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Microsoft announces Windows Phone 8.1 and reveals UI changes, Cortana personal assistant, gesture keyboard, and more

News by Andrew Kameka on Wednesday April 02, 2014.

windows phone news · smartphone news · andrew kameka

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At its Build Conference in New York today, Microsoft announced Windows Phone 8.1 and the many highlights that are slated to arrive in a few months. Microsoft confirmed that WP 8.1 is still in development and has yet to be distributed to manufacturers and carriers yet, so it will still be a few months before consumers receive an update. However, the company did confirm many of the leaked rumors and detailed the highlight features that will be included in Windows Phone 8. Those features include:

Action Center is the new notification center. Users finally have a dedicated place to see missed calls, messages, and alerts from certain apps, akin to Android and iOS. It also includes some quick toggles for common features that users can customize, including Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Airplane mode, and more.

Cortana, the dedicated search and personal assistant is now official. It's still a beta application and ran into four or more errors during its debut at Build, but the app promises a lot to Windows Phone users. It offers warnings about calendar conflicts, traffic warnings for the drive home, news stories about someone's interests, sports scores from favorite teams, places to eat, and monitoring travel itineraries. It's basically Google Now without Google. Cortana runs on Bing and phone email (with permission), and also integrates with Yelp and other services to take actions once results are in. Other features include Quiet Times to automatically start Do Not Disturb and warnings about scheduling conflicts.

Design changes are plenty. The Start screen now has a theme to change not only the colors of Live Tiles but also to switch between 2 and 3 column view instantly. There's a new feature that can set the background to a personal wallpaper and have the tiles layered transparent over the image. There's also an option to have the parallax effect seen previously on the iPhone.

When a phone call comes in, you can press a button to switch that to a Skype conversation. You can also get on-screen reminders, such as "Tell your brother to buy Mom's gift" if you've told Cortana to remind you.

The keyboard now has Swype-like features. The flow feature lets someone place their finger on one letter and then swipe to the next letter and the next. The keyboard then figures out which word someone means to type and rapidly enters in that information through word prediction, auto-correction, and word suggestion. Microsoft allegedly broke the Guinness World Record for text entry with the flow keyboard.

The Windows Store got cross-platform purchases. If someone buys an app for Windows Phone and that same app can work on Windows 8 with developer support, he or she does not need to repurchase the app. The Store can also manually check for updates, automatically download updates on Wi-Fi or cellular, and power single sign-in with Microsoft account. If a developer supports it, app data can also be backed up to OneDrive and reinstalled after a reset or switching phones.

Wi-Fi Sense will let users share access to their Wi-Fi network without giving up the password. This will let guests gain internet access but not complete access to the network.

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Andrew Kameka
Andrew is based in Miami, Florida.

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