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Hands-on: Windows Phone 8.1, Microsoft plays catch up

updated 07:22 am EDT, Thu May 22, 2014

Windows 8.1 is the most competitive version of the world's number 3 mobile OS

Microsoft Windows Phone 8.1 is currently available to users in a preview form ahead of a rumored late June launch. Electronista has been spending some quality time with the world's third most used mobile operating system over the past few weeks and can report that it delivers a much improved overall user experience. Headlining features like Cortana, Microsoft's answer to Apple's Siri, Word Flow and the new Action Center help to put Microsoft on a much more competitive footing with Google's Android and Apple's iOS.

Windows Phone has had a relatively short, but checkered history. It came to market late in October 2010 in the form of Windows Phone 7, already lacking a number of key features and the app selection of the competition at the time. Compounding matters, users who took a gamble and bought into Windows Phone 7 were then aghast to discover that their devices and apps were incompatible with the very similar looking Windows Phone 8, which shipped in October 2012. For an operating system having trouble gaining market traction, this was the last thing that Microsoft and its handful of Windows partners needed. With Windows Phone 8 finally bedding down in the market place and securing a distant third place with just 2.7 percent of the market, long suffering Windows Phone fans who have been taunted by Android and iOS users are hanging their hopes on the Windows Phone 8.1 update.

Both Android and iOS users have been steadily developing the voice controlled actions with their devices over the past few years. Apple's Siri set the standard with a personal assistant, Siri, that adopted a personality that has helped make the user experience much more personal and engaging. Microsoft has also long invested in voice recognition technology, but it is only now that it has finally integrated its own personal assistant into Windows Phone. 'Cortana' is named after the female AI assistant that guides Master Chief throughout all of his pitched battles in the massively popular Xbox franchise, Halo. Microsoft has even hired the voice actor, Jen Taylor, who played the role in the video games to bring Cortana to life in the real world.

Like Siri in iOS 7, Cortana is powered by Microsoft's Bing search engine. If you've used Siri on the iPhone, you will feel at quickly at home with the way Cortana works. Although, as you would expect, Microsoft has added some of its own tweaks to give its implementation its own flavor. For example, Cortana keeps a notebook on you as it learns what you're interested in, who you contact the most and where you typically travel to provide context aware advice; however, this can also be further tweaked and customized if required. It is possible Microsoft has erred on the side of trying to give Cortana too much cheek and personality at this stage, which makes it feel a little as though it is trying too hard to out charm Siri. At launch, Cortana will only be available in the US, although the UK and China will get it before the year is out. Other countries will follow in 2015. Our early impressions of Cortana are very favorable, and it puts Microsoft on the same playing field as the competition in this regard.

Word Flow:
Microsoft has added support for what it calls 'shape writing' in Windows 8.1. The new Word Flow is very similar in function to Google's 'gesture typing' and works just as well. iOS users have now been behind in this regard, basically forced to continue with the need to tap on individual letters. Apple has its own patents on gesture typing, so we can only hope that we finally see it implemented in iOS 8. It is a much faster way of inputting text, and greatly improves the overall user experience in Windows Phone 8.1. Word prediction and spelling correction is also improved making Word Flow a worthy feature addition for the latest release of Windows Phone.

Action Center/Quick Settings:
Microsoft has also brought its notifications and quick settings functionality into line with the competition. The new Action Center, like Android and iOS notification implementations, is initiated with a swipe down from the top of the screen making it instantly familiar. From here you can quickly see at a glance new emails, texts, messages and social media updates and jump into them immediately or dismiss them. You can also access four user definable quick settings including the ability to enter Airplane mode, or toggle Wi-Fi on or off. It might not be particularly original in its implementation, or quite as fully functional as either some Android equivalents or iOS, but it is a big step in the right direction.

Camera app:
One of the key selling points of any smartphone is its camera capabilities. Microsoft's Windows 8.1 update acknowledges this by making a couple of important feature additions that have been missing. The first is a new 'burst mode' that allows you to capture a fast series of photos that is particularly useful when taking action shots. The second revolves around keeping your photos automatically organized. Like 'Collections' in Apple's Photo app, 'Collections' in Windows Phone 8.1 also organizes all new photos by date, location and activity. However, Microsoft still points users to third party apps for filter and other types of effects that are now built-in features of Android and iOS stock photo apps.

Another key selling point of Windows Phone 8.1 is the level of personalization that it offers. Users can now increase the total number of apps and live tiles that are shown on the display at any one time and also have more resizing options. The Start Screen is now a much more flexible and fluid scrolling screen that now also takes unique advantage of wallpapers to have show transparently through certain tiles. It is a very cool effect that increases user appeal, along with the increased customization options. Time will tell whether Microsoft's latest tweaks to its phone Modern UI will better engage users, who until now have not been won over in large numbers. As customizable as its UI might be, it still ultimately locked down in the same way that iOS is. It does, however, potentially offer users a mid-point alternative between iOS and Android when it comes to customisation options. Android users can still choose from a whole swathe of different launchers, without having to root their devices, if they want a totally different look.

Cross-device platform compatibility: One Drive, Skype, Bing, Office
Microsoft has been built on the success of two key franchises, Windows for PCs and Office. Windows Phone 8.1, is naturally designed to work seamlessly with both of these blockbuster Microsoft businesses. Windows Phone 8.1 sees Microsoft continuing to work hard on integrating its Windows and Office franchises in Windows Phone, with particular emphasis on its cloud-based offerings thrown into the mix. OneDrive and enable users on Windows Phone 8.1 to easily move between devices to get things done on the go or at home. Despite this seeming edge, it hasn't been enough to create the desired user base for the platform, with Microsoft now also conceding this point of differentiation by making Office and OneDrive accessible on iOS devices. With Bing now integrated into Cortana, Microsoft may be able to drive customer use of Bing instead of Google search, but its current user base is not going to change the online search balance of power any time soon; having Apple's Siri on board could help its cause, however. Nonetheless, if you are closely aligned to the Windows world and mobile productivity is important to you, Windows Phone 8.1 will deliver the most integrated overall experience.

Apps remain the Achilles heel:
Perhaps the biggest ongoing weakness with Windows 8.1, is that despite all the useful tweaks and feature additions, it still lacks anywhere near the same number of AAA titles that are widely available to both Android and iOS users. It is certainly a point of irony that Apple, which was once the bridesmaid to Microsoft when PCs were ascendant, always struggled to attract app developers in large numbers. Even now, many new apps are still released for iOS first, although it only has around a 22 percent market share compared to the 79 percent share enjoyed by Android. iOS users are still the most likely to pay for apps and in-app purchases, making it the leading platform for developer return on investment. While the quality and depth of the Windows Phone 8.1 app catalog has improved, it still has a long way to go if it is ever to achieve parity.

Final thoughts:
Windows Phone 8.1 is a substantial release that offers Windows Phone users a much better overall user experience. In many ways, it puts Microsoft back on the same playing field as Android and iOS. It provides users with a very slick and highly competent smartphone experience that is certainly world-class. Microsoft could benefit from taking a much more proactive approach with developers to get them on board with the platform. At the moment, they are trapped in a slightly vicious cycle that where developers will only come on board wholesale if Windows Phone has a strong user base. However, Windows Phone won't develop a strong user base without a better selection of apps. If Microsoft can intervene buy offering developers greater incentives to jump on board, users who are looking for something a bit different, but familiar, might be more willing to give Windows Phone 8.1 another look.

By Sanjiv Sathiah

by MacNN Staff



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