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A closer look at Windows Phone 8.1 and Cortana: A bold new experience

Microsoft has labelled the next update to Windows Phone a ".1" update, but after using it there's no way that is an accurate description of what is happening here. Windows Phone 8.1 feels like a bold new experience with all of the features you expect a smartphone to have today, and it makes the platform feel complete for the first time.

While currently only available to us in the form of a Developer Preview, Windows Phone 8.1 feels very much like a complete thought already. Every change that was made is an extension of what was already there, so while there are a ton of changes there's nothing that will make existing users feel out of place.

Microsoft expanded the Home Screen with more space for more tiles, which can now be personalised with photos of your choice. There's a dropdown shade that gives you access to notifications and a quick launch for your most used settings, along with a shortcut to the rest of them. There's a couple of new visual flourishes, a couple of new settings for data and storage management, and of course an all-new virtual assistant.

Where Microsoft has succeeded here is in making sure that everything still functions flawlessly. From the excellent new Swype-style keyboard that gives Google's keyboard a run for its money to the incredibly smooth animations all over the OS, Microsoft has managed a level of polish which is highly impressive, even with existing devices – a level that their Android counterparts often struggle to attain (with better hardware under the hood, too).

The Nokia Lumia 928 (US-only variant of the Lumia 920) this preview was tested on showed no signs of slowing down despite clearly having a lot more to do, which is a huge deal when it comes to updates like this. On new hardware like the Lumia 930, the experience is utterly flawless.

One feature that is unlikely to get talked about a lot is Glance. Similar to how the Active Display on the Moto X offers up a low power peek at what is happening on your phone without touching it, Glance is designed to show you the time and a quick look at your notifications. What makes Glance such a big deal is how it is deployed, as you can choose to have it on all the time, or when you swipe your hand over the display, or just have it on a breathing pulse like the Moto X. You can also choose what notifications show up in Glance, so only the important stuff shows up. If you have a notification you want to know more about, you can wake the phone with a double tap on the display.

Obviously the star of the show is Cortana, and while she's still very much in beta there's some really interesting features with this virtual assistant. On the surface, Cortana isn't really all that different to Google Now or Siri. You can use it to get basic information about the world around you, and as long as Bing results are up to par in your area you'll get mostly the same results as the other two.

Where Google Now tries to use its massive knowledge engines to determine what you are interested in to populate the interface, Cortana is specifically set up so you have to manually point at the kinds of information you are interested in. While there's certainly an argument for both schools of thought, anyone who has found seemingly irrelevant results in Google Now over and over again will appreciate the level of control Cortana offers.

As you can see from the above video, there's nothing Earth-shattering or mind-blowing about Cortana, but there are a couple of really cool things that it (she?) does. The calendar collision detection and ability to string questions together are huge leaps over what Siri is capable of, and while Google Now lacks some of the back and forth verbal interaction you get all of those same tools on the display when using the service. In the end, that's the biggest takeaway from Windows Phone 8.1 in general; it's an incredible leap forward for the platform that puts Windows Phone in a position to compete feature-for-feature with iOS and Android.

Whether or not that translates into more users and more support from developers, we'll just have to wait and see, but as of right now I'm far more likely to suggest Windows Phone to someone than I would have been last week.

For more on Microsoft's updated mobile OS, see our feature on Windows Phone 8.1 versus Android 4.4 KitKat, and our in-depth look at Cortana.