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Windows Phone 8.1 Impressions

Windows Phone 8 It’s been just about a week and a half now since the developer preview for Windows Phone’s newest update, Windows Phone 8.1, has been available. There is no doubt that this update came packed with some great features: some of which have been greatly anticipated for years. Some would say many of the latest iteration’s improvements have made Windows Phone truly a force to be reckoned with, but as a result of that evolution, are we seeing the furthest departure from the “Metro UI” design principles to date? Let’s take a look.

First: the good

This update is incredible. Using the wealth of features added in 8.1 – good features, I might add – makes me feel like I have an entirely new phone. With the arrival of Action Center, Start Backgrounds, WordFlow Keyboard, and, of course, Cortana, Windows Phone has never felt more complete.

Windows Phone’s notification hub: Action Center

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Action Center

While some argued the utility of Live Tiles replaced Windows Phone’s need for any kind of notification center, it’s been a sought-after feature for others. I don’t see the Action Center as a replacement at all for Live Tiles, rather, an enhancement and support system for the tiled interface. Each time you get a toast notification, you no longer need to worry about it vanishing for eternity. Each notification will be saved in your Action Center for later viewing. Another great feature about the Action Center is the quick actions area, which allows you to pick your most-frequently-used system settings, such as Airplane mode, WiFi networks, or other toggle-able actions. I find myself using orientation lock the most (although I would prefer also having an option for a flashlight like in iOS 7). You can also manage how your phone handles notifications from applications. You can adjust whether or not apps can push out toasts, what sound will be played, and whether or not your phone vibrates. This means you can have items appear in your action center, but not bother you with sounds, vibrations, or banners. These are the default settings for most mail accounts. I’ve set up the Facebook Messenger app to play the Facebook messaging beep sound when I get notifications, and the Skype “bloop” sound plays when I get Skype notifications. Adjusting the notification sounds per app allows you to differentiate what sorts of notifications are being pushed, even before you look at your device.

Make pictures part of your Start Screen: Start Background

Skinnery Tiles just went out of business. Well, maybe not quite. Essentially, you’re able to select an image from your device in 8.1 to be used on your Start Screen instead of your phone’s accent color. When you scroll through your Start Screen, however, the background doesn’t move with it entirely. This means that the Start Background feature doesn’t completely replace the functionality of Skinnery Tiles, which, as you may know, is an app that allows the user to create custom static tiles with an image to decorate the Start Screen. This level of customization is only optional, which is good. When I choose a Start Background, I generally try to find a matching or similarly-colored accent theme to compliment the color scheme.

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Swype is now built-in on Windows Phone, basically: WordFlow Keyboard

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WordFlow keyboard

If you aren’t familiar with Swype, it is an app for Android that allows you to use swiping gestures across your device’s digital keyboard to produce words. It generally allows for faster, easier texting (usually via one hand). One complaint I had with Swype is that, if you wanted to transition to using the keyboard normally (tapping each letter individually), you would have to switch to the normal keyboard. The Swype keyboard wasn’t very flexible when it came to just using it normally, but Windows Phone’s WordFlow keyboard is much better at that. You can switch between using the WordFlow gestures and the traditional tapping of keyboard letters seamlessly. Combined with Windows Phone’s advanced autocorrect features, WordFlow Keyboard is pretty spectacular in terms of both speed and accuracy. Using the swiping gestures on my 1520 was a bit awkward due to its massive screen size, but using it on my 1020 produced very impressive results. A special perk about the new keyboard is the emoticon suggestions. When you type certain words, the WordFlow Keyboard will find pertinent emoticons and suggest them for use. I thought this was a neat touch.

What everyone is calling the Siri-killer: Cortana

That’s right, Microsoft’s competitor to Siri and Google Now is now here. It’s Cortana, the digital AI from Halo, in your phone. Well, inspired from the Halo character, anyway. This is by far the most anticipated feature from Windows Phone 8.1, and, as I’m happy to report, my favorite of all. What makes Cortana stand out so much from the competitors is her understanding of common, everyday language. For example, I can say, “show me coffee shops.” And then, when prompted with a list of ten, ask “what time does the second one close today?” and Cortana will give me an answer. Following that question with “directions” makes Cortana launch HERE Drive with my course plotted for me. I tried saying variations of this (such as “coffee restaurants” or “option number two hours of operation”), all with similar results.

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Cortana’s “remind me” function is by far the feature I use most. You can say something like, “Remind me in an hour to leave for the store” and a reminder will buzz on your phone in an hour with the message “Leave for the wp_ss_20140420_0021store.” Like an actual personal assistant, Cortana saves your reminders in a list-form that’s accessible for viewing. What’s also great about viewing your reminders is that you can play back the audio recorded of your command to hear exactly what you said, or add extra notes if you need to. You can also create people-based or location-based reminders, like, “next time I see Bill, remind me to ask him about next weekend” or “next time I go home, remind me to take out the trash.” People reminders will occur the next time you’re in a texting or phone conversation with that contact, while location reminders will occur when your geolocation matches the associated location’s address.

There are a few things about Cortana, however, that leave much to be desired. For example, although she asks for your name and vocalizes how to pronounce it, she does not yet address you by it verbally – only in text form. She also seems to have slightly less amount of canned answers in comparison to Siri, which can be frustrating when you repeatedly get search results to silly questions you try to ask her. My last complaint would be that she seems to take too much time in clarifying a statement or command (such as reading off too much information about a location).

