Notice how we say attempt and not just, flatly, that Windows Phone 8.1 is on par with Android and iOS.
When Microsoft announced Windows Phone 8.1, it was already playing the catch up game against the likes of Android and iOS who have dominated the mobile OS space in the last five years or so. Windows Phone ever since its inception has been more of a pleasant alternative to the two big guns instead of proving to be a solid viable option. But with Windows Phone 8.1, things are looking good, as good as they ever have for Microsoft and without a doubt this is the biggest update to hit the Windows Phone shores, dare we say, even bigger than the Windows Phone 8 jump from Windows Phone 7.
While Windows Phone 8.1 is majorly about bringing in features to Windows Phone that should have been a part of it two years ago, there are enough things under the hood here that are unique and perhaps even worth the wait. Windows Phone 8.1 update is expected to start rolling out towards the end of this month or early July on the devices that currently run Windows Phone 8.
While WP 8.1 is a step in the right direction, but there are still places where it falls short. We have been using Windows Phone 8.1 on our Nokia Lumia 630, the first device to bring Windows Phone 8.1 out of the box, and our overall impressions so far of the OS have been positive. So, we decided to go ahead and jot down some of the features that we really like on Windows Phone 8.1 in a point format, to give you an idea of the good stuff while still mentioning things that could be improved in a quick overview.
We would be termed heartless if anything other than Cortana took the first spot in our eight favorite features of Windows Phone 8.1. Cortana is a virtual assistant for Windows Phone 8.1, a bit like Siri is for iOS and Google Now is for Android. Cortana currently is available only in the United States, but there is an easy work around to get it working in India or any other region for that matter. You can read more on how to do that right here.
Once we got Cortana working, we were really impressed with it. It felt as though it was the perfect blend of Siri and Google Now, bringing the best from both the worlds under one roof. Not only does the virtual assistance have a personality that is already pretty unique and occasionally funny, it actually is always learning and getting better with time. Cortana stores information like your travel schedules from your E-Mail as well as your preferences based on the questions you ask in a neat ‘Notebook’ of sorts which helps it to know you better. You can pin Cortana as a live tile to your desktop or simply fire it up by long pressing the search button on your device. Cortana is very much in beta still, so there are occasions when it does not pick up the voice commands too well, but for most of the time, we found it to be rather useful and something we saw ourselves using a fair bit, at least a lot more than Siri on our iPhone.
One of the glaring missing features on Windows phone 8 had been the absence of a dedicated Notification center to house all your latest alerts. Microsoft has attempted to address this with Action Center. Action Center is very much like the Notification Center we have come to appreciate on Android. It basically houses the most important connectivity toggles as well as notifications from the various apps. If you drag your finger 1/4th way down the screen, the Action Center only displays the toggles, which by the way can be chosen by the user, while full drag opens the toggles and notifications.
The notifications in Action center are not interactive nor expandable for now. So tapping on one will take you to the corresponding application only. You can also dismiss the notifications by simply swiping them away to your left or right, just like on Android.
Internet Explorer 11
Internet Explorer 11, the default browser on Windows Phone 8.1 has received a lot of new features. In fact, we were so impressed with the new browser and some of the capabilities that we decided to dedicate a post on some of the best features of Internet Explorer 11 here.
IE 11 brings the ability to privately browse the internet, sync your browsing sessions with IE on desktops running Windows 8.1, pin your favorite sites as live tiles to the desktop, play videos inline and several performance enhancements. While Chrome remains the choice of most as the best mobile browser overall, Internet Explorer 11 is every bit as good.
Custom Volume Channels
A major drawback with Windows Phone 8 was that it allowed for a single volume channel. This meant that you had universal volume levels across your device. Muting the ringer meant that even the multimedia volume and alarm volume were set to zero.
With Windows Phone 8.1, you have multi channel volume settings so you can go ahead and mute the notifications on your device without it affecting the media playback volume and the rest. It is a minor thing, but one that really bugged us in WP 8, we are so glad Microsoft decided to fix this.
The New Word Flow Keyboard
We have been massive fans of Windows Phone keyboard right from the WP 7 days. We still maintain that it is easily the best keyboard to type on, on any touchscreen device. The height, layouting as well as the broadness of keys is done to perfection. Microsoft has improved the typing experience a bit more on Windows Phone 8.1. It has added the word flow mechanism which is essentially glide typing that we have seen on Swiftkey keyboards on Android.
You do not have to press individual letters, but simply pattern draw connecting the letters for the keyboard to predict what you are trying to type. It saves a lot of time, is more convenient and accurate as compared to having to punch in the characters individually.
Wi-Fi Sense is a feature that may not be the most relevant for a country like India due to lack of too many open Wifis around, but abroad it would be a really useful add on. It basically allows you to easily connect to the public open Wifi saving you the time from unnecessary registrations or acceptance of terms and conditions.
Wifi Sense allows allows you to share your Wifi network with your friends running Windows Phone 8.1 without having to give them away the password to your Wi-Fi. You can also set your phone to automatically turn your WiFi on after a scheduled period of time now.
Killing Apps in Multitasking
While multitasking windows remains exactly how it was in Windows Phone 8, Microsoft has made it easier than ever to release apps from the memory now. Long pressing the back button opens the recently accessed applications on your smartphone, but you get a cross made on the top right hand corner too now.
You can either tap on the cross to dismiss the app from the memory or simply slide the application downwards. It is a convenient way of freeing up some memory in case your device gets bogged down.
Setting up Wallpaper for desktop
You can finally set up custom wallpapers for the desktop on your Windows Phone 8.1 devices. The main background still remains a solid black or white, depending on your choice, but you can set an image of your choice across the tiles on your desktop.
Essentially, setting up the image makes the tiles transparent so that you can see the wallpaper below it. However, we did notice that plenty of applications do not fully support this, so you are stuck with apps whose live tiles remain of the same solid color ignoring the portion of image that you may have set as a wallpaper. However, as WP 8.1 rolls out to all the devices, we are sure developers will cater to the need for updating their apps to support this.
So, those were the 8 features that we really appreciated and liked on Windows Phone 8.1. It was our way of running down and giving you a glimpse of what’s changed in Windows Phone 8.1. Which is your favorite feature among those we have listed? Let us know in the section below.