Windows Phone 8.1 now available – first thoughts


Windows Phones

For those of us unswayed by the app delights of iOS and the open source recklessness of Android, Windows Phone offers an attractive alternative. Since its launch in 2010 the OS has had a number of updates, some small, some large.  Windows Phone 8, introduced in late 2012, was a radical departure but for many it still did not close the gap in the range of features available to other users. Fast forward to April 2014 and the release of WP 8.1.

At noon yesterday Microsoft released the updated OS to those with a developer preview account. This is an easy and straightforward thing to set up, and you certainly do not need to be a developer to create an account.  For a company that prides itself on cloud computing, Microsoft’s servers initially could not cope with the demand for 8.1. But, after what seemed like watching and waiting for the toaster to pop, I could finally see 8.1 before my very eyes.

Before considering the OS itself, a word from the wise on the update process.  There are two updates: a small 2MB one and a much larger, slower, 1GB one. They need to be downloaded and installed separately and do not be surprised if progress seems to have stalled.  Having just installed them you’d be far better placed to plug your phone in, make a brew and put your feet up for a while. Two hours after starting the process, and having given Microsoft’s servers time to cool down, WP 8.1 is finally on my Lumia 1520.  Talking of heat, the handset got toasty (apologies for another food analogy) warm downloading and installing the update and it’s still not really cooled down.

So what has changed? The first thing to report is that the font size has shrunk dramatically! The status bar items are iOS small.  The keyboard, too, has taken a miniaturisation pill.  I wonder how usable this will make it on the smaller phones?  To assist matters there is the new swype-style process for input on the keyboard.  I’ve never really thought much of these but it seemed pretty effective trying it out, that is provided you don’t want to use a word not in the dictionary (i.e. any British slang).

The most obvious addition, apart from these, is the new drop down notification area. Anyone who has used any other OS will not be surprised by this.  You can customise which menus appear as shortcuts, and there are several nice additions like being able to view the actual battery percentage and the network name and data speed.

wp8.1 notification menu

The app store has also undergone something of a transformation.  There are lots more ways to search and browse apps, and long needed options to browse past app downloads and purchases are now present. There are several other tweaks.  In the email programme it is now possible, for the first time, to automatically download pictures and the entire email.  Frustratingly there is still no option to edit content if forwarding or replying to a message though.

In the menu games now appear along with the rest of the apps.  There are separate volume controls for ringtone and media content and the calendar has new viewing options, which (excitingly for Brits) contain the weather forecast for each day.  Within settings you can monitor which apps are using the battery and can change it so that the tiles on the homescreen now update by the minute, rather than every 30 minutes.

Owners of devices such as the Lumia 1020 can now also benefit from extra columns of tiles so you can have six wide small tile layouts. The homescreen now also allows you to set a wallpaper as the background image and the tiles then become transparent. Nice touches that really perk up the Windows Phone Home screen.

Win Phone 8.1

It’ll need more time to discover the other features and to gauge how the update affects performance and battery life.  Cortana, the voice-operated assistant isn’t yet available in the UK (without changing language settings) and the snazzy new lockscreen aren’t included in the developer preview.  Nokia owners will also get a unique update at some point, and it might be that the official release of 8.1 will contain other new items.  In short, the 8.1 update seems like a useful incremental move and one that is certainly worth the two hours’ of my life that I have devoted to Microsoft today!