Microsoft’s Corporate VP of Operating Systems, Joe Belfiore, revealed Windows Phone 8.1 during the Build 2014 conference in April. The new software is the first major revision of the mobile operating system since its launch, and brings with it a variety of new features, including a virtual assistant named Cortana.
Here’s everything we know about the operating system so far:
Updated on 11-10-2014 by Malarie Gokey: Added news that Windows Phone 8.1 will arrive on the Samsung Ativ S Neo from AT&T.
When is it going to arrive?
Microsoft’s Joe Belfiore wasn’t specific about Windows Phone 8.1’s arrival at its unveiling, and exact dates are still completely unknown. However, thanks to Nokia we have a few more details. Version 8.1 of the OS will arrive as part of Nokia’s Lumia Cyan software update, which is currently being tested by various American networks, and has already been made available for AT&T connected Lumia 1520 devices.
Additionally, AT&T announced that the Windows 8.1 update is now available to anyone who owns the Samsung Ativ S Neo. If you want to download it now, all you have to do is click on Settings Live Tile > Phone Update. Once you accept the download, your phone will restart.
In Europe, things are progressing a little faster, with Lumia Cyan being released for phones such as the Lumia 625, Lumia 925, and the Lumia 1520, in various countries including the UK.
It’s similarly approximate for its release on brand new hardware, mainly because manufacturers aren’t rushing to produce devices running the OS. In addition to the Lumia 630, Lumia 635, and Lumia 935 announced at Build 2014, the Lumia 530 with Windows Phone 8.1 has subsequently been released.
Windows Phone 8.1 Update 1 announced
Windows Phone 8.1 may not be on your phone yet, but Microsoft has already announced the first update to the new OS. Called Update 1, it’s scheduled to arrive later this year on phones purchased from a store, but will be sent out to the Developer Preview version at the beginning of August. It brings several enhanced features to Cortana, plus the start of her international rollout, along with Start screen folders, messaging improvements. You can read all about it here.
Meet Cortana, your personal assistant
Microsoft has introduced its own personal assistant in Windows Phone 8.1, and gamers, you can sleep happily in your beds, as it has secured the Cortana name. For you non-gamers, Cortana is the name of the artificially intelligent computer in the Halo series.
Accessed through a Live Tile, or a long press of the search button, Cortana will provide help on most apps, from making calls, sending messages, performing searches, and informing you about music that’s playing on your phone. For a more personalized relationship, Cortana can interact with third-party apps, including Facebook and Twitter, where she can post tweets for you. Her main screen shows a blue circle, and a search bar, while a swipe up on the screen reveals a scrollable list of news, the weather, and contextual help. For the latter to work, she needs to read your email, through which she will note trackable data, such as flight times.
Like all good personal assistants, Cortana has a notebook, where she can keep track of your interests and things you search for frequently. When something comes up which she thinks will be useful in the future, she will ask you if you want a note to be stored, and will refer back to them at another time.
You can converse with Cortana using natural language, and verbal commands can be specific, such as “call this person using Skype,” or adding a new show to your Hulu queue. Facebook is supported too, and you can ask “What’s up with this person,” and she’ll take you to the app and that person’s page. Cleverly, reminders can be set for people too. If you ask to be reminded about a subject the next time you speak to a particular person, she’ll make sure to let you know when you make that call.
Cortana was demonstrated on stage setting alarms, and making calendar appointments. She will notice any conflicting dates, and will rearrange for you. She’s powered by Bing, and will perform Internet searches based on your preferences. If you ask to see the best restaurants in the area for example, she will only look at those with four stars or more. You can then drill down to find ones which will take reservations, and finally ask Cortana to call the number.
Other features demonstrated including searching for sports scores, answering general Internet searches, and checking the weather. It’s all performed in natural language, just like Siri on iOS, but you can also interact with Cortana using the keyboard. This includes giving instructions to her, again in a natural way, and performing local searches on the phone.
