Technology

Say Hello to Windows Phone 8.1

By 15th April 2014 No Comments

With the Windows Phone 8.1 developer preview released yesterday, let’s take a look at some of the cool new features that I like and some that I don’t.

It isn’t really a surprise to many that I am a big fan of Windows Phone. If you haven’t already noticed, I like Windows Phone. It’s not for it being a Microsoft product either as many would think. It is actually just how tailored it is to what I want from a smart phone and that is an all round always connected phone. Yes, both iOS and Android can also do this, but I use Windows 8, OneDrive, Skype and many Microsoft based services on a day-to-day basis. You sure can use these services on other platforms but none of them do them as well as Windows Phone does and the latest update, Windows Phone 8.1, proves that.

Here is a look back at my review of Windows Phone 8 when it was released: Why Choose Windows Phone

Let’s jump into Windows Phone 8.1 and show you what it can do!

The Start Screen

Third Column Live Tiles

Another column? That means more apps!

You’ve probably all seen it before, some of you may have even experienced it but Windows Phone 8.1 packs a new start screen that will have all Windows Phone users redesigning their beloved tile layout once again. Now don’t take that as a bad thing. I change my tile layout on a week-to-week basis both on Windows Phone and Windows 8. I like to mix things up!

Well now Windows Phone users will be able to pick a few new settings for their start screen starting with the extra column of tiles. I’ve wanted this since I saw it on the larger Nokia Lumia 1520 devices. Unfortunately, I wouldn’t recommend that if you have a lower resolution device like the Nokia Lumia 520 that you turn this option on even though it is available to you. The small tiles will be smaller than your little finger. However, on a device the size of the Nokia Lumia 820 upwards, you’ll find that the extra column gives you a little more freedom with your layout.

Another option is to have an image that overlays the tiles. At the moment, I don’t like this and it’s not the fault of Microsoft. Many app developers like to use their own colour scheme or image for their Live Tile which is fair enough but the overlay image only works on those apps that use a transparent background on their Live Tile. You’ll know the transparent ones because they are set to your theme colour, in my case, cyan.

Notifications and the Action Center

Notification and Action Center

Get quick access to your settings and notifications

I’ve been a Windows Phone user since 2010 when Windows Phone 7 was announced and released. Like some others out there, Windows Phone was my first proper smart phone experience and I got used to the fact that my notifications were in the form of information on a Live Tile. Microsoft must have seen that there was a demand for the notification center though as both Android and iOS have one so now we do too. It isn’t a bad thing though.

When a notification pops up on your phone, you often don’t want to read it now so you come back to it later thinking ‘What application was that notification for?‘. Well all of those notifications are registered in the notification center now and you can even turn off the banner notifications. You’ll get a nice handy notification in the bar at the top when you have a new notification and all you need to do is swipe down to open them.

As for settings, you get 4 options at the top which you can choose from. These are fully customisable so you can pick the ones that suit you best.

Word Flow Keyboard

It is impressive that the Windows Phone Word Flow keyboard has snagged the fastest smartphone keyboard Guinness World Record. What’s more impressive is how it feels to use it. I have only ever tried the swipe keyboard on an Android device once and personally didn’t like it. I’m used to typing fast on both a touch and physical keyboard but Word Flow is fantastic at recognising words when you move your finger around the keyboard.

Word Flow Emoji

Detecting words as Emoji in Word Flow

What impresses me the most about Word Flow though is its connection to the Emoji keyboard. Emoji has become very popular for quickly sending a message with pictures to replace words.

People Hub and Social Apps

People Hub

Better ways to find your contacts

The People Hub has been vastly improved with Windows Phone 8.1 with some great features for integrating with social application such as Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare and more! Microsoft have removed the integration with Facebook internally and is now leaving it up to developers to integrate themselves with the different areas of Windows Phone.

When you swipe across to see your contacts status updates depending on the application that they have come from, i.e. Facebook, when you click on the status it will load it up in the application and not internally on the phone. This is great for getting consumers straight into what they want and having one experience and not a mixed experience. So no longer will you update your status using the People Hub’s integrated features, when you decide to update your status using the People Hub now it will take you straight to the app itself ready to type.

