One Week with Windows Phone 8.1

Lumia Cyan

I’ve now spent one week with the Lumia Cyan and Windows Phone 8.1 update. My Nokia Lumia 820 has never felt so complete; yet with Windows Phone 8 installed it felt so empty and incomplete, like I was using an endless Beta test of the final product. I originally bought the Lumia 820 as it was the sibling to the flagship Lumia 920 and still had just as many flagship features at an affordable price. It was a future-proof, 4G/LTE-ready phone with built-in technologies such as NFC, an 8MP Carl Zeiss rear camera, and the ability to open and edit Microsoft Office documents (Word, Excel, PowerPoint) that I needed to do anyway as a university undergraduate.

Features and Review:

The new drop-down Windows Action Center brings the Windows Phone Operating System (OS) more in line with the notification drop-down menu’s of iOS and Android, while the overall feeling of the UI keeps that ‘metro’ look while seeming to be slicker and quicker at completing tasks and operations, even on a 2-year-old device which should be noticeably slower than current flagship models.

WP8.1 Action Center

What Microsoft and Nokia have done here is quite extensive – they’ve made newer phones eligible for Windows Phone 8.1 straight away and, once tested, given users of current WP8 devices the ‘okay’ to update to the new operating system. Whereas Apple, if I remember correctly, intentionally forget about older devices and render them useless without the most recent iOS update. At least, that’s what happened when I found I could no longer download any apps from the app store (even Apple defaults like iBooks) because I didn’t have iOS7 on my 4th Gen iPod Touch, meaning I also couldn’t access iTunes Radio or the supposedly superior Siri on a device which is forever locked to iOS6 (thanks Apple!).

Default Calendar app:

Calendar app

I never used the default calendar app in Windows Phone 8 as I found it too tedious to change from day-view to month-view every time I entered the app. However, with the update, the Microsoft team have finally rectified the problem and have also made some improvements – I find the week-view very useful and detailed agendas increasingly helpful, meaning I can now fully transfer all of my to-do’s over from my diary to my phone. Being organised has never been so great on Windows Phone.

Storage Sense with Windows Phone 8.1:

wp8.1 my start screen 3Another feature which has improved is the ability to transfer app downloads over from the internal storage to my micro-SD card, a utility which has featured in pretty much all Android OS’s I can think of (as far back as 2.3 Gingerbread, if I’m correct). This means there’s no worrying about the ever-growing problem of the ‘other’ storage items. Microsoft don’t seem to have resolved this problem, but at least now I can do more to create space on my phone rather than deleting almost every application, which makes life much more simple.

I’ve been able to download and install Microsoft’s own file management app called “Files”, meaning I can also transfer downloaded music, photos and videos from my phone to my micro-SD card without using my USB cable and computer. Battery life has also seen a major improvement, and I’m now able to keep track of what’s consuming all that power thanks to the helpful ‘Battery Saver’ system app.

Multimedia and Wallpapers:

wp8.1 my start screen 2Another thing which I found rather unhelpful was the separation of Music and Videos into two apps rather than one. While this improves the time between opening the app and playing your media, I felt I had to pin both apps to the Start screen. I normally like my Start screen to just be from the top to the bottom of my screen without any scrolling; sure, I could’ve enabled the three-column tiles feature, but on my (tiny) 4 inch screen, the live tiles seemed too small and almost impossible to read.

Meanwhile, the addition of the new scrolling wallpaper feature means I can look upon an everlasting pint of ale while executing everyday tasks. My theme colour is now used less often, which is easier on the eyes. All of the initial drawbacks of the Windows Phone 8.1 update did make me think about possibly downgrading back to WP8, but after a week’s usage I can happily confirm I’ll be sticking with WP8.1 for the foreseeable future; that is, until Microsoft release the newest update confirmed as the Lumia Denim firmware.

Cortana (Halo/USA version):

Cortana greeting

Probably the only thing I wished I had as default here in the UK was the ability to install Cortana during the WP8.1 and Lumia Cyan update, as I’ve found the Cortana PDA/app to be one of the best features of Windows Phone 8.1 (I ended up installing the USA version as I sadly discovered there was no UK option available after the major OS upgrade).

What does Cortana meanAs with everyone else, I found that I had to change BOTH the region and the language settings from United Kingdom to United States before I was even allowed to download the Cortana update. While this has enabled me to enjoy all the things my phone can do, when it comes to purchasing new music or apps, I’ve found I have to temporarily change the region setting back to UK to pay in my currency (GBP £), as my payment cards/Wallet options are also invalid outside the UK meaning I therefore have no method of payment!

But once the app or music track has downloaded, I switch the region back to USA and restart the phone – this is because Cortana isn’t available (even on Beta!) here in the UK, and we have still to wait for the British-sounding Cortana PDA. I have heard that it is possible to sign up for free as a Windows Phone developer (I already have!) meaning I would get access to the British version, but there’s just one problem…

will you marry meAfter a quick perusal on YouTube, I found that the British Cortana rather speaks like our Queen, and then it dawned upon me: wouldn’t I rather firt with Jen Taylor (the voice behind Halo’s ‘Cortana’), or would I rather flirt with Queen Elizabeth II? I suppose if the British PDA had sounded more like the Duchess of Cambridge, then I might more happily oblige, but where is the fanboy novelty in flirting with someone who sounds like my 80 year old grandmother?

