Nearly four years old, Windows Phone is about to get its fifth major update, one that brings functional improvements to all areas of the platform. Windows Phone 8.1 is coming, and this is why you should upgrade.
Upgrading To Windows Phone 8.1
Set for full release in mid-2014, Windows Phone 8.1 should become available via your network carrier. When available, the upgrade – which you can check for in Settings > Phone Update – will require several gigabytes (final figure still to be confirmed, but probably around 3) of free space on your phone in order to install.
Note that a pre-release developer version of Windows Phone 8.1 is currently available, but this is limited to those with developer accounts. If you followed our guide on using the Windows Phone app building tool, you may have one of these already – if so, the update is available to you!
All Windows Phone 8 devices are compatible with the update (including the Nokia Lumia 520), although some features may be limited, based on the available hardware.
So, what’s all the fuss about?
Windows Phone 8.1: Microsoft’s Mobile Platform Reaches Maturity
The big expectation with Windows Phone 8.1 is that the improvements to the operating system will finally put the platform on an even keel with Android and iOS.
Rather than being an upgrade, however, Windows Phone 8.1 is more of an overhaul – think the difference between Windows Phone 8 and its predecessor Windows Phone 7 to get an idea of how comprehensive the differences are.
It’s around 18 months since Windows Phone 8 was released. The introduction of Windows Phone 8.1 is part of Microsoft’s previously-stated aim to stick to an 18 month upgrade cycle for the OS. Future upgrade dates are hazy at this stage, although some rumours claim that a Windows Phone 8.2/Windows Phone 9 will be released some time in 2015.
With regular updates, Microsoft can offer its users the same regular tweaks and improvements that Google and Apple deliver when they upgrade their operating systems.
What To Expect From Windows Phone 8.1
Although unavailable until June, many excellent features and improvements have been introduced in Windows Phone 8.1, such as Skype integrated into the phone dialer (at long last) and a new version of Internet Explorer. Over 100 improvements are introduced with some of the most notable listed below.
Improved Tile Sizing – Windows Phone users have been stuck with a limited selection of tile sizes since 2010, but with the new update this is expanded. An additional column of small tiles has been added, and the result is a better set of options to customize the way your phone looks.
Start Screen Backgrounds – New tiles are only part of the equation. Customization options for Windows Phone have been limited but with the 8.1 update you’ll be able to add your own Start screen backgrounds. The possibilities here are considerable, especially when combined with the new tile options.
Action Center – One of the key things Windows Phone 8 got wrong was the requirement to open a new screen to toggle Wi-Fi, wireless Internet, Bluetooth and other connection options. Even third party apps adding Start screen shortcuts are restricted in what they can do – rather than toggling when tapped, they take you directly to the relevant settings screen. Action Center changes that, combining quick access to toggle buttons and access to alerts and other notifications.
Bluetooth Upgraded – Bluetooth has had a slow start on Windows Phone, only managing to offer support for in-car kits since 2012. In Windows Phone 8.1, Bluetooth 4.0 LE (low energy) is introduced, offering support for heart rate monitor accessories and other health-related hardware and related apps.
Improved App Management – App management on Windows Phone 8 is quite basic, limited to installing and uninstalling. With the update applied, users will be able to install apps to an SD card, with app and game data also saved on removable storage. Apps can be set to update automatically or limited to updating over wireless networking, while the Windows Phone Store is set to get an overhaul.
Camera Revised, Burst Mode – Action shots can be tricky with any camera – Windows Phone users will benefit from a new burst mode when the upgrade is applied, enabling better capturing of action and rapid activity. The new feature also comes with an auto-delete tool, useful for ensuring your phone does not become full of burst photos! The camera user interface is also redesigned in Windows Phone 8.1.
Podcasts, Audio & Video – Various revisions have been made to the audio and video media management on Windows Phone 8.1. Along with support for hardware accelerated transcoding and media editing, Xbox Music and Xbox Video will be split into separate apps. Podcast fans will be happy to know that an improved interface is available in a new Bing-powered app for downloading and streaming your favourite shows.
Keyboard/Text Entry Updated – Back in 2010,Windows Phone 7 had a really good keyboard when compared to the competition, but Windows Phone 8 failed to build on this. Although it is possible to use the keyboard for effective text entry it has certainly fallen behind iOS and Android – BlackBerry too, for that matter. In Windows Phone 8.1, this is dealt with, as Microsoft introduces various enhancements including a swipe keyboard option for ultra-fast text entry.
Don’t Forget Cortana!
Of all of the new features in Windows Phone 8.1, the one drawing the most attention is the speech recognition system Cortana.
Speech recognition in Windows Phone 8 is nothing new, but Cortana is an improvement that brings Siri and Google Now levels of vocal interaction with your phone.
Capable of launching apps, making dates, calling people, searching the web, Cortana – named after the AI character in Microsoft’s Halo video game series – also connects to third party apps (for instance, you might want to verbally check-in in Foursquare while it isn’t delivering news and weather to your Start screen.
The implications of a quality voice search and task management system are obviously considerable, especially for business users, and Cortana is expected to be a big hit.
Look Forward To Windows 8.1 – The Most Important Update Yet!
Listed here are just some of the more notable improvements coming to Windows Phone in 2014. Each is important in its own way, and some will enthuse users more than others – for instance, improved Bluetooth support will be extremely useful for those on a health kick, but perhaps less important if you don’t need to monitor your heart rate.
Start screen backgrounds and tiles aside, however, the most important improvement to arrive in Windows Phone 8.1 will be Cortana, the voice recognition search and task management tool. How it compares with Google Now and Siri remains to be seen, but first impressions are strong.
Are you looking forward to Windows Phone 8.1? Let us know your most anticipated new feature in the comments.