During the Build 2014 conference at the Moscone Center in San Francisco, Microsoft CVP Joe Belfiore pulled the curtain back on the much-rumored, long awaited Windows Phone 8.1 update. Set to launch in the coming months on existing handsets and packed into upcoming models, Windows Phone 8.1 looks and sounds like much more than a "point update." This could have easily been dubbed "Windows Phone 9." Here's what's new and different in Windows Phone 8.1:
Cortana jacks into Windows Phone
Windows Phone 8.1 marks the launch of Microsoft's voice recognition and Bing-powered mobile personal assistant, Cortana. Named after the artificial intelligence that has followed the titular Halo protagonist, Master Chief, around for years, Cortana is basically Microsoft's answer to Google Now on Android 4.4 Kitkat and Siri on iOS 7.
On stage, Belfiore pitched Cortana not only as the most important change to Windows Phone, but as "the world's first truly personal assistant," with an emphasis on "personal". Cortana is designed to use both Bing and your phone's internal data – such as contacts, calendar and more – to build a personal relationship with users, to get to know them.
Cortana can handle all the basic tasks you would expect from a voice-powered tool, like scheduling reminders, setting up alarms and translating voice to text. But Microsoft has baked in support for third-party apps, too, like Facebook, Hulu and Skype. Now, you can check in on Facebook friends, load up your Hulu Plus queue and initiate calls with your voice. When Windows Phone 8.1 launches, Cortana will have a "beta" tag until Microsoft sends Cortana to UK and Chinese Windows Phone devices in the "second half of 2014."
Action Center leaps into … you know
At last, Windows Phone catches up to the competition with its very own drawer of quick settings. Microsoft calls this the "Action Center," but it's essentially an answer to what Android has offered for several versions and what Apple introduced with iOS 7.
This settings drawer of sorts offers simple access to control over Wi-Fi, Flight Mode, the Bluetooth radio and interface rotation lock. You'll also see notifications from all of your apps within Action Center, in case you missed them on their Live Tiles.
Even more personal Live Tiles
Microsoft has finally opened up support for three columns of Live Tiles, Microsoft's name for the interactive elements of its mobile operating system, to handsets of all sizes. But more importantly, you can now choose a "Start background."
This feature allows users to choose a single image that will appear across and behind all of their Live Tiles, sort of like a sliced up photo. However, this effect only applies to a certain number of tiles. Nevertheless, "Start background" makes for a super stylish look to your home screen.
Swyping a winning keyboard
Thanks to a tool that Microsoft has dubbed its "Word Flow Keyboard," Windows Phone now support swipe typing. Popularized by the fan-favorite Swype keyboard on Android, this allows you to more easily type one-handed by gliding your fingers along the virtual keys rather than tap.
This might have earned Redmond campus the Guinness World Record for swipe typing – do these give these out for anything these days? – but Android still did it first. Regardless, there's clearly some merit to second place.
Skype meets FaceTime head-on
With Windows Phone 8.1, you can start a Skype video call right from within a standard phone call just by tapping the corresponding icon. It seems quite similar to what iOS users can do through Apple's FaceTime, though it works with Cortana as well. Regardless, we'll have to see how this works when calling Android and iOS users.
Action shots get easier with Burst Mode
Just like on some Android phones, Windows Phone devices can now shoot images in Burst Mode, meaning the camera can take several shots with a single button press. Given the focus on the camera for many of these handsets, this should provide a much-wanted boost to Microsoft's mobile camera software.
On top of these marquee upgrades, Microsoft fleshed out its Data Sense, Wi-Fi Sense, Storage Sense and Battery Saver tools to grant more control over those aspects of your phone. Of course, they're all designed to save, whether that be saved battery life, saved storage, or saved data.
Plus, you can now project the contents of your phone's display to a PC, TV or projector over USB as well as Miracast on some supported devices. Xbox Music has been refreshed as well, separating music, video and podcasts into dedicated apps with additional functionality.
There's plenty more to see in Windows Phone 8.1, like improvements to Internet Explorer 11 (such as InPrivate browsing), Calendar (like a week view option) and further syncing between your Windows 8 and Windows Phone devices (right down to the color scheme). So, yeah, it will be worth the upgrade.
- Check out the rest of our Build 2014 coverage