Windows Phone 8.1 explored

In this article, we will be exploring some of the major features introduced in Windows Phone 8.1. Head past the break to read what we have to say about the massive 0.1 update.

Action Center

Personally, this was the biggest and most important part of the update. Sure, live tiles are great way to quickly glance at important notifications, and the option to increase the number of tiles available on the start screen meant that more info can be displayed at once. However, the tiles displaying info other than a number are mostly large tiles, and most Windows Phones can only display 3 large tiles on the start screen, bar the larger devices like the Lumia 1520 and the upcoming Lumia 930.

A notification centre is a natural extension of toast notifications, and it was weirdly not implemented in Windows Phone 8 even though it was released a year after Apple joined Android and included a notification centre in iOS. But whatever, that’s in the past now.

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When you pull down the Action Center, you’ll notice that it has 4/5 ‘Quick Actions’ buttons (configurable in settings) depending on your screen size, allowing you to quickly toggle a commonly used setting, such as Wifi and rotation lock. With the notable exception of cellular data. Even though this is just a developer’s preview of 8.1, why Microsoft didn’t include cellular data as a quick action will always baffle me, since many people regularly toggle it on and off.

There is also the notable and thoughtful inclusion of the spectacularly useful and commonly used ‘project my screen’ as a quick action, which will definitely be beneficial to the many (dwarfing those who toggle cellular data regularly) who will use it on a daily basis. Sarcasm intended.

If an app is displaying multiple notifications and you tap on one of it, only the one you tapped on will disappear, while the others will remain. It is confusing why, but it might just come in handy some time. To remove notifications, you can either swipe them to the right, which will remove all the notifications from an app, or tap on the handy ‘clear all’ button to clear all at once. Another way to clear all notifications is to swipe them to the right with two fingers, if you prefer swiping to tapping the button.

It’d be interesting to see all the notifications from an app grouped together in a small scrollable window in the notification center, especially useful in the case of messaging apps like Whatsapp which tend to amass many notifications, clogging up the notification center.

When a notification arrives, regardless of the app, an icon will pop out in the status bar. While it is thoughtful of Microsoft to include this, I’d very much prefer the icon of the app in the status bar instead.

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Cortana

Cortana, all I need to know... is did we lose them?
Cortana, all I need to know… is did we lose them? | PHOTO CREDIT: HALO COMBAT EVOLVED

Perhaps the most hyped-up feature of 8.1, Windows Phone finally has its own Bing-based digital voice assistant, more than 2 years after the announcement of Apple’s voice assistant Siri.

Currently only available in the US, local users are able to bypass the restriction and get a taste of Cortana by changing the phone’s region and language to US.

Personally, I’m not a user of digital voice assistants, using it for the occasional novelty (try asking Cortana about Halo) and trivia (think a limited Wolfram Alpha) questions. Whether it lives up to its hype, I don’t know for sure. But from the experiences of users all around the web, rest assured that it is performing greatly, even though it is only in beta stage. If you’re not a fan of talking to a phone, there is always the option of typing in your commands as well.

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Bringing the best of both worlds from Siri and Google Now, the quirky Cortana is able to learn from your behaviour and movement, becoming precognitive and contextual, just like a real personal assistant. Speaking of real personal assistants, Cortana has its own Notebook as well, where you can dictate what it keeps track of if you’re concerned about your privacy.

 

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Start screen

With 8.1, users can now set a background image for the start screen. You can choose one from any of the 41 pre-loaded stunning backgrounds, or set one yourself. Some of your tiles’ background will become transparent, allowing you to see the background you’ve set. Coupled with the parallax scrolling effect, your start screen can become very eye-pleasing. Personally, I went for a more minimalist approach and set an entirely black background.

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One way to tell if a tile’s background becomes transparent when a background image is set is to head to your app list. Apps with icons that follow your accent’s colour will turn transparent, otherwise it will remain unchanged and stick out like a sore thumb, such as OneNote.

Word Flow

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With the new Word Flow, users gain an option to swap tapping to type for swiping instead, allowing for some mind-boggling typing speed. Well maybe not that fast, but the previous world record for typing speed on a smartphone was blasted into oblivion by Word Flow. The sentence required was:

The razor-toothed piranhas of the genera Serrasalmus and Pygocentrus are the most ferocious freshwater fish in the world. In reality they seldom attack a human.

It took 18.44 seconds to type that using Word Flow, beating the previous record by 20.53 milliseconds. Okay, not into oblivion.

Sense and Battery Saver

Battery Saver can prove to be real life-saver at times. Notice your battery draining abnormally fast? A rogue app may be running in the background constantly, but fear not. Head over to Battery Saver, where it provides a breakdown of your battery usage. You can choose to prevent a particular app from running in the background, though it may limit its functionality.

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The familiar storage check previously found in the settings page is now a separate app of its own, renamed as a more refined Storage Sense, providing a more detailed breakdown of what’s eating up your precious memory space.

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Others

There are many other numerous little features introduced in 8.1, such as the support for unlimited tabs and swiping gestures to go back and forward in Internet Explorer, the slightly redesigned Photos Hub, and the media and ringer volume controls being independent of each other.

This is just the developer’s preview of Windows Phone 8.1, the consumer release in a few months is bound to be more refined, and Lumia users can look forward to Nokia’s own flavour of 8.1 by the name of Lumia Cyan. I’ll be keeping my fingers crossed till then.

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