Excitement for the forthcoming Windows Phone 8.1 update is growing, but with so many new features and improvements it can be difficult to focus on a specific reason to upgrade – or even switch.
We’ve picked five of the most important changes to Microsoft’s mobile OS that should be of interest to most users, regardless of which platform they currently use.
Windows Phone Now Has A Notification Area!
In older Windows Phone releases, toast popups at the top of the screen would inform you of social media updates and notifications from installed apps.
Should you be quick enough to spot such a popup, you might dismiss it with a simple swipe – but if you missed it, then it was tough, basically, as there was no way to revisit any lost notifications.
With Windows Phone 8.1 this has been changed, with a notification area – one of the most-requested features for the platform – finally introduced, and opened by swiping down from the top of the screen.
Cleverly, it has two stages. A small swipe reveals only the WiFi, Bluetooth, Airplane Mode and Rotation Lock buttons, shortcuts (rather than toggles) to the appropriate settings screen. Also included here is a shortcut to the Settings screen.
By swiping the full length of the screen, however, the notification area opens up fully, listing social network interactions, messages from your apps and unread emails from all of your inboxes. These can either be addressed in turn or dismissed with the Clear All button.
Customise The Start Screen
One of the biggest complaints with Windows Phone 7 and Windows Phone 8 was the reduced set of customization options. While it was possible to switch background colours and accents, the choice was limited.
While this hasn’t been completely revised, it has been improved upon with the addition of Start screen tile backgrounds and the option to add a new column. This new column increases the number of apps and pinned tiles that can be saved to the Start screen and is a very useful addition.
Both options can be managed by opening Settings > Start + theme, where you can select a new background photo from a list of stunning-yet-subtle images or from your own gallery. Scroll down and you’ll also find the option to enable or disable Show more Tiles.
Note that this function will alter the resolution of your Start screen – you’ll see from the accompanying images that you’ll need to start moving tiles around (long tap, then drag) to fill in the gaps.
Hopefully the ability to re-orientate the Start screen tiles when the phone is flipped into landscape mode will come in Windows Phone 9. After all, Windows 8 can do it.
Travel Safely With Driving Mode
Many smartphone users mount their devices in their cars and use them as mini carputers, if only to take advantage of satnav apps like Nokia Here+ Drive.
Using a phone when you’re driving is, of course, inherently unsafe and in most countries it’s illegal.
To help you to focus on the road, Driving Mode can be set up to activate automatically when you’re driving, using the proximity of a Bluetooth device to enable it.
Better still, calls and/or texts can be ignored, with an editable canned text message response provided that will be automatically sent while you’re driving.
Speak To Cortana, Organize Your Life
Perhaps the biggest selling point for those considering buying Windows Phone 8.1 is Cortana, the voice-controlled digital assistant based on the fictional AI of the same name from the Halo series.
A rival to Siri and Google Now, Cortana can manage your calendar, make calls, open apps, play music, check the weather and search the Web.
We’ve previously covered how to set up Cortana and how to take advantage of its voice control system, and this really is a very exciting new feature, at least as good as Siri and relies on the Bing search engine for data. Windows Phone has been closely tied to Bing since the beginning, something that now enables Cortana to play an important role in how you can use your phone!
Improved Camera App
One of the main strengths of Windows Phone devices – mainly because they’re nearly all Nokias – is the camera.
With Windows Phone 8.1, Microsoft has introduced a new camera app, complete with a configurable viewfinder menu and quick options to switch between resolution, front or back camera, and even ISO, exposure and white balance.
While it doesn’t have the same depth of features as the Nokia Smart Cam app, the Windows Phone 8.1 camera is an improvement on the old stock camera.
Windows Phone 8.1: You’re Ready Now
Many users have been surprised by the amount of new features in the Windows Phone 8.1 update – still in the developer preview stage, but easily installed – and the five top additions listed here are just the tip of an iceberg that also includes full Skype and improved Facebook integration.
Could it be that this new release of the mobile OS has finally brought Windows Phone to life? We wont know for sure until the full version is rolled out later this year, but until then things are looking encouraging.
Do you have any favourite new features or improvements in Windows Phone 8.1? Let us know what you think!