Windows Phone 8.1 brings Microsoft's mobile platform to the modern age, finally, with a handful of big new updates. In fact, it's strange to call it 8.1 when it could really warrant a whole new name.
Many of the issues that we've always had with Windows Phone have finally been addressed, for the most part, and it makes the platform slightly more pleasurable to use. Things that had given us headaches, like the lack of a better notification system, are all gone.
Of course, it's still very much Windows Phone. So for those of you already familiar with previous iterations of Windows Phone, you'll feel right at home with some pleasant surprises along the way.
Live Tiles, the Metro UI and everything else remains mostly the same, but with tweaks here and there that improve the overall experience. Perhaps the biggest addition to Windows Phone 8.1 is Cortana, Microsoft's voice-recognition personal assistant.
With Cortana, Windows Phone finally joins iOS and Android in having a personal assistant, so to speak. Like its competitors, Cortana responds to all kinds of commands and requests, from the very basic things like setting alarms to more advanced stuff, like asking if a nearby restaurant is any good.
Another new feature is the notification pane, called Action center, which is just like the ones on iOS and Android. We can't thank the stars enough for this, especially since the previous system, Toast notifications, were just awful.
When you pull down from the top bar, a window pane comes down with toggle switches for things like Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, along with a list of all your pending notifications. You'll also have the option to jump into settings or clear all notifications from this pane. Thank heaven. Seriously.
With that quick intro out of the way, let's dive a little deeper into this new stuff and see what the fuss is all about. But before we proceed, it's important to note that we have a developer preview version of Windows Phone 8.1, meaning that a lot of things could change before the final software version reaches the masses.
With Cortana, you should be able to do all kinds of things without having to press more than a single button. First, like a good personal assistant should, Cortana learns important tidbits about you and who you are and things you're into.
Keeping track of your habits, interests and daily activities better helps Cortana guide you through things and make suggestions. It probably also helps Microsoft gather way more data about you, even though the company promises the info won't be used to advertise to you.
You'll get suggestions and reminders when you set them, or when you're interested in taking a look, and you can also schedule things in your calendar and send messages, too.
When you open up the app, the first thing you'll see is the weather and other items that might be pertinent to you, like transportation times, and more. Your information is kept in Cortana's Notebook, which holds your interests, quiet hours, places you visit, music searches you make and more.
Based on your interests compiled in Cortana's Notebook, you'll get information that suits you, rather than random suggestions that might have no interest to you. It's a little like Google Now, which shows you your travel data, calendar updates and more.
In the Interests section, you can quickly glance at your day by checking traffic, weather, news headlines and more. You can also get suggestions on what to eat nearby, plan trips and check for local attractions.
One neat feature in Cortana is quiet hours, and it works much like iOS's Do Not Disturb feature. You can set certain times of the day when you won't be bothered with notifications and calls. However, there is an option to let callers get through if they call a number of times within a given time frame, which makes it likely an emergency. Although, I did have a drunk ex once who'd call me repeatedly and bypass iOS's Do Not Disturb, so I just had to shut off that feature altogether. Your mileage may vary.
An additional option in quiet hours, like other OSes, is making exceptions for certain contacts. If you add people to your "inner circle" they can bypass the quiet hours entirely. This would be useful if you need to answer your boss's phone calls at 1 a.m., for example.
Cortana also works with speech to text, so you can just talk instead of typing when you need to. Like iOS and Android, all you do is tap the microphone button and start talking to your phone. Once you're done speaking, the phone will recognize when you're finished and the text just pops right up where it should be. Easy.
No virtual assistant is perfect, and Cortana isn't immune to the same faults as Siri or Google Now.
Occasionally, Cortana has some trouble hearing or deciphering things, so you'll just have to do a few things manually when that's the case. And if you ask Cortana for something that it doesn't understand, it will default you to a Bing web search, just like Siri would. Straight to the web.
We'd expect Cortana to get much better over time, and it's definitely a welcome addition to Windows Phone. Once a few bugs are squashed, it'll be right up there with Siri and Google Now.