What's new in Windows Phone 8.1?

Microsoft has unveiled the latest version of its mobile operating system, Windows Phone 8.1, at its Build 2014 annual conference in San Francisco.

Windows Phone 8 was introduced in October 2011. Three updates later and it was time for a major overhaul. Enter Windows Phone 8.1 with a smorgasbord of updates that make the OS richer and more enticing.

We've seen Windows Phone 8.1 in action on the Nokia Lumia 930, Lumia 630 and Lumia 635. It's worth remembering that what you see on these devices is a combination of Windows Phone 8.1 and Nokia Cyan. We've tried to keep the two separate so what we cover here is coming from Microsoft's side.

Here are some of the major Windows Phone 8.1 features to get excited about.

Action Centre

Users of Windows Phone have long been asking for more detailed top-level notifications and, mostly, a pull-down menu. It is one of the top features of Android, so much so that Apple integrated it into iOS. Now Microsoft is following suit. Microsoft has heeded requests and introduced what it calls Action Centre.

Action Centre can be pulled down to access four toggle buttons, set to switch on and off Wi-Fi, controlling brightness, messaging and phone settings by default, but these can be customised. It also offers direct access to the settings menu, which is quick, easy and convenient.

The Action Centre has a wide variety of options allowing users to modify what is displayed in notifications to suit their needs. These notifications are much more useful than toast notifications, so it should be much faster to scan and action your incoming messages.

Volume settings

There are now independent volume controls for the ringer and notifications and media and apps.

This is likely to be widely popular as the previous volume arrangement on Windows Phone was fairly limiting.

Cortana

Named after the artificial intelligence character in the Halo games, Cortana is Microsoft's version of Siri or Google Now. Using Bing search and intelligent spoken interaction, Cortana works as a personal assistant allowing users to control their phone without touching the screen. Since Microsoft is new to this area we're eager to see just how well this works. You'll be able to access Cortana though the search icon and it accepts both spoken and typed input.

Cortana has its own live tile to feed information the user might like in a Google Now style. It can do searches, control calendars, send messages, make calls and more. But Cortana can be extended through third party apps allowing you to control them via voice alone.

Cortana has its own "Notebook" which shows everything it has learned about the user, meaning it can be edited. It also gets to know a user's friends and family which can be placed on an "inner circle". This is useful for "Quiet hours" which only let the inner circle through during that time. Occasionally Cortana will ask questions as it get to know you, helping it refine the information it will provide.

When searching for restaurants, Cortana will incorporate Bing's Yelp data so the user can narrow down choices by asking for specifics like star ratings.

Cortana can also be used as a local search via typing. Search for an email from a certain person directly from the search bar, for example. Or set a reminder by typing: "remind me when I get home to cook dinner for my wife," and it will recognise when the user is home to remind them.

Cortana can be extended through third party apps allowing you to control them via voice alone. For example a user can say: "Cortana get James Philips on Skype" and it will open the app and call that person. For US users HuluPlus can be used to add shows to a user's playlist. Facebook is also integrated allowing users to ask what's happening with a certain person to instantly be taken to their feed.

Cortana will be launching in beta in the US before rolling out to the rest of the world later in 2014, separately from the rest of the Windows Phone 8.1 update.

Live tiles

Live tiles have become even more live. Not only do they update with information from the app, but they can also be marked as read using a swipe across them. No more notification numbers appearing then when users have read the message on another device.

Now you'll be able to pin a webpage as a live tile and rather than just being a static thumbnail, it will update with information from that website, like news, for example.

You can also now opt for an extra row of tiles if you want more on your Start screen.

There is a new customisation option too, that will let you change the background wallpaper, so you can select any photo you have on your device and make that the wallpaper for your Start screen, in addition to the normal themes and background colours.

Wi-Fi Sense

The Sense apps allow users to control the phone's power draining functions. The new Wi-Fi Sense app is able to automatically connect a user to free Wi-Fi when in range, automatically accepting terms of use in the portal that usually requires a user to open a window. Impressive, if it works. Conversely, you'll get the option to opt-out of connecting to Wi-Fi hotspots if you prefer.

What's even more clever, is that if you log into a Wi-Fi connection on a Windows PC, your Windows Phone 8.1 device will also remember that Wi-Fi spot and automatically connect to it.

