Windows Phone 8.1 is official, here are the new features
Microsoft officially unveiled the latest revision of its mobile platform - Windows Phone 8.1. The new release brings a lot of new features and improvements to the OS. Most of those you already know from the numerous leaks through the pre-release SDK, but here's the full list.
Cortana – Windows Phone’s personal virtual assistant
Windows Phone 8.1 brings its own virtual personal assistant called Cortana. With Android having Google Now and Apple boasting Siri, it was about time Microsoft also joined the native personal assistant to Windows Phone.
The Bing-powered Cortana plays an important role in WP 8.1 letting you set reminders, calendar events, call people, give you information about places you have or plan to visit. She also knows sports, gives weather info and basically everything you would expect from a virtual assistant. She’s going to be accessible through the Search key and features advanced voice recognition. This allows you to ask Cortana to search the web as well.
Cortana is also able to feed you custom notifications based on your personal information and usage data, should you allow it, much like Google Now. At launch, Bing and Foursquare are going to be feeding Cortana with information for places and events, but more online services will follow soon.
Joe Belfiore confirmed Cortana will be available in the US at first with the UK and China second. Other countries will follow later on.
Windows Phone 8.1 finally gets a dedicated notification center called Action Center. It holds customizable quick setting toggles, which include brightness adjustment, location settings, rotation locks, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth on and off among others. Below that you get a notification drawer with a full list of ongoing notifications such as email, text messages, missed calls and even notifications from Cortana.
Updated lockscreen and custom tile backgrounds
Thanks to new open APIs, Windows Phone 8.1 allows applications to take control over the lockscreen and change the theme or alter its functionality altogether.
Joe Belfiore demonstrated a bunch of cool lockscreens, which displayed custom calendar entries with nice designs.
The other great customization feature is the option to set up custom backgrounds for the Start screen tiles. Small, but totally needed feature to make Windows Phone truly personal.
Another UI change means that you will now be able to select whether to have a third live tile column on the Start screen. Previously, this was set only by the phone manufacturer, so it's cool Microsoft lets the user make this decision in WP 8.1.
Internet Explorer 11
Windows Phone 8.1 ships with the latest version of Internet Explorer. IE 11 brings reading view, which grabs websites and extracts their text for easier reading. It also comes with a tuned up password manager, which will sync your passwords across multiple devices.
There’s also an InPrivate mode enabling incognito browsing. It doesn’t make you invisible on the web, but rather disable history storing and cookie information is deleted once an incognito tab is closed.
Users are now able to upload files through IE 11, with the browser also supporting WebGL and YouTube’s HTML5 video player.
Enterprise and security
The latest instalment of Windows Phone comes with VPN support. Now, you can punch in your VPN settings into the phone and surf the way more securely. WP 8.1 also supports S/MIME, which allows you sign and encrypt your email.
Microsoft hasn’t forgotten about its Sense apps and has added a few cool features to them. Battery Power Sense is the familiar app that tracks what software uses the phone’s resources most and gives you a handy overview of how your phone’s battery gets drained. Naturally, you can do something about it thanks to the Battery Saver option, which has app exclusion list.
Data and Wi-Fi Sense will give you greater control over how you use your network. Wi-Fi Sense is a cool new addition that gives you the ability to share the internet connectivity of your secured Wi-Fi networks with your Skype, Facebook and Outlook contacts without having to give the password. It also allows you to find and connect to free open Wi-Fi networks automatically.
Just as a couple leaked screenshots suggested earlier, Windows Phone 8.1 now features on-screen software keys – Search, Start and Back. This means the requirement for hardware keys below the screen is a thing of the past
Now in Windows Phone 8.1 you can set any period of the day when you want only a certain group of people to be able to reach you. This feature is called Quiet hours and is accessible from the Settings.
A new option in the Windows Phone 8.1 keyboard is called Wordflow - a Swype-like input method allowing you to quickly input words by swiping through the letters. Joe Belfiore says it's so good that in fact it has set the new Guinness World Record for fastest writing on a smartphone, dethroning the Galaxy S4.
The Windows Phone 8.1 update will be officially released in a few months (that's as specific as Microsoft got), while new devices running it will start shipping in late April/early May. It's not specified which WP8 handsets will be treated to the update at this point, but we guess the list will be quite extensive.
And if you are registered Microsoft developer, you will be able to get an early glimpse on the update as early as April 10.