your phone, opened email attachments or OneDrive. Pdf files will be in OneDrive.
  • +720
  • You don't understand what I'm saying. Yes, I know that you can download attachments from emails sent TO YOU. However you cannot attach documents to an existing email thread unless you use a link which is simply extra steps and much less intuitive and less productive, not to mention some people do not like receiving links to files that should be attached to the email. Simply put, all I want is to be able to attach a file, Office, PDF, etc., from either my phone or SD card WITHIN the standard mail app. I SHOULD NOT have to go into the app for Office, or Acrobat Reader to send said file. I SHOULD NOT have to use a link to the file.
  • Quite right Malcolm Not being able to add any attachment to an already running email thread and being unable to do multiple attachments is a huge oversight. iOS doesnt let you do this either, not sure about Android though I would be suprised if not. This is a chance for MS to get one over and offer something genuinely useful, but they didn't.  
  • I simply dont understand why wifi cannot be simple toggle button... i am so sad...  And there is no cellular data nor flashlight for toggle in the action center as well. Shame. All very simple features and still not available. They are more important than this Cortana...Very disappointed
  • It's not my just the toggle for data, what about network settings? Depending on where I am I turn off 3g and data etc! And it's a shame there isn't a file manager of some description. I really wanted that, I hoped it might be there. Otherwise this preview is awesome! Apart from the long install time (warranted for the massive update) it has genuinely refreshed my devices - my 1020, 1520 and even the lower tier 625 I'm writing this on seem to have had a shot in the arm: Much faster! Overall excellent update. I'm getting used to the new keyboard (sorry for the length of the post) and am happy with most things. I'm especially happy the auto correct capitalised the "I" now, wasn't doing that before (uk keyboard). I guess open vpn is there, requiring an app purchase perhaps, and other than that it's nigh on complete. Minor quibbles aside. Bring on the formal release and the updates! Thanks for the review!!!!
  • Yup no toggle for data connection! :O
  • There is. Go to settings > mobile+sim > sim settings > 3G
  • I am downloading the update now, but one little minor thing I would like to see, although I don't think it is in the update is the ability to type in a contact by numbers to easy limit my search. (eg in the phone application typing 645 for a contact named "mike").
  • Still no glance for the icon :(
  • That's a Nokia firmware thing. You'll have to wait for Nokia Cyan before you even have a chance of getting that.
  • It's actually a Hardware issue with the type screen they had to use. Glance won't be going on the Icon/930 at all, not even with any firmware update.  
  • I don't like the fact that things like WiFi, Cellular Connection, Battery, Etc., don't hide anymore. I appreciated that feature: because it kept things clean until I actually needed the information. Now? Just like Android. I'll live, but I am disappointed with this change. Still, rest of the update is pretty solid, installing it now on both my 1020 and 520. Can't wait!!!
  • yup me too.
  • But this update is epic
  • While we was sat with our finger on check for update bet u was sat with yours on post. WP 8.1 I LUV U
  • Almost done......and it will be woth the wait!!...hahaha @ 79%
  • There is a new cursor positioning when editing text which is much more accurate
  • Meh. Removal of built-in Facebook chat and ACTUAL People hub integration(I don't see how a shortcut to launching Facebook is actually "integration" other than the link to the other app being integrated) is too bad. I really liked being able to chat with friends without having to open another app. Any clue why they removed it? Doesn't seem like it was broken... Guess with all the features added something had to be cut, eh?
  • Because of this maybe?
  • Thanks, think I missed that one. Also, was making assumptions about not having integrated Facebook in the me hub from the YouTube review of 8.1. Once I actually downloaded the update I found out I don't need the Facebook app to get notifications and update my status. That made me happy. Followed by shame for having posted before I actually had the update in my hands.
  • Nop, this was ridiculously broken. It was incredibly unreliable, did not sync with messages sent from other devices or web, drained out data and had serious problems staying connected all the time, specially because 3G signal may go up and down while you walk/get into elevator/tunels/buildings and it would not reconnect unless you forced it.    Well, you got it. Never knew anyone who actualy used it for more than 3 days here in Brazil or US.
  • thanks Daniel.!! very informative article. installing now at 94% in my lumia 1320..
  • What is the size of update. Anyone updated their L620.
  • I think it's about 300-400mb
  • Just awesome *-*
  • I'm currently installing the update. Sweet!
  • Testing this new shape writing and I must say it is great!! When I had Android many years ago before windows 7 phone I loved Swype or whatever it was called but this feels much better then that and not a single typo at all! Great review Mr. Daniel.
  • Please tell me, Dan, if this improves battery backup in any way. I had the assumption that MSFT would fix this issue with a software update. Have you noticed it?
  • What about the new music and video apps? Have they been improved? I am mostly refraining from updating because of the removal of the Music+Video hub. Also, the removal of the built-in fb chat integration is a bummer :/
  • Music App not improved at all. I'm quite frustrated actually. Especially because of the Store updates, there's no easy way to browse for music. Even when you're browsing in-app for "related artists" etc, half the time the content doesn't load or is just really slow.
  • The strange thing is I cant find Cortana in my 8.1 update in Lumia 720 :( is it not included?
  • Change region to USA WPC App for Android - Note 3
  • It's changed to USA but still I get the Bing search when I press the search button
  • I also didn't get it. I think you have to install US language stuff too, but probably need to hard reset the phone and pick US initially.
  • finally had it working..need to change the labguage to English (United States) and move it to the top of the language list. then after arester, you will have cortana in your app list :)
  • Only for US dude
  • I read sometime back that you can get Cortana by changing region to US.
  • Yess I also read that. but it I had to download the United States Language pack and apply is as default.. what I had was United Kingdom
  • Hey it working I changed the regional settings to USA and downloaded the language English (United States) and placed it at the top of the language list and made the phone language to English (United States)..then here came cortana :D
  • Hey I do it on my Samsung ativ s but cortana is missing?
  • The trick is you need to set the region and language to United States and English (United States) respectively. then restart the phone as it says, and you will have coratana :) when you change the language make sure Enligh (United States) is on the top of the list :) hope it helps
  • Excelllent article just one short question, what kind of cable we will need for USB Projector Screen, is it some USB to HDMI or what?