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Windows Phone 8.1 Review: most of the things wrong with Windows have been fixed

Review by Andrew Kameka on Monday April 14, 2014.

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Windows Phone 8.1 Start screen
Windows Phone 8.1 Start screen

There's always been an excuse to not use Windows Phone. While Windows Phone 8 was pleasantly unique and kicked off the trend of flat design in mobile interfaces, Microsoft's OS has lagged behind the competition when it came to premiere apps and the finer details. We've already seen Windows Phone 8 make great strides in acquiring apps, but the details lacked the clarity necessity to stand up to Android and iOS. That's no longer the case with Windows Phone 8.1, a dot-one release that feels like Microsoft grew tired of the "but" responses. Windows Phone 8 looks good but I can't easily get to settings. Windows Phone 8 has great Live Tiles but I need a notification center. The cumulative buts made the platform unattractive to many, but version 8.1 seeks to render those complaints moot.

"The narrative has been that Microsoft is playing catchup, which isn't an unfair comparison," Greg Sullivan, director of Windows Phone, told me during a recent briefing. "But the how is as important as the when."

In other words, Microsoft recognizes some of these features should have been introduced previously, but there's no sense in dwelling on it. What matters is that they are here now and, in their minds, Microsoft's implementation is better.

Microsoft has made the Windows Phone 8.1 preview available to developers to download today. You can find instructions on how to do that fairly easily online in case you want to spend an afternoon loading it onto your phone. I've been using the preview since last week and have jotted down a few thoughts on some of the best features.

Windows Phone 8.1 Action Center, Notification settings
Windows Phone 8.1 Action Center, Notification settings

Action Center

Windows Phone Director Greg Sullivan made a point that Microsoft calls it Action Center, not Notification Center, because it's more than just notifying you that something has happened. Yes, you get the standard heads-up about new emails and messages, but you also get the ability to turn on Wi-Fi, go into Airplane Mode, or toggle Rotation Lock - yes, you can finally set the phone to not switch orientation. Action Center gives users the option for which settings appear above the notifications and it makes it easy to access even from the lock screen. One thing unique to Action Center is that it's linked to Live Tiles. If I read or dismiss a notification in one area, the Live Tile updates to reflect that change as well.

Windows Phone 8.1 new keyboard
Windows Phone 8.1 new keyboard

Word Flow

The keyboard has been updated to enable faster typing - Guinness World Record faster. The WP8 keyboard has always done a good job of word prediction, but 8.1 enhances that by increasing the size of a letter as someone types. For instance, it's more likely that you'll tap "n" after typing "micropho," so the "n" will be slightly bigger than the surrounding letters. There's also a gesture based flow entry method built by the same internal research group that developed the keyboard. That means it plugs into the same prediction engine and enables Swype-like gestures to break the Guinness World Record for typing by a full eight seconds. In addition to adding the names of your contacts to the dictionary automatically, it can link

Windows Phone 8.1 Cortana error, news update
Windows Phone 8.1 Cortana error, news update

Cortana and Search

Apple iOS has Siri for voice search and basic automation of features, and Android has Google Now for that and much more through its informed search and data sharing. Microsoft has responded with Cortana, more advanced than Siri and more personable than Google Now. You can't fully compare them since Cortana is still in beta and rough around the edges, but the basic premise is that you can use Cortana to create reminders, track news articles related to your interests, and send messages. I've written a full article about Cortana available to read here. Aside from Cortana, there's a new device-wide search that searches through the web, messages, emails, contacts, and apps.

Windows Phone 8.1 Internet Explorer new tab, Reading Mode
Windows Phone 8.1 Internet Explorer new tab, Reading Mode

Internet Explorer

The browser gets a nice kick in the butt with built-in features to do light compression on HTML, photos, and JavaScript. As a result, your smartphone will consume less data when viewing photos. The High Savings Mode takes it to the extreme by not loading some advertisements and only loading the latter parts of a webpage as needed.

IE has also caught up to Android and iOS by supporting more tabs and synchronizing open tabs, favorites, and history on mobile or desktop. There's also a Reading view that strips out all design and formatting so that only the text or key photos appear.

Windows Phone 8.1 Battery Saver, Data Sense
Windows Phone 8.1 Battery Saver, Data Sense

Battery, Storage, and Data Management

We've already covered Data Sense as a way to monitor how much data your phone consumes, but it was previously a carrier exclusive. WP 8.1 makes that a uniform feature. Now you can see which devices use up data on a cellular connection and stay under your monthly limits. I was pleased to see an option to background data always or only as you approach your limits. It's especially useful for limiting data when roaming off network.

Similar tools area available for storage and battery. The Battery Saver turns off non-critical functions that use power. I was able to stretch 32 percent of power from 7 hours to 10 hours using Battery Saver. It automatically lowered brightness and shutdown operations unless I activated a specific app or received new messages. Some apps can also be whitelisted, so as a frequent tweeter, I'm able to let Mehdoh continue operating during the Saver mode.

Storage Sense is less impressive to me but still useful. It's a storage manager to select storing apps, photos, music, videos, podcasts, and downloads on a microSD or the internal storage. The one thing I did like is that I'm able to filter my choices. For instance, I can choose to keep photos on the phone but set music, video, and podcasts to be stored on the external storage.

Wi-Fi Sense is rather interesting because it automatically connects to hotspots without needing to take the extra step to accept terms and conditions. Walk into the coffee shop and it will auto-connect without wasting time. It doesn't work that way on protected networks, but it can recognize a location and auto-connect when I return. Wi-Fi Sense hase management tools to share access with friends. Sadly, this works only with other Windows Phone devices that also have WP 8.1, but. I can set my network to automatically let my friends connect without knowing the Wi-Fi password.

Other great features:

- Microsoft has introduced Universal Apps that let a developer build an app once and have it work on a Windows Phone, Windows PC, and eventually XBox. Someone can buy a game or app once and have it work across devices.

- When linked with a Skype account, phone calls can "upgrade" a standard phone call into a Skype call. Pressing a button will switch to Skype Video from the dialer. You can also Skype someone directly from the People Hub.

- Weather reports now appear in your calendar. There's a little icon previewing temperature and cloudy/sunny conditions. You'll have to share your location to get this feature and it will updated based on local conditions at the time.

- Reminders can be linked with Cortana for contacts. So when I call my brother, the reminder to tell him Happy Birthday will appear. If I go to text him, the same message applies. Reminders can be triggered by time, person, or location, so it even reminds me to pick up soup from Trader Joe's.

- Mute message threads is a nice way to prevent updates from unwanted sources, even if it's just temporary. It's disappointing that you can't set a timer, such as mute for an hour, but you can at least turn notifications on or off by long-pressing a thread and choosing "Mute."

- Custom Volume Settings can crank music to full blast without making ringtones reach annoying levels. Press a volume button once and then tap the drop down notification that appears to adjust either volume level.

- Custom ringtones are also a thing now. You can't select a full song and you have to do the awkward dance of getting the correct format on your PC - non-DRM, 40 seconds or shorter, 1MB or smaller, MP3 or WMA - and then transferring to your phone unfortunately.

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About the author

Andrew Kameka
Andrew is based in Miami, Florida.

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