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Windows Phone 8.1 review

Cortana steals the show in Microsoft's new Windows Phone update

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Action Center

The new notification system with Action Center should be enough for anyone currently using Windows Phone to start believing in a deity or higher power. We never thought the day would come when Microsoft would succumb to the extremely useful system of having a drop-down or swipe-down window pane for notifications.

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Just like iOS and Android, you just swipe down from the top bar and you'll find quick toggles for Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, auto-rotate and and airplane mode. There is also a button for settings, so you can jump into that quickly.

When you tap on a notification, it takes you straight to it, or that app that requires attention. If you want to get rid of a notification, just swipe it to the right, or hit clear all if you want every single one gone.

You can get to Action Center from almost anywhere, including your lock screen. But when you're in full screen mode in some apps, you won't be able to get to it easily, if at all. No big deal.

It would have been nice to include the addition of adjusting screen brightness from Action Center, so perhaps we'll see it in a future update. Additionally, it would be nice to see an option for expanding those toggle buttons, like on the Galaxy S5, or to have them on a separate pane, like the HTC One.

In the end, this is a huge update to Windows Phone, having Action Center. It really makes the phone more usable day-to-day, which sounds strange, but when you live and die by your notifications, it's critical.

Battery Saver

We haven't been able to test this feature out to its fullest extent, but Microsoft did throw in some new battery saving features in Windows Phone 8.1. And although many Windows Phone handsets have big batteries and great battery life, extra juice is always welcome.

You'll now get a live tile that shows your battery level and info with a quick glance. Moreover, apps are monitored and managed, so you'll know which ones are sucking a lot of power and how you can change their behaviors to save more battery life.

When you have Battery Saver turned on, push notifications and other things that might drain your battery are turned off, and you'll have to check them all manually. It's slightly inconvenient, but when you're running low on power, a lot of those apps and features probably aren't that critical.

Wi-Fi Sense

When you're at an airport or cafe and there is free Wi-Fi available, Wi-Fi Sense handles connecting to the network for you. It'll know when you're near a free and open Wi-Fi network, and you don't even have to bother with accepting the terms and conditions and all that jazz just to get connected.

Once you're within range of a free Wi-Fi network, Windows Phone 8.1 takes care of the rest.

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You can also share Wi-Fi credentials automatically with the contacts that you want to share with.

Wi-Fi Sense is probably not such a huge "wow" feature, but you'll find it largely convenient once you find yourself connected to free and open Wi-Fi networks when you're out and about.

Word Flow Keyboard

Getting faster on your keyboard is convenient when you're wanting to get things done right away. And tap-tap-tapping on your screen isn't always the best way to get a message across.

Swype has been a huge boon to Android devices, and we've always wanted something like it for iOS, except it hasn't happened yet and probably never will for Apple users. However, Microsoft saw the benefit of sliding your finger around to type words, and so Word Flow Keyboard is here.

If you have no experience with swiping to type, you'll learn to love it after some practice. It is so much faster than punching individual keys to type out words, even with autocorrect.

Windows Phone 8.1 has a bigger word library, too, so there will be more words easily and readily recognized and fewer times when you have to manually punch them in.

Custom Volume Settings

So, it might sound ridiculous that it took this long to do this, but Windows Phone 8.1 now has custom volume settings. Prior to this, you were limited to universal volume control, meaning that your notifications and ringtone were always at the same level. Now your apps, music, videos and ringers can be set to different volume levels.

Exclusive Lumia updates

Microsoft clearly takes great pride in its Lumia devices, seeing that brand (which has recently dropped the 'Nokia' name in favour of 'Microsoft') as the flagship for Windows Phone 8.1 devices.

Microsoft wants people to buy a Lumia device if you want the best Windows Phone 8.1 experience, which is why Lumia devices benefit from exclusive updates.

The latest update is known as Lumia Denim and brings a number of improvements alongside brand new features. The Lumia Camera apps is now much faster at both loading up and taking photos.

New features such as Moment Capture which records 4K video at 24 frames per second, Auto HDR and Dynamic Flash are also included.

The Cortana virtual assistant has also been updated with a new passive listening mode which lets you use Cortana simply by saying the phrase "Hey Cortana".

The Lumia Denim update shows that Microsoft is keen to support Windows Phone 8.1, especially on Lumia devices, which is always encouraging to see.

Verdict

Windows Phone 8.1 is a solid step up from the previous version of Windows Phone. It makes it a huge pleasure to use, and easier for us to transition to Windows Phone full time if we really had to.

We're not going to go into the whole app ecosystem thing, because Microsoft falls well behind iOS and Android in terms of volume and quality of apps, but it's slowly getting better as more developers jump on board.

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Having a personal assistant like Siri is great, and it makes Windows Phone 8.1 feel like it belongs with the rest of the crowd, rather than a platform that's trailing behind a year or two. We're really glad for that.

And what makes us really happy is Action Center, or a place to see all our notifications without having to swipe all over our home screen looking for missed notifications via Live Tiles.

Little changes here and there, like the Settings menu and app list screen are great. The small tweaks that Microsoft has made, along with the really big ones, makes Windows Phone 8.1 a good contender in the mobile OS space.

Now let's just that app ecosystem up to par.

First reviewed: April 2014