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Hands-on with Windows Phone 8.1: Microsoft delivers

Wow. Who knew one-tenth of a number could make such a difference?

For the last week, we’ve been using Windows Phone 8.1, the next version of Microsoft’s smartphone operating system, on a Nokia Lumia Icon, and boy are we impressed. We’ve been reviewing Windows Phones since 2010, but for the first time Microsoft may have finally caught up to its rivals. You heard it here first: Windows Phone is finally a good alternative to your iPhone, Galaxy, or Nexus.

Windows Phone fans may argue that Microsoft’s OS has always been competitive, and we’d have a hard time arguing with them when it comes to aesthetics. Windows Phone has been the prettiest OS since its debut in 2010. But its features have always lagged behind. With 8.1, Microsoft has caught up, and we couldn’t be happier.

Windows Phone 8.1 now has:

  • Notifications that work
  • Easy access to quick settings
  • Faster screen transition animations
  • A battery/data bar that doesn’t disappear on the top of the screen
  • The most versatile home screen of any phone
  • A voice assistant that makes us wonder how Siri spends her time
  • A keyboard with Swype-like features
  • Weather on the lock screen
  • Tighter control over battery life and background tasks
  • A standalone, much improved Podcasts app
  • An awesome new calendar app that effectively shows you the next week of your life
  • A message app that integrates other apps
  • A solid Internet Explorer 11 browser
  • Working turn-by-turn navigation
  • Built-in transit directions for subways/buses
  • Built-in Skype for calling
  • Better tools for businesses, so you might be able to use a WP at work
  • Improved volume settings that split call and media volume
  • Built-in VPN
  • Built-in screen projection
  • Syncing abilities so your settings will transfer to your next device
  • New Windows 8 and Mac apps so you can connect your phone to your PC

Even the way you take a screenshot on WP 8.1 is easier. Just hold the Power and Volume Up buttons.

This is a long list, and many things on it may sound insignificant, but all together they’ve made Windows Phone an OS that worked better around our lives in the week we’ve used it. Previously, using Windows Phone meant a lot of big and small sacrifices. Microsoft is finally bending to what users want instead of trying to get everyone to see things its way. If this is a sign of things to come, Windows Phone may yet have a chance to break free of the puny, 3 to 5 percent market share that it’s trapped inside.

Notifications that work

The greatest, most needed change is the new “Action Center” notifications menu. The notifications aren’t as robust as they are on Android phones (you can’t swipe away individual notifications), but it’s a far nicer system than the one on the iPhone. Notifications are grouped by app and you can tap on any of them to enter the appropriate email or function within that app; when you want to get rid of them, you swipe an entire app’s notifications away. An email app, for instance, can have more than half a dozen active notifications in a grouping.

Notifications aren’t as robust as Android, but it’s a far nicer system than the iPhone’s.

Swiping a group of notifications away is pleasing. As you swipe  one, the others linked to it are yanked off stage too, like they’re chained to it.

Notifications were desperately needed on Windows Phone, but Microsoft has always resisted them. Until now, Windows Phone users have had to make sure to pin any apps that might give notifications to their Start screens and hope that app’s Live Tile (its icon) informed them that something new just happened. It was an imperfect system. With Windows Phone 8, Microsoft began including quick “toast” notifications that would pop up on the top of the screen, but again, they’d disappear after a couple seconds. Once they were gone, there was no place to find them. Now there is.

The Action Center also has a customizable menu with four quick action buttons for things like Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and whatever else you need. We added a screen brightness toggle and a button to access the camera.

Using Windows Phone is noticeably less stressful with a working notification center. Instead of getting worried when we missed notifications, we can now sit back and let them pile up like we do with every other phone. And once they do, we just swipe them away.

Cortana isn’t perfect, but at least she’s trying

Apple kicked off the voice assistant battle with Siri, but it has yet to live up to the idea behind it. Siri is more like a voice search; it doesn’t do anything for you proactively. Google Now, the Android version of Siri, is just the opposite. It keeps trying to do tons of stuff, but half the time we don’t understand how or why it’s sending us driving directions. Microsoft’s concept of the voice assistant, which is named Cortana after the Halo character, is a blend of these two approaches.

“We took a more personal approach with Cortana,” Microsoft’s Greg Sullivan told Digital Trends. “One of the key things is that she really gets to know you. In fact, right out of the box, she’ll ask you some things you’re interested in and uses that as a seed for the kind of stuff she’s going to offer you.”

He’s right. She asks you for your name and then a few other questions — what kind of news you like and what kind of activities you enjoy doing in the evenings. As you use her, she’ll try and deduce other things, asking if the place you spend eight hours a day is your office. Say yes and she’ll mark it Work. Cortana can do most of the things Google Now can do, like proactively give you driving directions, sports scores, and flight details, but she’s so much nicer about it.

Google Now just starts doing things, but you never know why or how. Cortana is an open book. She won’t start doing anything until she asks you if that’s something you’d like her to help you out with, and she has an easily accessible menu where you can browse through every single thing she’s ever learned about you, and know why. This “notebook” feature lets you browse her memory, and it makes Cortana a lot less creepy than Google Now.

Cortana is the first feature to really show that Microsoft’s mission — placing Windows Phone in between the extremes of Apple and Google — can work to its advantage. We’d like Cortana to be more proactive because she doesn’t do a lot unless you open her app manually right now, but she’s already far more useful than Siri and far more up front than Google Now. And because she has the added ability to communicate with non-Microsoft apps, Cortana could be a huge asset to Microsoft in time. We’re very excited about Cortana’s future.

The many other improvements

In time, we’ll detail out the many other changes in Windows Phone 8.1, but it’s the overall experience that’s moved the dial. It could be the slightly faster home screen animations, or maybe it’s just that we can always see our connection speed and battery life on the top of the screen, but something has changed. Using Windows Phone 8.1 didn’t feel like a burden as it has on previous versions of the OS, and because we didn’t have to sacrifice how we use the phone, we really began to appreciate the many other things Windows Phone does (and has always done) very well.

If Windows Phone 8.1 is a sign of things to come, Microsoft may yet make a comeback.

One thing we re-noticed is the versatility of the Start screen. It’s the only smartphone home screen that lets you deeplink inside your apps. My favorite podcast is Planet Money, for instance. If I want to, I can put a link directly to that podcast right on my home screen. And I could do the same to a Spotify playlist.

The weak point of Windows Phone is still its app selection, but that is improving. Thanks to improved mapping and calendar support (we love the new calendar app), we didn’t miss our usual Google services so badly.

If Windows Phone 8.1 is a sign of things to come, Microsoft may yet make a comeback. We can’t wait to use the OS more and see some of the new handsets coming this year. Microsoft has caught up to the competition. We hope it begins to boldly step ahead.