Windows Phone 8.1 review roundup

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After unveiling Windows Phone 8.1 at the BUILD 2014 conference a couple of weeks back, Microsoft today started rolling out the new OS for the developers. Though WP8.1 might sound like an incremental update to WP8, it is in fact a major update that brings in a host of new features and improvements. Some publications have got their hands on the OS post the unveiling and here’s what they have to say about Windows Phone 8.1.

DESIGN

At first look, it won’t be easy to say if your device is running on WP8 or WP8.1 as the design style sheet remains much the same. It’s basically the new features and improvements that differentiate the two operating system versions.

Gizmodo echoes these views, “Windows Phone 8.1 is pretty much identical to Windows Phone 8. That’s great! Windows Phone’s signature style has always been a strong suit. Its visual identity is and always has been way more consistent and appealing than the competition.”

“Giant, no-caps headings are still a terrific alternative to the tired and needlessly skeuomorphic concept of “tabs.” Windows Phone’s almost complete lack of borders in favor of cleverly utilized bands of negative space still makes it one of the best looking interfaces around. Live tiles are still colorful, and striking, and a somehow weirdly fun take on icons, even if an army of widget-squares maybe isn’t quite as nice as having a proper notification hub.”

CORTANA

But it is the new features that are talked about the most, and chief among them is Cortana — Microsoft’s answer to Siri. The virtual personal assistant borrows and improves on a lot of features we have previously seen on Siri and Google Now. It is deeply integrated into the OS as well as Bing search and continues to learn about a user and treats each user differently. It also has a handy tool called “Notebook” where it stores all the information it is accessing and users can restrict or modify these entries. Cortana seems to work as well as the first demo showed on stage by Joe Belfiore.

The Verge notes, “A tap on the search button activates Cortana from anywhere, and it’s the fastest way to do almost anything. Multitasking is a weak point of Windows Phone, but Cortana almost obviates the problem — I don’t have to switch out of Rdio to add a reminder, I can just tap the magnifying glass and say ‘remind me to pick up my dry cleaning when I get home tomorrow’. Cortana has learned where I live and work, and knows what I like to read and listen to; she can be full of useful information and recommendations.”

“It’s a nice realization of what Windows Phone was always supposed to be: get in, get out, and get back to life. And it’s made me more certain than ever that we’re all going to end up talking at our phones all day whether we like it or not,” it adds.

NEW FEATURES

In addition to Cortana, Microsoft has also added quite a few new features like an Action Center, customizable home and lock screens, new tools like Wi-Fi Sense, Battery Sense and Swpe-like Word Flow keyboard among others. Almost all new features have got positive reviews from all publications.

Starting with the Action Center, WPCentral says, “The choices Microsoft has given to users in 8.1 for alerts and notification is much more powerful than what was found in 8.0. It’s easy to use, easy to understand and if my experience is anything to go by, the Action and Notification Center will be one of the first things you do each time you turn on your device.  In fact, when I would go back to using an 8.0 phone, the Action Center was the feature I missed most. I’m simply blown away by how often I use it, and I think it will be a huge hit for users of Windows Phone. Like I said, Cortana will get the headlines, but the Action Center will be your go-to baby each day. Microsoft has done well with the duo Action and Notification Center for 8.1. While it’s not revolutionary, or game changing, it is well thought out and in many ways, that’s more important new feature.”

The Sense apps (Wi-Fi Sense, Battery Sense, Storage Sense) too have caught the reviewer’s attention. The Verge says, “There’s a new Wi-Fi Sense app, which is always looking for and automatically joining open Wi-Fi networks at places like Starbucks — it logs in, accepts terms and conditions, and does it all without your involvement. There’s also Data Sense, which tells you how much data you’re using and lets you set a limit, and Storage Sense, which makes it easy to free up space or delete unnecessary files. But Battery Saver is my favorite: it’s the “which app is killing my battery” app I’ve been wanting on my iPhone since the day I bought it. The three together help you save your battery, your data, and your money, and mostly do it for you. And the more my phone can do for me, the happier I am.”

About the customizable start screens, ArsTechnica mentions, “Even with Cortana, the defining, most striking feature of Windows Phone has always been its tile-based Start screen. The Start screen in 8.1 still has the same basic design as before with a couple of nice changes. There’s a fancy new background image capability. Rather than showing the background image behind the tiles, when a background image is set, any portions of any tiles that use the accent color will instead punch through to show the background. This is coupled with a parallax scrolling effect and it looks pretty cool.”

Last comes the Word Flow keyboard, which too has received some positive reactions from Mashable. It says, “I’ve never been that good with Swype, so I was skeptical of new feature, but I found that the big-key design of Windows Phone’s keyboard makes all the difference. While I was often unsure of what to do with my other hand, the Word Flow keyboard was great for dashing off short notes quickly. You need a couple of days to get confident with it, but once you do you’ll wish it was there on every phone you use.”

CONCLUSION

All the reviewers then had plenty of positive things to say about the WP8.1 update. From Cortana to the new features like the Action Center and Sense apps among others, they have all been praised by all.

The Verge concludes by saying, “Microsoft’s real challenge isn’t building a good mobile operating system, it’s getting people to use it now. That’s always been the real challenge. If you buy into all things Windows there’s a fully developed ecosystem waiting for you, but Microsoft was too late to the game. Now that it has something worth switching to, Microsoft has to actually get people to switch. Windows Phone 8.1 goes a long way toward making switching easier, and there are a number of genuinely great, unique things about it — I really love the Start screen — but most people are so entrenched in Android or iOS that Microsoft has to make a stronger case.”

WPCentral too continues in the same vein, saying, “I’m done saying Microsoft has finally caught up to the competition. I think WP8.1 is a fantastic update from Microsoft, and it shows a new level of commitment to their mobile OS. I’m not sure it’s enough to catch up to Android or even iOS, but I’m not sure Microsoft really needs to. The OS is solid, hardware – especially from Nokia – is outstanding, and the apps are finally being built for Windows Phone at the same time as Android and iOS.”

ArsTechnica concludes, “At the start of this, I said that Windows Phone needed to do a few things: enable OEMs to go after the growth markets and growth price points in emerging markets, do more to appeal to high-end buyers, give developers a better platform, and get people talking. I think Windows Phone 8.1 delivers on all these fronts. The 0.1 version bump, chosen to align the phone platform with its desktop sibling, belies the true nature of this upgrade. It is substantial, and makes Windows Phone tremendously better. We might still wish that there were a few more apps, and that developers spoke of the platform in the same breath as iOS and Android, but even in spite of this, Windows Phone 8.1 is a polished, fun, clever, and personal smartphone platform that’s just about everyone can enjoy. It’s a magnificent smartphone platform.”

As mentioned above, Microsoft has started rolling out the WP8.1 developer preview today and you too can download it on your smartphones. You can follow these steps to register yourself as a developer and download WP8.1 on your smartphone.