Windows Phone 8.1 review

4 out of 5
free update

For

Action centre notifications, multiple tile rows for all devices, prettier Start screen, Cortana works as well as its competitors and Notebook personalisation is positive, Wi-Fi sense can take the pain out of laborious sign-up

Against

Would like more tile customisation, more quick actions wanted, dual maps software seems confused, calendar sync issues with Gmail delegate accounts, will we genuinely use Cortana's speech?

Windows Phone 8.1 is (sort of) here and it's a much needed boost to the Microsoft operating system. Better presentation, more personalisation, the voice assist Cortana, quick actions and notifications via Action Center and a number of other tweaks throughout.

At this stage WP8.1 is in its developer preview build, with the final consumer product due shortly. Some features will not roll out in the UK until a later time, while the separate Nokia Cyan release and the specific extras this brings aren't something we can look at just yet. We'll be updating this review to reflect those changes as and when they arrive.

With the new features in place does Windows Phone 8.1 add up to a complete experience and can it now hold its own against Android and iOS devices? Here's a rundown of the major WP8.1 updates and what we make of them.

New Start screen

The familiar tile based Start screen looks much the same as the earlier Windows Phone 8 release by default even after installing 8.1. But there's a lot more customisation available: three tile columns are at your disposal (not restricted just to high-resolution devices) and a personalised background picture can be applied to Windows live tiles. It evolves the earlier palette of primary colours for these tiles into something with more visual depth. Classic tiles remain a solid colour, such as Nokia Camera.

The main backdrop is black by default or can be switched for white - the software terms this as "dark" and "light" - which avoids things being an overly complex melting pot of colour. If you could choose from a million different shades we suspect the neat and tidy design would be made to look like a dog's dinner. Instead there are a handful of primary colour "accents" available for the text to give an added point of interest.

However, it's still just the one Start screen that's available. You can't swipe to additional screens - right swipe is reserved for an apps list anyway - and if, like us, you throw a boat load of apps and shortcuts to the Start screen it can start to look busy.

Tiles can also only be arranged in three sizes: elongated over two columns, square over one column space, or as a small square half the height and width of the larger square. With the smallest tiles there's no longer a limitation to how many you're allowed to use. We would like to see some additional sizes to make the most of the three column width, including customisable sizes for making more out of live tile preview.

Action Center

Hooray, Windows Phone 8.1 introduces a swipe down settings and notifications screen called Action Center. This makes a big difference in use because you needn't exit an app to glance at that email that's just landed. Store, phone calls, messages and more also appear here.

At the top of Action Center are four "quick actions" buttons. By default these are Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Airplane mode and screen rotation lock, but they can be changed to other options should you wish. Although you'll need to jump through extra hurdles to access the notifications section in the settings menu to adjust them.

We would like to see more quick actions slots available, as Android offers 12 at last count, and we find this a neater access point to general settings. In general you can throw app and settings shortcuts onto the Start screen, but like we say this gets busy.

Cortana

Windows Phone voice assistant is here. Well, it is if you're in the USA. Cortana - yes, it's the same name as the virtual chick from the Halo game series - is due for release in the UK and China in the second half of 2014.

But we've fooled our preview device into thinking we're all American. Not with our best accents, but with some settings tweaks. If you want to do the same (if you're not an HTC 8S or 8X owner) then follow our step by step guide below.

READ: How to get Cortana on Windows Phone in the UK

The big question: can Cortana take on Google Now and Apple's Siri? Yes, it can. Microsoft has managed to generate a decent voice system that's easy to understand and tied into its Bing search engine, maps and more.

The other big question: do we care? Not really. As much as we've always seen the potential in Google Now, for example, we have more or less never seen much use for it. And Cortana essentially falls into the same camp for us. It's the epitome of futuristic, but this is real life rather than a sci-fi movie.

