It's been over three years since Microsoft introduced its modern take on the Windows Phone smartphone operating system, but the platform is still in a distant third behind its biggest competitors iPhone and Android in terms of market share.
In the coming months, Windows Phone users will get a new free update to the latest operating system called Windows Phone 8.1, which adds several new features that bring it more up to speed with its rivals.
Windows Phone 8.1 heralds the debut of Microsoft’s long-rumored digital assistant Cortana, a new Action Center for managing notifications and settings, and some other tweaks throughout the OS that are meant to boost general performance across the board. All of those are features that iPhone and Android users already enjoy, so they should be welcome additions to the Windows Phone world when they arrive.
Microsoft took the wraps off its new mobile OS update earlier this month at it’s annual Build developers conference, and we had the chance to mess around with the developer version of Windows Phone 8.1.
Here’s what we came away with.
The most significant update to Windows Phone 8.1 is the arrival of Microsoft’s new virtual assistant: Cortana. She’s designed to compete with the voice-enabled assistants of other major mobile platforms such as Google Now and Siri. Like those competitors, Cortana is best suited for tasks such as retrieving search results and setting reminders.
Microsoft is billing Cortana as a more humanistic approach to the traditional digital assistant, and it succeeds and fails on this front in different ways. The company did an excellent job at making Cortana sound more like an actual person and less like a machine. By comparison, Apple’s virtual assistant sounds stiff and robotic after listening to Cortana for a few days.
Cortana was able to answer most of my general questions, but there were also numerous instances in which she simply pulled up Bing search results instead of providing a concrete answer to my question. This isn’t a problem that’s exclusive to Cortana— I asked Google Now the same question (where should I eat?) in one instance and it also turned up search results. Siri, however, pulled up Yelp suggestions for restaurants nearby. That’s not to say that Siri is better than Cortana or Google Now, it’s just a reminder that all smartphone virtual assistants seem to be prone to their own issues.
Microsoft claims that Cortana will produce more answers catered to you and less Bing search results the more you use her. I only had a week with Cortana, so it's possible that it just takes a bit longer to improve the overall virtual assistant experience.
If you don’t want to speak out loud to Cortana, you can also choose to type a query or command. In turn, she’ll respond through text instead of out loud.
Microsoft is attempting to make Cortana stand out in a few ways. For one, she has her own notebook for keeping track of your interests and preferences, just like a real-life personal assistant. This notebook includes categories such as Interests, Quiet Hours, Reminders, Inner Circle, and Places.
The Interests field lets you choose what types of updates you want Cortana to show you, which include finance, weather and food and drink recommendations among other choices. Once you tap any of these Interests, you can choose to turn notifications on or off for that category.
Cortana’s notebook allows for a bit more control than you would get with Google Now and Siri. The Quiet Hours feature, for example, lets you completely shut out notifications during certain periods of time. You can also specially choose who you want to receive notifications from during Quiet Hours by adding them to your Inner Circle. It’s a feature that’s not particularly groundbreaking or new to the smartphone ecosystem, but its still useful.
One Cortana-exclusive feature is the ability to set reminders based on your interactions with others. For example, you can ask her to remind you to tell one of your contacts something the next time you speak to him or her. Let’s say you want to ask your friend Jason if he can go to a concert with you the next time you speak with him. You can tell Cortana “remind me to ask Jason about the concert,” and next time you call or text Jason a reminder will pop up on the screen.
This is a particularly useful addition that hasn’t been addressed by Apple or Google’s personal assistants yet. Siri, Google Now, and Cortana are all capable of setting time and location-based reminders, but this is the first time we’re seeing people-centric reminders.
Cortana works well overall, but it’s still unclear if this is the personal assistant that will actually convince smartphone owners that they need a digital helper or make the switch from iPhone or Android to Windows Phone. The problem with Cortana, and with the Windows Phone OS in general, is that if your whole virtual life is already in Google, it’s simply much easier and more intuitive to use Google Now. (Google Now also works on iPhone if you download the regular Google Search app.)
Microsoft has finally added quick settings to Windows Phone through the Action Center. Pulling down from the top of the screen will not only display notifications, but it also offers access to four settings which include Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Airplane Mode and Rotation Lock by default.
Unfortunately, there’s no way to add more than four settings here, although you can swap them out as you please. This is a bit disappointing, considering both iOS and Android offer quick access to many more settings.
Android and iPhone users have been enjoying similar features for years, so it's nice to see Windows Phone catch up.
Microsoft’s Wordflow Keyboard allows you to type words by simply swiping across the keyboard to the designated letters— just like the Swype feature in some Android phones. Wordflow worked smoothly and accurately when I used it, but it didn’t offer anything that makes it really stand out from Swype. Using both keyboards one after another, I was able to type an email at the same speed without making any typos.
Microsoft’s Wordflow keyboard comes with emoji built in, so whenever you type a word that’s associated with an emoji, you can choose to select that symbol instead of the word. This is more convenient than having to switch between a standard keyboard and an emoji keyboard each time you want to include one in a text or email.
Windows Phone 8.1 also comes with a few noteworthy camera upgrades, including a new Burst Mode. This means you can take multiple shots at once by holding the shutter button down and choose the ones you’d like to keep. It’s a feature that’s been around on Android smartphones for quite some time, but it’s still a great addition to the Windows Phone OS— especially since Microsoft and Nokia have been touting the Lumia lineup for its camera capabilities.
The Burst Mode in Windows Phone 8.1 is pretty fast too. The camera fired off 14 shots in two seconds, which is about on par with the HTC One’s Continuous Shooting Mode. The new HTC One captured 20 shots, but took slightly longer to do so (2.5 seconds).
Windows Phone 8.1 also organizes all of your photos and videos into Collections by sorting them according to date and location. You can also equip your camera viewfinder with up to five specific features that you use the most often, which are swappable through the Camera Settings option.
Other Noteworthy Additions
Microsoft has issued some improvements that are meant to enhance across the board performance in Windows Phone 8.1. Battery Saver Mode, for example, switches tasks from automatic to manual when your phone’s power is running low. You can also manage individual apps and see which ones are eating up more battery life than others.
Windows Phone 8.1 marks an impressive improvement for Microsoft’s mobile platform, but it’ll still be difficult to sway iPhone and Android users. With Cortana and user interface tweaks such as the new Action Center, Microsoft is much better equipped to take on the competition than it was before. Microsoft also did a great job at targeting some key points that Google and Apple had missed with their virtual assistants, such as contact-specific reminders, but the overall experience wasn’t much different from what you’d get with Google Now or Siri.
That being said, Windows Phone still faces many of the same hurdles it struggled with before. At the end of 2013, Microsoft announced that Windows Phone Store had surpassed the 200,000 app milestone. While that may sound like plenty to choose from, developers still tend to make the best apps for iPhone and Android first.
Several of the top free apps across Android and iOS aren’t available for Windows Phone, including Snapchat,“Candy Crush Saga” and Google Maps. The switch to 8.1 makes Windows Phone a much stronger mobile platform than it was before. But a great mobile operating system isn’t very useful if it doesn’t include the apps people use everyday.