Windows Phone 8.1 was released on 14th April 2014 and has significant new features and performance improvements. Despite the huge changes, Microsoft chose to call it 8.1 to align it with It's PC counterpart. It is only available for update on Developer unlocked phones and not to the general audience yet. I recently updated my Lumia 720 and here is my feedback.
To know how to Developer unlock your Windows Phone, visit Windows Phone Dev Center.
What's in for Developers?
There are a lot of new features and new APIs available for developers in the areas of programming, packaging, connectivity, security, UI, etc. Check out the link below to get a comprehensive list of all changes in the new release. The rest of the article discusess the new features from a user's perspective, not from a developer's perspective.
Application startup speed improvements
Windows Phone 8.1 is significantly faster than Windows Phone 8. The two major areas where you'll see noticeable improvements are Faster App Start time and faster revival of apps from the 'Tombstoned' state, i.e. when you switch to a previous opened app using Task Switcher (long press Back key) or going back to the previous app by pressing the back key. After the update, the phone is more responsive and I feel as if I've got a new phone with better hardware.
Improved Start screen with more tiles
Your phone now has 50% more space across. That means you can have six small tiles across instead of four or three medium tiles across instead of two. This allows you to have more icons in less space and open apps without scrolling in the start screen.
Windows Phone 8
Windows Phone 8.1
You can enable this option from Settings -> start+theme. Scroll down to the bottom and switch on Show more Tiles option
Start screen background
Windows Phone now allows you to have an image as background in the Start screen which allows you to have more personalized start screen. Note that the background image is fixed and does not scroll woth the tiles. Tiles with transparent background show the background image while Tiles with opaque background hide the image.
You can enable this option from Settings -> start+theme. Tap the Choose Photo and select an image to set it as your Start screen background.
Phone Call + Skype Video Call Integration
The Phone app has a better UI now and allows you to convert your normal voice call to a Skype Video call at the touch of a button. For this to work, the Phone contact must also have a Skype contact and they must be linked together.
Microsoft has at last listened to its users and developers and added Action Center where you can read history of notifications and also access quick settings. You can swipe down at the top of the screen to show Action Center and either swipe up or press Back key to hide it. It also shows you the remaining battery % under the battery icon and the currrent date under the time You can configure the quick settings as well as which apps show notifications and how each notification appears from Settings -> notifications+alerts.
This is a new feature that allows you to control app behavior that affects battery life. You can choose which apps are allowed to run background tasks and when battery saver kicks in. Open the Battery Saver app from the application list and tap on an app to change its settings.
This is a significant change from Windows Phone 8 where battery saver and background tasks were controlled from the Settings option.
Swipe down to close apps in Task list
The Task Switcher (accessible by long pressing the Back key) now allows you to close an app just by swiping it down in addition to providing the Close button (the Small black X button that appears on the top right when the app is selected)
Storage Sense. Install and move apps to SD card.
With this update, the built-in memory of the phone is no longer a big thing to worry about. You can install new apps on the SD card of the phone. What's more? You can also move your existing apps installed on the Phone memory to SD Card. This allows you to install more apps since most phones today support upto 64GB expandable memory. Note the some features are still supported on the Phone memory only. For example, I was not able to figure out if you can install/move offline maps to SD Card.
Internet Explorer Enhancements
Windows Phone 8.1 has IE11 which now supports HTML5 offline apps. You can manage storage settings and offline files using Advanced Settings button in the IE Settings options. Data Sense saves you bandwidth by compressing pictures for you. You can change these options from IE's Settings menu.
IE also supports Reading mode which strips out unnecessary page elements and gives you a full-screen view of the contents of the page for easy reading. It automatically shows you a book icon in the address bar when the page can be displayed in reading mode.
Microsoft has added a digital assistant in Windows Phone to take on Apple Siri and Google Now. It's called Cortana, but unfortunately it is available only to US residents at the moment.
There's a way for non-US residents to try out Cortana. Just change your region to United States, reboot, change language to English (United States), reboot and you should see Cortana in the App List. You can also access Cortana by long pressing Search key.
Cortana is still in Beta and it arranges its data in what it calls Notebooks. For example, if you ask Cortana to set a reminder for you, you can see that reminder in the 'remind me' notebook.
Some of the phrases she can recognize and respond to, are:
- "Is it gonna rain tonight?"
- "What's the weather like in New York tomorrow?"
- "Remind me to book flight tickets tomorrow 3 PM"
- "Open Calendar"
- "Open WiFi Settings"
- "Who's the President of America": You don't get a voice response for this one, just opens up Bing Search for Barack Obama.
Word Flow Keyboard
Word Flow is Microsoft's version of Swype keyboard and it really makes it faster to type now than using normal keyboard. Interestingly, this keyboard is more accurate and easier than the swype keyboards found in Android.
WiFi Sense automatically connects you to WiFi hotspots found in Cofee shops and Airports. It can also accept the terms for you if you permit instead of nagging you with confirmation prompts before connecting. It also allows you to share your WiFi with your contact list without sharing your password with them. When you enable this sharing option, they can connect to your WiFi if they're at your place and you have them in your contact list. This feature works only for your contacts who are also using Windows Phone 8.1.
Keep your Windows 8 devices in Sync
Windows Phone 8.1 allows you to keep your Windows 8 devices in Sync. The items that can be synced between devices are:
- App settings
- Internet Explorer
For example, if you change your Accent color in your Phone, you can see the Theme changing in your PC too after few minutes. If you add a Favorite in your Phone IE, it gets added to your PC IE too. If you wish to keep your devices separate and not sync them, you can individually disable these options in Settings -> sync my settings.
Volume can now be controlled using touch. When you press the volume keys, Windows Phone shows you two sliders to set the volumes for Ringer and Media separately. Earlier, the Phone decided to show only one control based of if you were on a call or listening to audio and there was no slider. Certain Lumia Phones have hardware issues where the volume down key does not work and needs a visit to the service center. With touch slider, you no longer need to use volume keys to set volume, just press it once to bring the sliders and control volume using touch.
Changes to existing features
Facebook integration has been removed, you no longer see Facebook messages in your messaging app. Old Facebook messages appear as read-only. I'm not sure why this was done or what is the replacement feature. You can always use Facebook and Messenger apps to send Facebook messages.
In Windows Phone 8, you control Background Tasks from Settings -> Applications Tab -> Background Tasks. In Windows Phone 8.1, you use Battery Saver app to control Background Tasks as described above.
Screen Capture key has been changed from Windows Key + Power Button to Volume Up Key + Power Key which is quite difficult since you'll have to hold the phone in an awkward position to press both keys simultaneoulsy using both hands. I tried and failed to use one hand to do a Screen Capture.
Fortunately, Windows Phone lets you know what the new keys are. When you press the old keys, here's what you see:
To start voice commands, you'll have to long press the Search key instead of long pressing the Start Key.
Other minor enhancements
- The icons at the top of the screen like Cellphone Signal indicator, data connection, Wi-Fi, Battery, Location, etc. do not auto-hide. A good change is if the phone is using Wi-Fi, Data connection indicator is not shown, which helps us easily identify if Wi-Fi is in use or data connection is in use at any given time.
- Newly installed apps have a 'New' indication below the app name in the App List
- Games now show under App List in addition to Games Hub
- Speed Dial functionality has been added
- Music+video hub has been separated into three separate hubs: Music, Video and Pod
- A redesigned calendar app with Week view
- VPN support
- S/MIME support for encrypted emails.
Some users have reported significant drop in battery life after the update but I did not notice any such issues.