To speak to Cortana you'll need to open the app or press and hold the search key that's hard wired into Windows Phone devices. Once open a press of the virtual microphone symbol opens dialogue, so there's no hands-free communication at this stage. Although if, and in the same way as "Xbox on", you could just say "Cortana" then we're sure some smart ass on a public train would have a giggle with a full carriage of commuters' Windows Phone devices by shouting out loud. Depending, that is, on how many Windows Phone users make up the percentage of commuters. So we can see why there's a physical press of a virtual key required.

Cortana comes into use less the speech side of things and more with its link to your personal interests, known as "notebook". Its live tile will flash up current news, it knows your current location for live weather, it can link in to what is around you when you ask for it - by text or voice, it's up to you - and you can tell it when the phone is to be quiet so you can get a peaceful night's sleep. If there's an emergency, however, then your "inner circle" contacts can still get through, it's just a case of updating the notebook to tell Cortana your preferences.

Battery saver

It's taken a long time for decent battery saving tech to arrive in Windows Phone. In 8.1 the system handles battery consumption with considerable detail, bringing it on par with the most recent Android phones, such as the HTC One (M8) and its various power saver and extreme power saving modes.

READ: HTC One (M8) review

In the WP8.1 update a battery saver option limits the phone's functionality in order to slow depletion and extend life per charge. It can be switched off, set to kick in when the battery is low, or there are options to have it always on, or only on until the next charge. That final option might be useful for when at festivals and without access to charge for a couple of days at a time.

What lacks is the ability to define what "when battery is low" means. In some other systems, such as Sony's power saver mode in Android, you can give the precise percentage of remaining battery life that needs to be met before the mode kicks in. We'd like to see Windows Phone pick up that feature.

There are plenty of specific extra controls too, such as defining which apps are permitted to run when battery saver is activated. Apps can be canned from running in the background, or entirely disabled when the mode is active. You'll want to keep an eye on what you select within the options as to not make your phone too "dumb" though - although that might be your goal if all you want is text messages and calls.

Data Sense also makes a return, providing a way to cap and track data usage. Some overseas carriers don't support this app, but it's not an issue we've had in the UK.

Wi-Fi Sense

More sense, less fuss. That's the name of the game. Windows Phone 8.1 is the first platform to option an intelligent Wi-Fi system that is always looking for Wi-Fi hotspots to auto connect to.

You know when you're at the airport and there's a network that offers 30-minutes free, or when in Starbucks and you need to enter an email address to gain access? It's all a faff to sign up to. Windows Phone 8.1 aims to eradicate that slow, laborious data entry part of the process. You can confirm name and email sign in details in advance and let the phone accept the terms of use for you.

So far, so impressed. But it goes one step further than that: you can share Wi-Fi networks with Outlook and Skype contacts and Facebook friends. Permission is required, but we're less taken by this aspect of the service. Sending such information across Outlook doesn't sound particularly secure to us, and we wouldn't want a bunch of our contacts necessarily using the same networks as us for the sake of bandwidth anyway.

Furthermore not all Wi-Fi networks are secure - it states it in black and white in the settings page to ensure that certain asses are covered - and with Wi-Fi Sense on you could be dipping in and out of all manner of unknown network connections. Fortunately financial information is not held, so the system cannot sign into a pay-for service.

We like the concept of Wi-Fi Sense. It's the sort of thing that makes life easier, and we like an easy life. This is Windows stepping ahead of the competition, although we're sure we'll hear about some future horror stories. The simple fact a device can automatically confirm compliance with terms and conditions without you reading them shows how little worth is given to such terms, but also opens up users to potential problems if those terms are less than friendly.

Calendar

Sometimes it's the little things that make a big difference. And the older Windows Phone 8 calendar was pretty much pants. Enter Windows Phone 8.1 and things are much better. There's a week view for starters, not just the day or month offering as before. Like we say, it's the little things.

It's possible to sync all manner of accounts to the calendar via the "email+account" settings. Multiple calendars are no problem and can be colour coded, so your Gmail could be blue for work and your personal Outlook could be red, for example. We opted for lilac, obviously.

