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Windows Phone 8.1 finally makes the OS feel whole

Posted by Nuttapon_S On April - 14 - 2014 ADD COMMENTS

Android, iOS, Windows Phone. Each of these mobile platforms had to start somewhere, and none were anywhere near perfect on the first try. Fortunately, each OS gets better with each iteration until, at some point, it just all clicks. Arguably, Windows Phone just came of age with its latest update, version 8.1.

Even before today, Windows Phone only had a few big holes remaining and indeed, 8.1 appears to fill those gaps. In particular, the OS now has a fancy notification center in addition to those signature Live Tiles; the keyboard now allows for swipe gestures; and last but not least, it now has Cortana, a virtual assistant to take on Siri, Google Now and Samsung’s S-Voice. The 8.1 update is a fairly significant one, and I got the opportunity to take it for a spin for a few days ahead of the official developer preview’s launch. It may not be perfect yet, but it’s clear Windows Phone has grown up. Here are some of the highlights.

CORTANA

Windows Phone included a search option from the beginning, and though it was useful at the time, rivals like Siri, S-Voice and Google Now have quickly turned the tide, rendering Microsoft’s first “voice assistant” completely obsolete. Thankfully, the 8.1 update introduces a personal assistant named Cortana to help bring Windows Phone into the modern era.

Named after Master Chief’s trusty AI sidekick in Halo, Cortana is designed to help you do whatever you do on a phone. Think: scheduling appointments, alerting you to upcoming flights, telling you the weather, offering up directions, dictating messages, opening apps and adjusting settings. She even tells jokes and responds in humorous ways to (most) silly questions. Those are all givens these days, so let’s instead move on to the more unusual things she can do.

First, Cortana has her own notebook, which she uses to gather more information about you and your preferences. She learns about your dining preferences, travel needs, regular routine and news stories you’re keeping track of (I’m hooked on the hunt for MH370 right now, so Cortana keeps that front and center). Often, these things will even pop up on Cortana’s Live Tile.

Another interesting part of Cortana is that she has the ability to give me reminders about specific people. For instance, I don’t want to forget that I need to ask my mom about her latest road trip, so I tell Cortana and she ensures that the reminder flashes on the screen the next time she calls.

If there’s a time in which you want to activate Cortana in a public (or quiet) place and you don’t want to disturb anyone else around you, you can just type your request in the bar at the bottom and Cortana will take care of the rest.

Cortana can also set up Quiet Hours for you. This is Windows Phone’s version of Do Not Disturb mode, which restricts calls and texts during specific hours, as well as times the calendar lists you as busy. If there are certain people who you want to allow in during those times, ask Cortana to add them to your Inner Circle (or just add them manually if you prefer).

Windows Phone 8.1 also supports geofencing, and Cortana takes full advantage of this opportunity. If you know that you’re going to be passing by the local pizzeria and you want to grab a pie on your way home from work, tell Cortana to remind you when you pass by, and she’ll make sure you remember.

My biggest frustration about Cortana is the fact that it takes me two clicks to get in and start talking: the first click to get into the program, and the second to tell her to begin listening. I’d like to see Cortana gain a true hands-free feature. An always-listening mode, for example, would allow me to simply use a hotword to activate her, and if that’s not an option yet, I would at least like the program to start listening once I press the search key to enter it. This kind of automatic option is technically possible in Windows Phone, since Cortana automatically listens for responses whenever she asks me questions (when I ask to send a text to someone, Cortana asks me for the message and then listens for my answer).

Microsoft boasts that Cortana can understand context — she can see something like “Thursday for coffee” in an incoming text and she’ll help you set it up in the calendar — but this is one area in which she needs a little work. Case in point: I used Cortana to turn on two alarms (one for five minutes from now, the other fifteen minutes from now), but she couldn’t understand when I asked her to turn off both of my alarms. She also couldn’t understand when I requested that she turn off my next alarm, and mistook 1:39PM for AM (I didn’t specify one or the other, but Cortana just assumed that I meant AM — despite the fact that she could’ve easily looked at my alarms and seen for herself). Curiously, the input box, which doubles as a suggestion box, told me to ask Cortana very specifically to turn off the 1:39PM alarm. This means the phone itself was smart enough to figure out which was which, but Cortana didn’t share the same knowledge for some reason. There were also plenty of times in which I’d ask a question in conversational style and I’d end up getting Bing search results.