Even with these complaints in mind, I’ve found Cortana to be quite charming. The witty retorts she does have to certain questions are very entertaining, such as answering, “Among a handful of challenges, I don’t think the Supreme Court would approve just yet” when asked if she would be interested in marriage. The times she occasionally addresses the user as “chief” are also fun (referencing the name of Master Chief, Halo’s protagonist). And since she’s only still in beta, I’m expecting many improvements for her to come. For example, Jen Taylor, the actual voice actress of Cortana from the Halo video games, will be the final voice of Cortana in Windows Phone. She’s only began to record recently, so it’s difficult to say whether or not her voice will be included in the version of Windows Phone 8.1 released for everyone in a few months.

A treasure full of gems

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New weekly calendar view

There are many other improved features, such as an overhauled calendar interface, a redesigned Photos, People, and Games hub as well as an improved Store, updated browser, new Sense apps, and a new default camera app.

Calendar: There’s a week and year view to add to the day and month view in the calendar app.

Photos Hub: The default view in the Photos hub gives you a chronological view of recent saved images/photos you’ve taken, with an albums view just a pivot item away.

People Hub: A contact’s profile in the People Hub now has a special “Connect” section that can be used to launch their profiles in other apps, like Facebook and Twitter (I can see the potential for this going very far).

Store: The store is more organized, and you can view your app download history which makes re-downloading apps very easy.

Sense apps: Storage Sense, Battery Saver, WiFi Sense, and Data Sense are extremely helpful for keeping track of how you’re using your resources.

Other new features include: VPN, Workplace Account, project my screen, and quiet hours. Something I’m still waiting for is the lock screen themes including Rudy Huyn’s “Diagonal” app. Right now it’s closed and not included in Windows Phone 8.1, but Microsoft will soon open up the APIs for developers to create their own lock screen themes and enable it for use. I had to keep this section brief on purpose; there’s so much good here! But not every update is perfect, and we’ll be discussing the lackluster bits next.

Second: the bad

A few of this update’s features are implemented awkwardly. These aren’t glaring flaws: they just might need some embellishment.

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Ringer + Notifications and Media + Apps sounds are now controlled independently.

Facebook Event Integration: Personally, I found Windows Phone’s previous calendar fine, and am actually finding the new one to be a bit tricky to navigate. This isn’t really that bad per say, and will probably only need some getting-used to. But what I don’t like about it is that Facebook events are more of annoyance since it seems to be impossible to remove a Facebook event from your calendar even when you’ve “declined.”

Quickly silencing your phone: While allowing for more options to customize ringer and notification sounds versus media and app options originally sounded like a good improvement, I’m finding it to be more of a bother than a help. Whereas in previous iterations of Windows Phone silencing your phone was just a matter of pressing one button, you now have to manually decrease both the media sound settings and alert sound settings. Pretty annoying, but not horrible.

Theme syncing: Yes, you can synchronize your Windows Phone 8.1 and Windows 8.1 themes, but I’ve found it to be very awkward. Since there are more accent pallet options on Windows 8.1, it doesn’t always sync over properly with the phone. And on the flip side, updating the Windows Phone 8.1 accent color will only change one of the two accent colors on Windows 8.1, allowing for the potential of awkward color combinations. Luckily, you don’t need to turn this feature on.

Bing Image of the Day: If you like Cortana, you can’t see Bing’s photo of the day. That is, unless, you make it your lockscreen. Whether it is on your lockscreen or not, however, you won’t be able to see the fun facts or find out more about the photo like you could pre-8.1 unless you disable Cortana. I think it would be a good idea to include an option to toggle the visibility of Bing’s picture of the day in the search screen (with Cortana, or not).

Third: the ugly

Two aspects of this update are pretty terrible. Considering how many new features were implemented, this isn’t bad at all, but they are still worth addressing.

Xbox Entertainment apps: Music and Video apps are back, and this time…they leave a bit more to be desired. More glitches, more crashing, and even more loading times. With the exception of adding a playlists option, there doesn’t seem to be much that improved the experience. For anyone that doesn’t use an Xbox Music pass or has no interest in streaming, these apps became a bit more challenging to use. Can you play locally-stored music still? Well, yes…just good luck using the Windows Phone app to sync music and video: you might need it. The redeemable factor in all this is the new podcasts app, which now works entirely independently from the music app. And the other hope is, of course, that Microsoft will update these apps and make them better as time goes on.

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Me Card

Me Tile: Probably the second biggest disappointment with this update is the now-irrelevant Me Tile. You know, it’s that spot on your Start Screen you relied on since Windows Phone 7.5 to update your status on multiple networks, change your picture, and check your notifications. Well understandably, since the Action Center is now used to keep track of notifications, the notifications section is gone, leaving just “share” and “what’s new” sections. In addition, they ripped out the ability to post to several social networks at once. You can now only choose one social network when you choose to “post an update” via your Me Tile, and in most cases, it just takes you to that app. You also can’t update your Facebook picture from your Me Card anymore. Also, there’s still no “Foursquare” option under “check in.” I don’t know about anyone else, but Foursquare is the only app I use to check-in. The one redeemable factor is under the new Me settings options, it appears you can customize what app you want to use for an update, or for a check-in. I can see a developer making a simultaneous-update-posting app that could hopefully interface with the Me Card, and hopefully Foursquare becoming an option under the list of “check in” apps.

Recap

Windows Phone 8.1 is amazing. A question to ponder, however, is this: are the changes in this update more closely aligned to Microsoft’s design language, or is the opposite true? On one hand, I’m very excited about 8.1’s more mature, fully-featured Windows Phone experience. On the other hand, I don’t think we’ve seen Windows Phone come this close to being like iOS and Android before. Overall, though, I’m very happy with the update, and still have yet to discover all of its wonderful intricacies. For what it’s worth, Windows Phone 8.1 still feels like Windows Phone to me, and a better Windows Phone at that. I believe Microsoft is still developing their mobile operating system and improving how it fits into their new ecosystem. As for now, it’s coming along very nicely.