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.
NEXT PAGE: EVERYTHING WE HEARD ABOUT WINDOWS PHONE 8.1 BEFORE ITS LAUNCH
Now that the Windows Phone 8 GDR3 update has opened up phablets to Microsoft’s OS, what’s next? Well, the GDR3 (General Distribution Release 3) update contains the final tweaks to Windows Phone 8. The new software will be known as Windows Phone 8.1, and we’re expecting its announcement in the next few days at Microsoft’s BUILD conference. Here’s everything we know about the next version of Windows Phone so far. (And here are some features we hope it will have.)
Updated on 03-31-2014 by Andy and Jeff: Added new information to all sections, including news on Windows Phone 8.1’s final release date, the hardware on which it will debut, new features inside, and two new, leaked videos. We also elaborated on Nokia’s plans at the show.
Debut at BUILD, possible launch in April
Microsoft hasn’t confirmed when we’ll see the official launch of Windows Phone 8.1, but most rumors and speculation point to it being revealed during the annual Build conference. Microsoft has scheduled Build 2014 for April 2, so we’re getting very close to finding out all the details.
During Build 2013, then CEO Steve Ballmer spent almost no time at all talking about Windows Phone. Version 8.1 should change all that this time around when newly minted CEO Satya Nadella takes the stage.
According to the most recent reports, Microsoft has finished the software, and it has been sent out to hardware companies for testing. A launch date of April 23 – for new hardware with the software installed – has been tentatively suggested, but not confirmed, while developers may get access to the new version on April 8.
Nokia has something up its sleeve
Nokia is fresh off the release of the awesome Lumia Icon on Verizon, caused a stir at Mobile World Congress when it debuted three Android phones, and now it has an event planned for BUILD on April 2. We think Nokia will have a new device (or more) to show off the latest version of Windows Phone or Windows RT, but we aren’t certain about anything. There’s even a chance we could see a Nokia Windows watch of some kind.
There is a small chance that the event could detail how Microsoft plans to use the Nokia brand going forward now that it owns Nokia’s phone business, but it depends how far along the merger approvals are and if such information is shareable yet.
This is all Nokia will say about its BUILD announcement: “What makes 2014 so special is the exciting Microsoft and Nokia partnership, and boy, have we got some treats lined up for you.”
Meet Cortana, Microsoft’s Siri
Cortana could be one of the major new features of Windows Phone 8.1. Cortana is a name taken from the AI (artificially intelligent) character featured in the Halo games, but she may be the voice of Microsoft’s Siri challenger. According to early leaks, the virtual assistant will respond to voice commands to provide details on the weather, your calendar entries, and navigational duties.
Cortana may spread beyond Windows Phone in the future, becoming a part of Windows on PCs and the Xbox. An iPhone version, perhaps incorporated into a new Bing app, has also been rumored, but there’s some bad news for international Windows Phone fans: Cortana may be limited to U.S. phones for the first months.
We’ve yet to hear anything about specific features or commands, but we’re told Bing will play a big part in Cortana’s ability to learn and react to natural voice commands. This means we may have to say “Bing tell me” rather than “Cortana tell me,” especially as it’s still not clear if Microsoft will heed the petition to retain the popular (and trademarked up) Cortana name. Right now, it’s just an internal codename.
Quick actions and notifications are coming!
If Cortana reminds you of Siri and Google Now, then Action Center will remind you of Android’s Notification Center. Apparently, it will be a drawer pulled down from the top of the screen where you’ll find various system settings including toggles for Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. Keep going, and notifications will come streaming through.
A leaked presentation slide said apps in Windows Phone 8.1 will “intelligently manage notifications.” In a subsequent leak, it was revealed some notifications would automatically be sent to the Action Center, and not appear as an actionable notification, cutting down on the amount of noise. Those which do appear should have embedded options, such as answering Skype calls directly, or replying to an SMS without opening the app.
A video showing Windows Phone 8.1 running on what could be the Lumia 630 has been leaked. The brief tour of the phone shows a device which shares a similar design to the Android-based Nokia X family. It’s not the best video we’ve seen, but it does show the Action Center in, um, action, plus new categories and tabs inside the Windows Phone Store.
SD card app installs, transparent Tiles, and other new features
Thanks to an extensive leak on Reddit, where a user claimed to have an early version of Windows Phone 8.1, we know about several other fun features. Although the discussion was primarily from a development point of view, it was revealed a new Music app would be included, and SkyDrive had been rebranded OneDrive (And OneDrive is already official).
Also in Windows Phone 8.1 will be the option to install apps on an SD card, rather than side-loaded to the phone itself. A further leak has indicated Windows Phone may recognize the card you have installed, and if it matches certain requirements, the option to move installed apps over to it will be provided.