It’s the little things like this that indicate why Cortana’s still in beta for now. There’s a lot more for her to learn over time, but at least she’s got a solid base to start from. Not only will Cortana get a better idea of your likes and dislikes as you interact with her more often, she’s also powered by Bing servers and will be constantly updated by Microsoft engineers, which means she’ll continue to get smarter as more people use her as well — and you won’t have to wait for formal updates to benefit from those changes.

I was impressed by how well the phone dictates my requests, aside from the occasional time when she couldn’t get exactly what I was telling her. I can’t be sure yet how well she’ll work on budget devices with lower-powered processors, but the Lumia Icon test unit I played with was able to process my requests in a very short period of time. Now it’s just a matter of refining how Cortana interacts with the users, by making her even more personal and understanding context a little better. However, this is just my first few days of using the service on a regular basis; over the next few days I’ll do more testing to see how Cortana compares with competing virtual assistants.

ACTION CENTER

Ever since Windows Phone was first introduced, I’ve liked the ability to use Live Tiles to look at glanceable information whenever the Start screen is displayed. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a full solution to a much greater problem: how does a user look at notifications without having to exit an app or unlock the screen? It’s hard to believe that it took Microsoft over three and a half years to figure it out, but Windows Phone 8.1 addresses that glaring oversight with a notification menu called Action Center. But forget the fact that it’s taken so long for it to arrive — it’s actually well done for a first go. In fact, after a few days of use I already prefer using it over the iOS notification center (although it’s still not quite as good as Android’s option).

The Action Center consists of four spaces on top for customizable shortcuts or toggles, depending on which action you choose. Here is where you can toggle your brightness, airplane mode, bluetooth, internet sharing, quiet hours, location and rotation lock; you may also get a shortcut for your camera (extremely helpful your phone doesn’t have a hardware button to do this for you) and settings like WiFi and VPN. For most activities listed, this is much faster and easier than pinning a specific Live Tile to Start or digging through settings menus to do it.

The original status bar still hangs out on the top of the screen, but it now comes with a battery meter and date, both of which I’ve found handy. The option to clear all notifications and go straight into settings are also near the top, though they’re located just underneath the shortcuts.

As for the notifications themselves, they’re easy enough to click to get more info or swipe to clear them out for any given app. You can also click to access a specific notification (say, one particular email) or choose to simply open up the entire app itself. Oddly, should you choose to open up a specific email, there’s no way to move backward or forward through your inbox, so you have to re-open the Action Center and click on a different email to read it.

The Action Center offers a few advantages over its iOS counterpart. For one, iOS doesn’t have shortcuts or toggles of any kind; additionally, you can swipe away your notifications, sync them up with your apps and Live Tiles in real-time, clear all of them at once (arguably one of the biggest pain points on the iOS version) and the status bar indicates that you have new notifications awaiting you. That said, iOS at least offers multiple tabs for more types of content, such as a “today” tab that shows calendar appointments, today’s weather and stock information.

It doesn’t fare as well against Android options, however. While a handful of versions of the notification menu exist thanks to manufacturers wishing to differentiate, the guidelines are the same. Not only can you swipe away notifications, you can also use two fingers to expand individual ones — and you can even act upon most of them (for instance, you can choose to delete or reply to emails directly from that menu). On Android, you can also access plenty of shortcuts, settings and toggles by pulling down the tray with two fingers; there are more on the screen, but they’re not as customizable as it is on Windows Phone.

For now, don’t pay too much mind to how it compares with Android — in its very first implementation, Microsoft managed to make the Action Center not only usable but enjoyable as well. This is a huge win for the company, which needed to do well in this area if it wanted to progress upward and onward.

WORD FLOW KEYBOARD

Another pain point in the Windows Phone experience has been its Word Flow keyboard, which was among the best in the mobile space when it first emerged on Windows Phone 7 but hasn’t improved much since; it got stale while Android flourished with a wide number of great keyboards boasting a lot of neat features. With 8.1, the keyboard just got upgraded to support swipe gestures, which is something I’ve grown used to using on Android phones and tablets. (Fun trivia: we first saw keyboard swiping on a Windows Mobile device, so it’s nice to see it finally come back to Microsoft’s mobile OS.)

With the swipe gestures, Word Flow works precisely as you’d expect it to — use your finger to draw to each letter in a word, and the phone figures out what you’re trying to say. It’s not completely perfect, as it doesn’t always get every word that I try to type, but that’s nothing new with these types of keyboards. It’s still a huge improvement over the previous version of Word Flow, and I noticed that my experience got better with practice in just a few days of use.

