We'll have a full in-depth review of Windows Phone 8.1 closer to its release, but at Microsoft's Build event in San Francisco this week, I snagged some hands-on time with phones running the new operating system.
Accurately testing the release's marquee feature, Cortana, the Siri-like digital voice assistant, will take an extended period of use, since it learns your preferences over time. I did, however, get a sampling of the feature, which was named after a character in the Halo video game (it actually uses the same voice actor as the game).
But there's a lot more to Windows Phone 8.1 than just Cortana. New lock screen and Start screen options, a swipe-down Action Centre, and an updated app store join many more additions. Some important ones, such as upgrading phone calls to Skype video calls, and the new swiping text input (which is now the Guinness World Record holder for texting speed) will have to wait for the full review treatment.
Some of what's new in Windows Phone 8.1 doesn't consist of things you can see in a hands-on. Maybe the best news for Windows Phone fans who are hoping their platform grows is that Microsoft is now making it free to the manufacturers. To this same end, a new universal app coding scheme means developers can now use the same code to develop apps for Windows Phone, Windows 8.1, and even Xbox.
Cortana does a lot more than I was able to see first-hand. What I saw was pre-release code, and the initial public release in the US will be dubbed a "beta," though Microsoft has reportedly been working on it for two years. She does a couple of things you can't with Siri, and is (not unexpectedly) more respectful of privacy than Google Now. Unlike Siri, she only comes in the one voice. A difference with Cortana is that you can use text as well as your voice.
Cortana actually replaces the search function on Windows Phone. This is an extremely welcome development; for one, you couldn't use the existing Bing search to find an app installed on your phone. Although the existing Bing search has voice search and Shazam-like music identification, Cortana adds a whole new level of control, as a "personal assistant." Cortana's knowledge about you is out in the open, in a "notebook" that you have control over which includes sections for interests, reminders, quiet hours, inner circle, places, and music searches.
Unlike iOS 7's "Do Not Disturb" mode, Cortana gives you the option of letting people in your "inner circle" contact you when your phone is set to quiet hours.
One of the coolest things Cortana is able to do is remind you about something based on what happens, sort of like IFTTT.com. For example, you can say "remind me to ask my sister about her new beau," and she'll know the name of the contact you're referring to and pop up text with the reminder the next time your sibling calls. She can automatically notify you about a flight change, and let you know when a good time to leave would be, based on traffic.
So what about my brief encounter with Cortana? I found it more sensitive to ambient sound than Siri, though the phone model plays a role in that. It also failed on my first try to find out the Mets game score, but when I rephrased the question, I not only got the score, but a link asking whether to add the team to my Interests. Speech was pretty accurately transcribed. She even has some of Siri's wit: If you ask "Who's your daddy?" she replies "Technically speaking, that'd be Bill Gates. No big deal."
Cortana can also interact with apps that are programmed to work with it. This is already in place for some big titles, such as Facebook, Hulu, Skype, and Twitter. So, for example, you can say "add Family Guy to my Hulu queue," and she'll perform the requested action.
More Start options
The Windows Phone 8.1 start screen allows three columns of tiles instead of two. This works fine with most phone models, which usually have wider screens than iPhones. Cooler than that, however, is the ability to use your own image for the background with transparent tiles:
The OS also offers some interesting new lock screen looks, such as diagonal text, but I didn't see those in my hands-on.
Cortana and the new Start screen may look flashier, but for me, the Action Centre is the most needed addition to Windows Phone 8.1. Similar to features that appeared in Android and then iOS, Action Centre lets you swipe down from the top of the screen to get access to important settings and notifications. Just having easy access to Airplane Mode alone makes this feature a boon, but maybe even more important is the fact that now you can see basic system info like time, battery charge, and connection signal from any screen. In Windows Phone 8.0, when an app is running, access to that strip of info at the top of the screen is completely gone.
The Windows Phone app store gets a welcome redesign in 8.1 as well. Not that the existing store is that bad, but the 8.1 store gets you to apps that are important to you faster. Here is the first page of the old store on the left and two shots of the new one on the right:
The stock Calendar app now has a week view, and you can now swipe through dates side to side. It also helpfully shows the weather with small icons in dates and colour codes for multiple calendar support:
The Senses – Wi-Fi, Storage, Data, and Battery Saver
Windows Phone 8.1 adds a few sensing capabilities to help you see what's using up resources on your phone. Data Sense shows you how much data you've used and which apps are using the most. Storage Sense lets you decide where to save music, photos, and videos – local or memory card. Battery Saver shows you which apps are eating up your battery, so you know which offenders to shut down when it's running low.