One change which could make a difference to Windows Phone’s usability is that the new Back button doesn’t quit an app anymore, but keeps it paused in the background. Like Windows 8, a swipe down the screen will close an app. A few apps will get an overhaul; Internet Explorer, YouTube, and the standard camera app were all specifically mentioned in the leak.
Windows Phone is already a good-looking operating system, and version 8.1 won’t mess around with the formula too much. One alteration which will turn heads is the transparent Tile option. Certain tiles on your home screen become opaque, revealing the lockscreen wallpaper underneath. With the right wallpaper, it can look great. You can also see it in the video below, complete with a very cool scrolling effect when you slide the menu up and down.
At Mobile World Congress, a few more details on Windows Phone 8.1 were teased. The big news is a relaxation of the rule to force manufacturers to use a hardware key for the camera’s shutter release. This is important, as Android-based devices can be adapted for Windows Phone more easily. Microsoft will also introduce the option to add dual-SIM support, increasing Windows Phone’s appeal in developing markets.
Some other, smaller changes visible in early Windows Phone 8.1 builds include separate volume controls for media, alerts and apps, a battery percentage meter, and a battery monitor to track which apps or services are eating up your standby time. A VPN option may be added, along with an unusual setting to divert incoming SMS to an alternative app. The camera app may get a visual overhaul, while a dedicated Podcast app may be added.
A screenshot supposedly showing a Windows Phone implementation of a Swype-like keyboard has made an appearance, but isn’t mentioned in any other leaks, leaving us questioning its accuracy.
Windows Phone 8.1 may merge with Windows RT
Microsoft may be about to make life easier for app developers. A leaked slide indicates Microsoft will offer a “Shared Solution” to devs using Visual Studio to create apps, so they can be submitted to both the Windows and Windows Phone Store at the same time. A second slide shows developers can select buttons, boxes and other design elements – totaling 80 percent – which work across both platforms.
Bringing the struggling tablet OS into line with Windows Phone would make good sense, and follows the same course as Apple and Google have taken with Android.
Rumored phones with Windows Phone 8.1 installed
Despite rumors suggesting Nokia would feature Windows Phone 8.1 at Mobile World Congress, the company dedicated its time to the Nokia X range of phones. Since then, Nokia has announced it will be showing something during Build 2014, but it may only be the rumored Lumia 630.
This is also likely to be the first dual-SIM device running Windows Phone. We were expecting to see the Lumia 530 and Lumia 930 announced, but this is now in doubt. Slightly better news is the same source indicates the Windows Phone 8.1 update will be sent out to Windows Phone 8 devices during early May. We’re sure the new Lumia Icon will be in-line to get the update.
Samsung may make a return to the Windows Phone family soon, and the leaked Huron smartphone could be its first with the new OS installed. If rumors are correct, it may end up being called the Ativ SE and only be available connected to Verizon. A leaked image of the phone shows the network’s branding attached to a Galaxy S4-like device.
We’ve also heard talk Microsoft has persuaded Sony to produce a Windows Phone device. If so, Windows Phone 8.1 may come pre-installed. Additionally, it’s a relatively safe bet to assume current Windows Phone partners such as HTC, ZTE, and Huawei will be preparing new devices, too.
Microsoft has also added Lenovo to the roster of companies interested in building Windows Phone hardware, and re-confirmed both LG and Samsung are onboard. However, we’ve heard this before, and neither have fully embraced Windows Phone.
Leaked WP 8.1 video
WinBeta claims to have an early copy of Windows Phone 8.1 and made a YouTube video showing it. We’ve embedded it below.
Will my old Windows Phone receive the update?
Remember the Windows Phone 7 debacle? Microsoft decided it couldn’t (wouldn’t?) update older hardware to Windows Phone 8, and annoyed fans with the lukewarm Windows Phone 7.8 instead? We don’t think history will repeat itself. In an interview with Computerworld at CES 2014, a Microsoft rep said all Windows Phone 8 hardware will be compatible with version 8.1. The quote comes from Greg Sullivan, Microsoft’s Director of PR, who added “We won’t run out of head space on Windows Phone 8 any time soon.”
If you’re wondering when it’ll arrive on your phone, don’t expect a firm answer any time soon. While the OS may be with manufacturers for testing, it will still have to be sent to networks before finally making it on to your phone, and this can be a lengthy process. One source says the rollout will begin in early May.
We’ll add any new Windows Phone 8.1-related rumors to this article as they come. Otherwise, we must wait for MWC and for Build in April for any official news.