Internet Explorer

James Croft Mobile Site

This is where you are now!

In Windows Phone 8, my website was broken due to features that weren’t available in the earlier version of Internet Explorer. With the latest update, it will bring a better experience for Windows Phone users on many websites that seemed broken on Windows Phone 8 including YouTube. This means that you can watch your videos in-line and still have the flexibility to comment and do other things while your video is playing. This will also mean that many responsive websites will fully function on Windows Phone as they should, like mine.

WebGL

Say hello to WebGL!

One major update though is WebGL capabilities. Now, one downside is that it doesn’t support all areas of WebGL but don’t worry, I’m sure that more features will come in future updates as standards are set in stone for these new web technologies. For now, this is a great improvement and will allow more HTML5 game developers to make awesome 3D games for Windows Phone.

Volume Control

Multiple Options

Multiple options for volume

It’s no longer a one setting fits all scenario with Windows Phone 8.1. You now have the freedom to change both the ringer/notification sound and the sound that comes from applications. This means you can play your games in peace with the volume all the way down while still being able to here when notifications are pinging off in the background. You even get a quick action button for turning vibrate on and off meaning you no longer have to go into your settings to turn it off or on.

And finally, Cortana

You didn’t think that I would forget Cortana did you?

Hello James

Cortana greets me every time I need help

Cortana is fantastic and there is so much to the way it has been built that makes it a truly remarkable experience. As a bit of a background, Cortana is built on top of Bing. Where Bing search once was on Windows Phone 8, Cortana now is. It is very intelligent and the natural language functionality is incredible. With many of these natural language inventions though, it needs to learn so don’t be alarmed if it can’t answer your questions with a voice response. It is only new remember.

However, Cortana knows how to do a lot of functions with your phone and is very intelligent in the way it handles them. For example, asking it to remind you to do something on a day at a certain time will automatically set you a reminder to do that thing. Here is an example:

Cortana

Cortana setting me a reminder

It can pick up key words from your speech to build a response. In this example, I asked Cortana the following command: “Remind me to sort my passport out tomorrow in the morning”. It picked out the key phrases and asked me if the reminder was okay. From this example, you can see that it recognised in the morning as 8.00. If you don’t like the suggestion though, you can quickly tap on the bit you want changing and just change it manually or be more precise when you ask for things.

More commands

Cortana can do more than remind you to do things!

 

Cortana isn’t just a reminder tool though. It has a multitude of functions and has the capability of developers to tie into it also making it possibly one of the largest ‘all-knowing’ assistants. Foursquare already have their application integrated into Cortana and we will see many more in the future.

So what happened to Bing search? Cortana is now your method of searching Bing. You can choose to type your search or just ask Cortana to search for you. When it does a Bing search, like Windows 8.1, you will get results for the web, images, videos, news and even your phone. When it searches your phone it will go through messages, names of apps, emails, appointments and more and display the results to you. This is a little hidden feature that I’m sure many will discover very soon.

Overall

Windows Phone 8.1 is a massive update and a complete overhaul of the mobile OS. There is much more to show you but due to the large number of fantastic changes to the OS, I can’t show you every little change and all I can say is go get the update. Whether you’re downloading it now to start developing for or if you just want to have a play with it, I recommend that you become a developer and get the developer preview downloaded to your device. For everyone else, you won’t have to wait long and I promise it will be worth the wait.

Windows Phone is a fantastic OS and I see a bright future for Microsoft with both the Windows Phone and Windows 8 platforms. The unity between the two is not far from being complete which will make a better whole round experience for consumers.

Now we have it, get developing! I know I will be!

Author James Croft

James is a senior software developer for Black Marble and Microsoft MVP in Windows Development with over 6 years of experience developing applications for the Windows platform. James’s passion for learning new technologies gives him the opportunities to expose them to the wider community through tutorials, lessons learned and best practices through his online blog site, personal YouTube channel, and local communities through talks at events, schools and universities.

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