Windows Phone 8.1 Update 1 expands Cortana’s reach
In the first update to Windows Phone 8.1, Microsoft will bring Cortana to the UK and China, plus it’ll launch an alpha version of the app for users in Canada, India, and Australia to try out. Both the UK and the Chinese versions have been localized to provide relevant information – air quality details in China, and UK-specific sports teams for example – while an entirely new look has been given to China’s Cortana.
Also, Cortana will work with in-car hands-free systems in Update 1, provided they have access to your phone’s contact list. Drivers will say “call Cortana” to active the assistant, then converse with her normally. Microsoft has also been working on Cortana’s natural language too.
Action Center arrives for notifications, and the lock screen gets a makeover
Action Center is a pull down notification drawer, which shows a battery percentage meter, dual-SIM information, customizable quick settings, and a list of new notifications. It’s accessible from all over the user interface. Windows Phone has always been good looking, but the lock screen was a little plain. That changes in Windows Phone 8.1. Themes can now be downloaded from the app store, which change the way the screen looks, including new clocks, and some very slick unlock animations.
In Windows Phone 8.1’s settings menu, you’ll find the option to switch on or off a more dense Live Tile layout on the Homescreen. Plus, any wallpaper you set for the lock screen, is now visible behind the home screen’s transparent Tiles.
New-look app store, and universal apps coming soon
Windows Phone 8.1 features a revised version of the app store. Upon opening, it presents a list of recommended apps, all in varying Tile sizes, and with a scroll to the left, you’ll find personalized apps singled out for you. A Quick Links section has large buttons for accessing lists of frequently searched for apps.
David Treadwell, Corporate Vice President for Operating Systems at Microsoft, said developers would be able to make apps which would be truly universal in the future. This means they’ll function on Windows Phone smartphones, Windows tablets, and Windows desktop computers. His statement ties in with an announcement made by Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, who confirmed Windows, Windows Phone, and the Xbox platform would soon become one, with a single app store.
Swype comes to Windows Phone 8.1
Confirming one of the rumors heard prior to announcement, Windows Phone 8.1 comes with a Swype-style addition to the Word Flow keyboard. The feature has been named Shape Writing, and it works in that familiar way, where you slide your finger across the keyboard, without lifting, and the software works out what you’re trying to type. It looked great in the onstage demo, and a video was played pitting it against the Galaxy S4 in a battle, from which it stole the world record for touchscreen speed typing.
Wi-Fi Sense app introduced, new calendar tweaks, and IE11
The calendar has been tweaked with a weekly view, a left/right scrollable daily view, and some much needed performance improvements. Finally, Internet Explorer 11 comes with a new reading and a privacy mode.
Skype gets deeper integration
In Windows Phone 8.1, when you answer a call you’ll see a Skype button added to the quick access buttons on the screen. If the person you’re talking to has a Skype account, and you want to transfer to a video call through the app, just give it a tap and the OS will do the rest. It won’t disconnect the call until the app is open and the call is setup, so you can continue without interruption.
Business users get encryption options and VPN support
Introduced by Microsoft’s Product Marketing Manager Nick Hedderman, Windows Phone 8.1 has wider support for business users. For example, it now supports Enterprise VPNs, and a new VPN tile can be pinned into the Action Center, making it easy to see when it’s active. On the security side, S/MIME is now supported for encrypted and signed emails, plus there’s a Mobile Device Management (MDM) system for disabling apps and certain features. Microsoft also confirmed its enterprise partners, including Juniper, SAP, Sophos, Dell, Citrix, Symantec, and Boingo.
No more license fee
Microsoft has scrapped its unpopular licensing fee system, making Windows Phone 8.1 free for developers to use.
Two new hardware partners, and old faithfuls, confirmed
Two new hardware partners, Micromax and Prestigio, were welcomed to the Microsoft family in April. Devices from the pair will incorporate Qualcomm chips. These two newcomers join LG, Samsung, HTC, Huawei, ZTE, Lenovo, Xolo, Karbonn, and Gionee. Nokia was listed as a member of Windows Phone’s “growing ecosystem.”
Updated on 30-07-2014: Windows Phone 8.1 will arrive inside Nokia’s Lumia Cyan software update, while Microsoft reveals more about the first update to the new OS, which will arrive later this year.
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