HARDWARE SUPPORT

Last fall’s firmware update (known simply as Update 3) added support for larger and higher-resolution displays, as well as top-of-the-line processors. This upgrade was crucial for Microsoft, because until then the company struggled to convince manufacturers and consumers that a flagship Windows Phone could be just as good as an Android or iOS device at the same price. Microsoft had some strict hardware requirements to ensure WP8 devices were optimized to its liking. Fortunately Nokia found a way to differentiate its Lumia 1020 by featuring a 41MP PureView camera, but otherwise there wasn’t much reason to choose it over, say, an HTC One or Samsung Galaxy S4.

Good news: this wasn’t a one-off scenario for Microsoft, because version 8.1 comes with some fantastic improvements in this arena. Arguably, the most important addition is support for dual-SIM devices. The company wants to hit emerging markets hard, and by offering that extra SIM underneath the hood, Microsoft effectively throws in a new selling point to help it compete against Android in those markets.

There’s also support for virtual soft keys (until now, only capacitive keys were allowed) and even more Qualcomm chipsets than before, and the hardware camera button is no longer required. As much as I like using that button, it simply doesn’t make much sense on budget devices; eliminating the shutter key may shave off a bit of a phone’s production costs, which hopefully will make inexpensive handsets similar to the Lumia 520 even less expensive.

Finally, WP8.1 will also let you save your apps to SD, which makes a huge difference if you’re low on extra storage. Interestingly enough, Microsoft says that the apps are still encrypted to ensure that random users can’t snag your SD card and try to copy your games over to their device.

OTHER KEY IMPROVEMENTS

The change log is too lengthy to list all of the new improvements to Windows Phone, but I want to highlight a few other features which enjoyed some much-needed attention from Microsoft.

Personalization. The new update makes Windows Phone feel a touch more personal. Not only can you choose your own wallpaper for the Start screen, the picture you choose also moves behind the Live Tiles (or through them, in the case of transparent tiles). I’d love to see something similar for the application list as well, since not much seems to happen visually on that screen. Microsoft will also have a new app out in the coming weeks that will let you choose from a bunch of new lock screens.

Battery saver. In the past, Battery Saver has worked exactly the way you’d think it should: when your battery starts getting low, this feature begins shutting off the non-essential apps and services in order to keep your phone alive as long as possible. It still does all that, but it improves upon it by adding the ability to see which apps are causing the most drain to your battery. If any of your apps are hogging all the power for itself, you can tell it to shut off in the background.

Calendar. Arguably, one of the weakest links in the OS has been the calendar. This also saw some significant improvements across the board in 8.1: most importantly, Microsoft’s added weekly and monthly views. The month view shows colored lines for each day that you have appointments, the different colors representing the specific calendar it’s assigned to. The weekly view is a grid of eight boxes (one for each day of the week and another that shows the week in relation to the rest of the month), but you can press on any day and it will expand to show more details.

Store. The Store has a slightly different look, but the most interesting part of it is that apps can now update automatically, if you desire. On top of that, apps that you’ve purchased in the past now show up as “owned” when you conduct a search for them. Finally, the act of installing an app doesn’t kick you out to the application list — it just keeps you on the same page you were already on.

WRAP-UP

Finally. For the past three years, I’ve admired Windows Phone for many reasons, but the update to 8.1 marks the first time that the platform actually feels… complete. In other words, there are no more gaping holes in its features or functionality — essentially, I can now use Windows Phone without feeling like I’m giving up something that I’d otherwise enjoy on an Android device or an iPhone. With the update to version 8.1, you can now enjoy a functional personal assistant, a robust notification center, solid hardware support and a great keyboard, all of which were huge pain points that needed to be addressed a long time ago.

Of course, Microsoft still has plenty of challenges ahead. After all, it’s still quite uncertain what kind of changes will happen to Windows Phone after the Nokia acquisition is finalized, and we still haven’t seen a ton of manufacturers announce new hardware yet, despite Microsoft’s claim that there’s a ton of renewed interest in the platform. The OS has struggled to grow since its conception and is just now starting to hit double digits in market share (in certain regions, anyway). My hope is that this update signifies a change in momentum for the company. With new leadership, new significant functionality and the company’s “One Microsoft” vision, Windows Phone 8.1 could easily be the boost the company needs to foster continued growth.

