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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.

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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.

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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 Four Ways To Customize Your Windows Phone Four Ways To Customize Your Windows Phone Same old is boring! If you’re getting tired of the same old lock screen, ringtone or Windows Phones' limited tile colours, it's time to take action and customize your phone. Read More , the choice was limited.

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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 Turn Your Windows Phone Into A Carputer With These Apps Turn Your Windows Phone Into A Carputer With These Apps Need to use your Windows Phone in the car? Windows Phone 8 offers various tools that can be used to assist and entertain you while driving, including maps, dashcams, and car mode interfaces. Read More , if only to take advantage of satnav apps like Nokia Here+ Drive.

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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.

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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 5 Ways Your Windows Phone Experience Is Enhanced By Bing 5 Ways Your Windows Phone Experience Is Enhanced By Bing Bing plays a massive role in Windows Phone. It provides voice search, music recognition, photo translation, and other search tools. Bing is so tightly integrated into Windows Phone, you can almost forget it's there. Read More 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.

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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 Take Amazing Photos On Your Lumia With Nokia Camera Take Amazing Photos On Your Lumia With Nokia Camera Nokia Lumia phones are known for their great cameras. The Nokia Camera app helps to redress the balance, offering total control over things like white balance, ISO and exposure time from within the viewfinder. Read More , 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!

  1. vikas
    September 30, 2014 at 3:41 am

    My calander doesn't rotate in Lumia 720 after 8.1 update plz help

    • Christian C
      October 2, 2014 at 6:34 am

      Vikas, you should take your problem to our http://www.makeuseof.com/answers/ page where it's more likely to be seen by someone who may be able to help you.

  2. Ryan
    May 17, 2014 at 12:00 pm

    The date I have heard for 8.1 is June 24th from various WP places on the web. My experience with MS is that they usually stick with dates of rollouts, so I'll go with this date for now. The Developers Preview update they released just a couple days ago went a LONG way in improving performance, battery life, and stability overall. It is already a great and fluid OS (this coming from an Android addict)!

  3. Marc
    May 16, 2014 at 8:01 pm

    Will 8.1 allow you to use your own custom sounds for text messages? When you reply to an email will you be allowed to browse your "One Drive" or local documents to attach a file? Or will you still be limited to attaching pictures on replies and having to compose a new message by browsing your documents, holding the screen for a few seconds and then clicking "share"?

  4. Jim Gibson
    May 15, 2014 at 11:33 am

    Do we have a definative date for this release I know you said later in the year but....

  5. Sreeraj R
    May 14, 2014 at 4:45 pm

    Driving mode is not a windowsphone 8.1 addition. I think it came up with Gdr3 or lumia black..

    • Christian C
      May 14, 2014 at 4:56 pm

      Hi Sreeraj. That's weird, I thought it was 8.1 because it didn't appear in my GDR3 update.

      Still, it's worth highlighting.

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