Windows Phone chief Joe Belfiore last week tweeted that we should expect the developer preview of Windows Phone 8.1 "early next week," so it doesn't come as a complete surprise that Microsoft today announced the availability of the vastly improved mobile operating system today on the Windows Phone Blog.
Microsoft showed off Windows Phone 8.1 earlier this month at its Build developer conference. The update includes major advances such as Cortana, a voice-response intelligent digital assistant; new start screen customizations; the new Action Center panel for quick access to frequently needed settings and notifications, and Word Flow gesture keyboard.
Those eager to try Windows Phone 8.1 can visit the Windows Phone Preview for Developers page. You'll need to be registered developers (which costs £11) or perform a "developer unlock" on the phone. Note that those who install the Preview may render void any warranties from the phone carrier or manufacturer. You won't be able to downgrade to Windows Phone 8, but you will be upgraded to the final released version when it hits in a couple of months.
What's in the Windows Phone 8.1 developer preview?
A lot. The biggest new feature without a doubt is Cortana, the voice-responsive digital personal assistant that is Microsoft's answer to Apple's Siri. Cortana actually adds some new concepts, combining the predictive capabilities of Google Now with Siri's personal touch. Cortana keeps a "Notebook" of your interests, close contacts, reminders, quiet hours, important places, and more, to deliver personalised services. For example, you can say "Cortana, remind me to ask my sister about her new dog the next time she contacts me," and when your sibling next calls or texts, a reminder will pop up.
Cortana can also serve up location-based reminders. For example, you can say "Remind me to buy aspirin the next time I'm near a pharmacy," and she'll present a list of nearby pharmacies or offer to remind you when you're near any pharmacy.
Cortana completely replaces Windows Phone 8's inadequate search feature, which could not even find apps installed on the phone itself. Instead, Cortana can open third-party apps, and the API allows their developers to integrate with her, letting you say things like "Add Deadbeat to my Hulu Plus queue." Cortana also differs from Siri in letting you enter queries with text input, and in presenting you a daily summary of your interests and relevant happenings.
New start screen, notifications, and more
A real differentiator of Windows Phone has always been its start screen populated with live-updating apps tiles. With the update, the tiles can be transparent, showing through to a background image of your own choosing. You can also now use three columns of tiles so that more apps are available without swiping down.
Another huge gap filled by the 8.1 update is Action Center. This panel slides down when you swipe from the top of any screen, showing frequently needed settings and notifications. You can customise the settings buttons available, with options like brightness, Wi-Fi, aeroplane mode, and rotation lock. Notifications not only include texts and phone calls, but app activity and Cortana reminders.
A new text-entry method called Word Flow is included with Windows Phone 8.1. Similar to Swype, Word Flow lets you enter complete words by running your finger in a pattern between the letters of the word. It uses word prediction (which was already available in Windows Phone 8) that's remarkably accurate at guessing the words you want to enter.
Other notable new features include Storage Sense, which lets you see which apps are using up your phone's storage and move them to a memory card, and Battery Saver, which shows you the apps using the most power. A new version of Internet Explorer improves tab navigation and lets you pin any site with a home screen live tile and includes performance and standards compatibility. A new version of Skype lets you upgrade phone calls to video calls using the popular VoIP/videoconferencing software.