The hugely popular first-person shooter series Borderlands is getting a new entry inBorderlands: The Pre-Sequel, a game set between the story of previous two games. Not exactly shocking, but neat nonetheless. What’s shocking is where we’ll play Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel when it arrives this fall: Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. Despite the Xbox Oneand PlayStation 4… ya know, existing, the next major Borderlands game apparently isn’t headed their way. That said, there’s one other platform that fans can snag it on: PC. And given the PC-like architecture of the new consoles, you’ll forgive us if we don’t feign surprise when the game eventually arrives on newer platforms.

The game’s development is being handled by both the series creators at Gearbox Software and 2K’s Australian arm. Thus far, the only footage available is pre-Alpha (read: early), but, well, it looks an awful lot like the Borderlands games you already know and love. Perhaps you don’t already know and love the series? We’ve got a trailer below the break that’ll help get you up to speed.

With Windows 8.1 updates rolling out on April 8th across all platforms, you didn’t think Microsoft was going to forget its browser, did you? Redmond has unified features on its mobile and desktop Internet Explorer 11 versions, while making it easier to use on different-sized devices. IE 11 for Windows Phone 8.1, in particular, underwent a major overhaul. You can now pin sites to Live Tiles like you can with the full version and sync tabs between devices using OneDrive. Another highly-requested new feature is InPrivate browsing, which leaves no trace of your surfing à la Chrome’s Incognito mode. There’s also a nod to low-bandwidth users with the so-called High Savings data compression mode which loads only the elements you want, reducing data use by 60-80 percent. Finally, Microsoft has introduced voice commands to WP8.1, plus a new reading view that brings a Kindle-like look to articles on your smartphone. Meanwhile, Internet Explorer 11 for Windows 8.1 received more subtle tweaks — check after the break for more.

For the full IE 11 version, Microsoft is trying to make sure users are happy whether they’re using a 7-inch tablet or a 28-inch all-in-one. Depending on the device and whether it has a mouse or touchscreen, the browser will adjust the number tabs of displayed, adapt the type size and permit full-screen or regular browsing. Other changes are mainly for developers, with enhanced debugging and simplified testing for older versions of Internet Explorer — the latter often being a serious pain. Finally, Microsoft revealed FishGL, a new version of its classic aquarium screen that also serves as a 3D WebGL graphics benchmark on Windows 8.1 or Windows Phone 8.1. If you’re raring to grab all of that now, the updates are available for download on Windows 8.1 — otherwise, they’ll be pushed automatically for Windows 8.1 and Windows 7 starting April 8th.

This week Microsoft revealed that, without a warrant, it accessed the Hotmail account of a French blogger in order to track down an employee leaking source code to some of its products, ultimately leading to that employee’s arrest. Microsoft’s actions created an uproar among users, causing it to spell out both its means, and its justification. Microsoft claims it needs to establish if “there is evidence sufficient for a court order” before conducting any searches, as allowed under its terms of service (the ones you read and agreed to). In response, Electronic Frontier Foundation fellow Andrew Crocker calls Redmond’s claim that it can’t obtain a warrant on itself a false premise with massive potential for abuse. Instead of “Warrants for Windows,” he argues that bringing in the FBI and obtaining a warrant is not only possible, but that it would be in line with Microsoft’s policy to require a warrant before revealing user info to others.

Though the process may be legal, a larger queasiness arises because, as worded, Microsoft’s TOS could submit a user’s inbox to those searches merely by violating its Code of Conduct. That could happen by (for example) emailing links that depict nudity, incite or express profanity, or facilitate the sale of firearms. Crocker himself states that, presumably, Microsoft isn’t using these standards as an excuse to dig through Outlook.com inboxes. His problem with its actions is more that by relying only on permission given by internal and external legal teams and its TOS, but not the actual court system, a potential for abuse exists.

As The Guardian details, other providers like Apple, Google and Yahoo (or likely AOL, which owns this blog) have similarly worded policies that could be used to access user data in order to protect their property. We asked Crocker about those, and he states that the EFF’s criticism stands in regards to similar policies, and that, while this particular case likely arose from an unusual set of circumstances, the fact we have no way of knowing if a company accessed our data is troubling (In the update on its policies, Microsoft said it would include data on the number of these types of searches in its bi-annual transparency report). In one case, TechCrunchfounder Mike Arrington even claimed that while he cannot be sure, he’s “nearly certain” Google may have accessed his Gmail inbox to sniff out a leaker. Whatever the case, we suddenly have some weekend reading time set aside for the topic of end-to-end encryption with GNU Privacy Guard and “how to setup your own email server.”

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