Email accounts can be sourced from Exchange, Outlook, Nokia Mail, Yahoo Mail, Google, IBM Notes Travellers, iCloud, Facebook, Twitter, Sina Weibo, POP, IMAP or manually via an advanced setup. Relevant calendars can then be made to sync where available.

Sounds like every base is covered, but it's not. In our update we had issues with the CalDev protocol that Gmail uses. Manual updates were required to get that operational, after which it appears that delegate accounts within Gmail Calendar cannot sync. That sounds like a small thing, but our work calendar is sourced from here, so it's a big nuisance for our needs as we can't get it to display on Windows Phone. On Android and iOS we needn't do anything except sign in and everything presents itself.

Small changes, big difference

There are other small changes that go a long way too. You can adjust the ringer/notifications volume separate to media playback. A no brainer, but a bug that's been a problem for a long time on this platform.

With multiple apps open the multitasking app viewer takes on the swipe-to-quit Android style. There's no longer the need to fiddle around with clicking "x" buttons to close things down.

For browsing Internet Explorer 11 makes it debut, introducing great features such as the ability to share across devices. Sync Windows devices and you can be reading a handful of browser tabs in IE11 on your Windows PC and then open your phone to continue from where you left off. Very cool.

The revamped Store takes on a similar concept. Buy an app, share it across your Windows ecosystem. The whole Store also looks a lot better in the visuals department. It's clean and easy to navigate.

Lastly the Word Flow keyboard tackles the speedy drag-to-type approach, much like apps Swype and SwiftKey have offered for a long time on the Android platform. Again, this is Microsoft playing catch up, but it has indeed caught up. And that's what counts.

Areas to improve

A lot of our positive praise seems based around Windows Phone adopting many of the logical things that Android and iOS have had for a longer period of time. As those operating systems have honed in on what's important, they've become less about "my OS is better than your OS" and more about delivering a user interface that users want. The more similar these platforms become the more familiar that language becomes for all.

And yet Windows Phone 8.1 still has some slight rough edges. The elongated access to various settings feels a little scruffy, the limitation to the number of quick actions that can be put in place of Action Centre, the very fact we'll need to wait until mid 2014 for all this to be fully in place in the UK. By which time, we anticipate seeing what Apple will be delivering in iOS 8.

 

The other area Windows Phone 8.1 falls down with is its overall speed. It's a small thing, but to need to watch tiles filing off screen in an animation before an app opens feels far slow compared to many other modern handsets. Power users will feel this, and we've been using a cream of the crop Lumia 1020.

There's still some general oddness too. Microsoft maps appears alongside Here maps, for example, both of which are roughly the same. For both to appear is just pointless and confusing. The way Nokia used to handle its multiple Camera app options was similarly confusing, before more recently condensing it into the single app point of access. Although, again, in WP8.1 there are multiple camera options from the native app and the Nokia one. There's just no need.

Verdict

Windows Phone 8.1 brings the operating system up to date. It's more colourful, more customisable, more intelligent and more usable than before. If anything it's more Android and iOS than before, but with that Windows twist and some additional quirks.

A lot of the small bugbears that users had with the earlier operating system have been addressed. We'd still like a faster overall experience and some more quick access options, but it's almost there.

When it comes to apps there are more than ever available, a snazzier Store, and Cortana is noteworthy for its personal integration rather than its won't-use-it interactive speech. Still, overall there are fewer apps available than the competition offers. Some games and third party apps that lack, although not to that point it stings too much for those day to day tasks. Twitter, Facebook, Skype and more cover the majority of bases.

Windows Phone has evolved and WP8.1 is a signifier of how far it could yet go. Much of what it's doing is holding a mirror up to the Android and iOS systems of this world, but as that language and usability becomes more universal, Microsoft is on the right path in adapting to its own needs and adding some of its own positive twists and turns too.