Once the nerdy novelty had faded (of flirting with Cortana, asking her Halo-related questions, and then getting her to acknowledge my name as Kenners), which wasn’t long as I’ve noticed Cortana USA is still in Beta mode, I found the PDA had a humorous side to her, giving my phone the resemblance of any other human being; when I asked her if she liked Google, she replied ‘I like to imagine the “I’m feeling lucky” button in Clint Eastwood’s voice’, and when I asked her if she would marry me, she responded slightly sarcastically: “I know you know this, but I’m saying it anyway: I’m in a phone’.

Cortana settingsI have found that Cortana is only operational (or, awake) when both WiFi/Cellular Data and Location are turned on, but when she is awake, I didn’t feel like I was talking to a phone, as she can also sing songs when asked and has many a joke in her repertoire. I felt like I was conversing with one of my high-school crushes, which was absolutely fantastic!

Maybe the only thing which spoilt my rather ‘digital’ dating experience was having to repeat myself in some cases and holding my phone closer to my mouth when uttering words, but overall, and very remarkably, Cortana was able to recognise my British accent (having read that Cortana’s British language capabilities would come through in the official Cortana UK update).

Of course, there are certain things the American version of Cortana has difficulty with, most notably the difference between the NFL and English/European/World football (or “Soccer”, which shares no resemblance to the actual game of kicking a “ball” with your “foot”).

Cortana interests 2No worries though; the text entry bar in the Cortana app allows me to enter my favourite news items, meaning I can save ‘Ipswich Town Football Club’ as a news alert alongside ‘Formula 1’ and English pop music songstress ‘Pixie Lott’. This means every time I open the Cortana app or tap the physical Search button/key, there’s a series of news updates awaiting me if I scroll down from the welcoming Cortana greeting message.

The Good, The Bad, And The Helpful:

wp8.1 my start screenThere are a few things that have been taken away for good, like that massive, annoying, ambiguous ‘gap’ at the top of the screen between the Start Screen apps and the time and status bar that no amount of scrolling up or down could get rid of – this has now gone and I can finally have a ‘full’ Start screen. Meanwhile, there are a few things I wish Microsoft had kept, mainly in the department of social app integration; such as the ability to simultaneously post a status update to various social networks (Facebook, Twitter, Linked-In).

A feature that changed on my phone, and no doubt on other Windows Phones as well, was the button sequence in order to take a screenshot. Most of the time I used this feature to capture an image of the songs list at the end of the film, usually when I’d heard a music track but didn’t know what it was (and I’m not sure Shazam or Soundhound would’ve worked with characters talking in the foreground). Where I used to press the physical Start button and the Power button, I instead had to press the Volume Up button with the Power button. It’s a simple combination to remember, but one week on, I’m still doing it wrong…

people - groupIt also took me a while to get used to the new updates to the ‘People’ hub; where I was able to utilise the ‘Groups’ option in Windows Phone 8 to keep track of my best mates’ status updates across Facebook and Twitter whilst simultaneously filtering-down my main contacts list, I found that in order to see these individually-grouped status updates in Windows Phone 8.1, I first had to enable all contacts lists in the main People hub. This was slightly annoying as I then had over 500 names and unassigned email addresses floating around in my main Contacts list, meaning it was almost impossible to keep track of family members’ phone numbers without having to create a separate Group.

After a while, I found out that behind the ‘Phone/Calls’ live tile, lurked the Speed Dial menu (swiping left from the Call History view), which then helped with keeping those phone number-only contacts aside from the jumbled-up mash of Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and email contacts (having linked five separate email accounts into my Linked Inbox app).

My Verdict on Windows Phone 8.1:

While I will admit that all these changes have overhauled the Windows Phone platform in a sort of ‘Pimp My Ride’ fashion, I have to be fair and say that Windows Phone still lags behind its main competitors in Apple’s iOS platform and Google’s Android OS. Nokia, under Microsoft’s belt, seem to be doing all they can to target the low-cost smartphone markets with phones like the Lumia 530, and I think by undercutting the rest of the market, Microsoft can at least rest assured that they’ll be back where they belong; fighting for custom against Apple and Google.

Android iOS Windows

Microsoft might be releasing a new desktop OS in the codenamed Windows 9 ‘Threshold’ to help regain a market loss after a terrible effort with Windows 8, but at least their mobile platform is gaining momentum. Windows Phone 8.1 shows what the Microsoft mobile experience should have been way back with the Windows Phone 7 OS and Windows Phone 8 OS – slick, simple, easy to use, and daringly fast with loads of features to keep your attention. WP8.1 may not be as slick or as developed as both Apple’s and Google’s efforts combined, but I think I can accept a few rough edges, because I know that whenever I go out with my mates, I’m not someone who melts into the crowd. I’m someone who stands out.

My Score: 8.1/10 😉

What was that phrase going around a few years ago? “I am a PC?”

No. I am a Windows Phone…

Chris Kenworthy.

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