There's another clever function in Wi-Fi Sense that allows you to easily share your Wi-Fi network, or take advantage of a friend's network. What this will do is let you automatically share your Wi-Fi network password with friends. You get to elect which networks are recognised (Facebook, Skype, Outlook) and if those people walk into your home, they will be able to instantly connect to your home Wi-Fi without you having to give them a password.

Again, you can control and turn this off if you don't want it.

Data Sense, Storage Sense

In addition to Wi-Fi Sense there are Data and Storage Sense apps. Data Sense isn't new as we have it on our Nokia Lumia 925, but this will let you keep track of your data usage, telling you which apps are eating data.

Storage Sense offers the same sort of thing, however will let you easily move content from one storage area to another.

Battery saver

Battery saver has been refreshed, breaking down apps to detail what has been using the power.

There's also a saver option - as there is on Windows Phone 8 - but on Windows Phone 8.1 it will engage at 20 per cent remaining life (by default). Microsoft claims you'll then get 24 hours of life. This is similar to HTC's extreme power saver mode on the HTC One (M8), or Samsung's equivalent on the Samsung Galaxy S5.

Calendar

The stock calendar has been updated to play friendlier with external sources and look more like Outlook on the PC.

Google Calendar can now be pulled into the WP 8.1 native app allowing users to access everything in one place. It's even smart enough to pull in the weather so you'll know what to wear before heading out the door. And a week view mode has been added, at last.

Word Flow Keyboard

The stock Windows Phone 8.1 keyboard now has trace input. This allows users to slide their finger across the screen to type at high speed. It will even intelligently add emoticons based on what's being typed.

We've had the chance to play with this and its very impressive. We've used plenty of smart keyboards and this addition to Windows Phone 8.1 should make a huge difference to those using it every day. In our quick test we found it to be fast and pretty accurate.

Like keyboards such as SwiftKey, the new Windows Phone 8.1 keyboard will learn your language and evolve to give you better word predictions.

Deeper integration across devices

One of the welcomed changes that comes with Windows Phone 8.1 and Windows 8.1 is a deeper integration across devices. You'll be able to "Sync my settings" across devices, setting your Windows PC, tablet and Windows Phone with the same theme.

There's also smarter handling of things like passwords. Like Wi-Fi Sense, Internet Explorer 11 will sync tabs and favourites across devices, so you can open up a tab on your phone you were looking at on your PC. You'll also get password syncing across devices, so when you sign-in to a website on your PC, you'll be signed-in on your phone.

This sounds very much like the way that Google Chrome works between the desktop browser and mobile browser on Android, so should save a lot of time.

Developers will also be able to create apps that you only have to buy once and can then be used anywhere, without having to pay for a desktop version and a mobile version. Unless the developer wants to, because they'll still be able to charge for apps separately if they want.

Bing

Bing searching not only hooks into Cortana (or vice-versa), but the Bing searching is now more intelligent than before. It will search across your device, as well as the internet, but now you can use it for specific searches like "sync my settings" which will take you to that part of the settings directly.

Bing apps will now come preinstalled on Windows Phone 8.1.

People

The People hub is one of the nice places that Windows Phone pulls in a number of sources.

In Windows Phone 8.1 this will be enhanced, with the options for connections expanding. Third-party apps will be able to get access, so you can have other sources of information for your contacts all rolling into one place.

Skype is more integrated

Skype is one of the apps that will be heavily integrated into Windows Phone 8.1.

There will be a Skype button in the dialer, meaning you can easily place a Skype call to a contact. However, the really exciting thing is that you'll be able to switch from a cellular call to a Skype video call.

In the in-call menu you'll have the option to switch, meaning, for example, that you could be mid-call and decide you want to show something to the person you're talking to, or just move to data rather than talk plan minutes.

Camera

There's a new stock camera app in Windows Phone 8.1. The big change is that it allows you to customise the viewfinder, so you can have the important things you want right at your fingertips.

There are plenty of options too, making the stock camera app much more dynamic than it was previously.

When can I get Windows Phone 8.1?

Windows Phone 8.1 will start rolling out to older phones in the coming months. New devices will arrive with it by late April and early May.