3 April 2014

Windows Phone 8.1 review

Microsoft's heavily leaked update to Windows Phone 8 became official at Build 2014. Rumors brought promises of a Siri-rivalling, Halo-inspired personal assistant and a new, at-your-fingertips Action Center, along with other improvements.

Windows Phone 8.1 review

Now that it's here, does Windows Phone 8.1 live up to the hype? Is Cortana as alluring as the AI character from whence it takes its name? Is the Action Center really a helpful hub, or just another gimmick to ease users into the Windows Phone experience?

I went hands on with the new OS, and I left impressed with what Microsoft has put forth. Cortana is, in a word, lovely. She - sorry, it - feels more sophisticated than its Apple and Google counterparts, and it's only in beta.

However, for all its charms, Cortana isn't all Windows Phone 8.1 has to offer.

Courting Cortana

I need to start with Microsoft's new personal assistant as it's the star of the show. This is Redmond's answer to Siri and Google Now, and while I didn't reach the more intimate levels of getting-to-know-you-ness achieved with longer use, I was taken with Cortana's speed, accuracy and pleasing nature.

In our time together, I found myself longing for Cortana over the Google Now installed on my HTC One.

Microsoft modeled Cortana after human personal assistants. In fact, the company claimed it spoke with real-life PAs to learn just what their virtual assistant needed to offer.

Whatever research Microsoft did, it's developed what feels like a secretary and search engine rolled into one. Cortana offers place-, people- and time-based information, pulling up directions to nearby restaurants, prompting you to ask someone who calls you about their new car, and reminding you to call your boss in the morning.

She's snappy, with little to no lag between inquiry and answer. And she organizes. The Cortana Notebook acts as a hub of vital information, including reminders, quiet hours (when you want only a select few, if any, to be able to reach you), places, interests, settings, music searches and your inner circle.

The inner circle consists of people who users want to "break through the noise." Cortana will suggest people to be in this circle of alerts, starting with people pinned to your Start screen, people who have your last name and all the way down to people you don't want to be able to reach you in the middle of the night.

In interests, users can view information like the Daily Glance, which offers calendar, weather and traffic info, as well as finance, nearby places to eat and drink, news stories they're tracking, and more. If you search for something through Cortana, like how your favorite sports team is doing, it will pull up the latest on them, then ask if you want to continue receiving notices about them. Information about [fill in team name here] will then stay in your interests section, if you so choose.

There's also something called canvas. When you slide up on the Cortana Home screen, this canvas view, or "proactive canvas" as Softies like to call it, appears. It's here that flight information, sports scores and other personalized tidbits live in a more flushed-out form. Instead of you asking Cortana to look something you may be interested up, it tries to populate that info in the canvas.

Cortana, as Microsoft has made much of, gets to know users overtime. But what does it look like in practice? A Microsoft rep demonstrating Cortana recounted a recent morning where, after using the personal assistant for some time, he awoke to find it asking, "Do you like news about mobile phones?"

"Yes!" was his re-enacted reply, and ever since Cortana has provided a healthy stream of mobile phone news.

With that, there's definitely potential for Cortana to feel a little creepy. It can read your emails, after all. A Microsoft rep explained to us that when Cortana presents information it got by snooping your email, it asks whether you want to allow it to keep reading your messages. While this offers some level of control, you get the feeling Cortana may have a mind of her own, too.

Cortana is easy to access; it's pinned as a Live Tile on the Start screen and users are led to the Cortana Home via the search button. You don't have to talk to Cortana to get answers as type input is also an option.

If you type in a question or set of keywords, Cortana will stay quiet and pull up results without uttering a peep.

I like that Cortana didn't stop with, "Here's what I found" or "Reminder set" when I asked or requested something with incomplete details. For example, if I requested, "Remind me to pick up the dog tomorrow," Cortana would ask, "When do you want me to remind you to pick up the dog tomorrow?"

"11 a.m.," I answered. Cortana would set the time, then follow-up with, "Where do you want me to remind you to pick up the dog?" and so on until we were both satisfied with the set-up.

I was told that, again, this interaction is modeled after real-life personal assistant behavior, and our conversation did have a person-to-person like feel. I had to refrain from saying, "Thanks, Cortana," when all was said and done.

Cortana offers suggestions of how to ask things, but it's not beholden to these. It wasn't 100% perfect with every voice command, but only really missed the mark once, and not by much.

Microsoft's Phone PA can access information from third-party apps, if developers choose offer that kind of integration. Say, "Flixster, show me times for Divergent," and Cortana could take you into the Flixster application with movie times in full view. It is possible to launch an application from Cortana.

Cortana can also take users to different parts of their phone, so instead of going to the settings app to change your Start screen theme, you can say or type, "Start + theme" and Cortana will take you right where you need to go.

Aaand, Action!

The other big change with Windows Phone 8.1 is the Action Center, a window that slides down from the top of the screen.

Users can pull down two views. The first is a partial 1/4 or so section that only shows four pinned tiles at the top, a button to go to the phone's full settings, the date, time and a battery life tracker.

Pull the slide down, and users are shown a full swath of notifications, all of which they can customize. Missed calls, messages, emails, social media notifications - really any notification from any app can populate the Action Center.

The top portion comes with four default tiles, but these are also customizable. Click on any one of these, and users are immediately taken to Wi-Fi, Battery Saver and others.

Smaller changes

There are a few other improvements with Windows Phone 8.1, though nothing as ground shaking as Cortana or even the Action Center.

The Camera Lenses are available right on the camera screen, allowing users to jump into different options, like Bing Vision, in two clicks. There's also a new burst mode that brings the Windows Phone camera inline with other hardware.

There's a new look to the Calendar, one power users may appreciate most of all.

Finally, users can now customize their backgrounds with personal pictures, and like iOS there's a parallax effect so the image position adjusts with swipes up and down the Start screen. It's a small change, but a gesture those looking for some more "me" in their phones may appreciate. Unfortunately, your favorite beach scene may not be hard to see behind the still prevalent Live Tiles.

Early verdict

Having found nothing compelling about Windows Phone 8, my tune is changing for Windows Phone 8.1.

With Cortana, Microsoft seems hell-bent on creating something that doesn't emulate Siri or Google Now, but surpasses them. It's easy and pleasant to use, offering accurate answers and peace of mind that I will in fact remember to call my boss tomorrow morning (if I had a Windows Phone 8.1 device).

The Action Center is less impressive; it's good it's there and will certainly save users time and energy in navigating to apps and settings, but it's not anything I haven't seen before in some way, shape or form. That's not to say Windows Phone didn't need a way to circumvent swimming and swiping through Live Tiles, and the Action Center is an elegant answer.

As for the other improvements, they alone would feel like a decent update, though definitely not enough to warrant a ".1."

The real answer to whether Microsoft has built a fresh take on Windows Phone worthy of accolades will be in adoption, something Windows Phone has struggled with compared to its counterparts. However, Windows Phone 8.1 is a strong showing, and it's got a lovely lady to thank for that.

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