Windows Phone 8.1: Cortana Nirvana

windows phone 8

Windows Phone is now the undisputed third place smartphone OS. It’s grown sufficiently that is has recently overtaken Blackberry in terms of market share and even bests the iPhone in some countries around the world. Microsoft’s mobile software is making all the right moves.

Until very recently, however, it felt as though it didn’t deserve to move beyond third place. Windows Phone lacked a lot of the features users of Apple and Google’s software have become accustomed to, making switching to Microsoft’s ecosystem a tough sell. It could be particularly bad for those who were forced to adopt Windows Phone through work schemes where “bring your own device” isn’t allowed. It was a solid, smooth, beautiful OS, but nobody could successfully argue that it matched Android or even iOS for functionality.

Note the past tense. Microsoft recently announced Windows Phone 8.1, a big update that sought to iron out a lot of complaints and include many of the functions and features present on competitor devices. Earlier this month, it was released in an exclusive developer preview to let app builders get to grips with the OS before being unleashed on the general public this summer. Unusually, Microsoft has sneakily made it possible for anyone to enter the developer program – which normally costs $20 – for free, simply by registering their email address with Microsoft and downloading an app. Windows Phone 8.1 can then be downloaded to the user’s handset at will.

With a Nokia Lumia 1520 in hand, I went through the simple steps, hit “refresh” on phone update in my settings app and waited. After 15 minutes and a couple restarts, I had Microsoft’s latest and greatest smartphone OS in my hand – and boy, is it good. After a day of tapping, swiping, exploring and Binging (it just doesn’t sound right, does it?), I can safely say that Windows Phone 8.1 is now much more worthy of standing shoulder-to-shoulder with iOS and Android. Third place has never looked this good.

Cortana

windows cortana

This is the big one, the flagship inclusion for the 8.1 update. Microsoft’s Siri and Google Now rival is a dedicated personal assistant who draws her inspiration and voice from an AI character in its Halo video game series on Xbox. Accessed with a tap of the Search button, a friendly greeting from Cortana welcomes you. “Hi, Rhuaridh!” or “Anything else I can help you with, Rhuaridh?” were common messages as Cortana animated on-screen. She’s represented by a glowing circle, which flips and pulses as she listens intently to your every word, trying to decipher what you want her to do. Microsoft bills her as a personal assistant, and to that extent they’ve succeeded. I’ve never found a computer that could speak my name, but Microsoft allows you to teach Cortana the correct pronunciation, something neither Google nor Apple offer.

Once she’s grasped how to reference you, Cortana will encourage you to fill out her Notebook. This is where she’ll really get to know you. Grant her access to your Facebook and email and she’ll start to learn about you – she’ll look for tracking information in emails, such as flights, and use Facebook to personalize your search results. Interests is where you can customize what Cortana displays on her main screen: “Daily glance” will show top news stories, information about your commute, the weather forecast and information on any upcoming trips. If it sounds like Google Now, that’s because it is incredibly similar. Google’s system is still more natural and currently a lot more useful – it detects your interests based on searches and displays a lot more information – but Cortana offers deeper customization as to what is actually displayed.

Next up is “remind me,” which is used to set, shockingly, reminders. What’s unique here is geolocation. Tell Cortana you need to get milk next time you go to the grocery and she’ll wait until your phone’s location reaches your local store before pinging you. Want to raise a topic next time your friend calls? Tell Cortana, and when the phone starts ringing, she’ll show the reminder among the call information. “Quiet hours” mimics Apple’s Do Not Disturb, shutting off notifications for a set period of time, though you can establish an “inner circle” of trusted people who can get through should they need to urgently tell you something. Similarly, if the same person calls multiple times in an emergency, Cortana can let them through to you if allowed. On top of that, she’ll also detect music, linking the track to the Xbox music store for streaming or purchasing.

Natural language searches can be hit or miss. Occasionally Cortana will nail it and offer a verbal response and appropriate information card. Other times she’ll just offer basic search results. Either way, the job gets done, but it’s always nice to have her respond to you. Of course, she’s still in beta, so this will likely get better over time. What Cortana does nail are a vast array of responses to the usual questions asked of voice assistants. Jen Taylor, who voiced Cortana in the Halo games, provided the voice for Cortana on Windows Phone, and she really shines in these witty, referential responses. Ask her who her father is and she’ll say, with perfect inflection, “Technically speaking, that’d be Bill Gates. No big deal.” Ask her what she thinks of iOS and she’ll tell answer, “May the best OS win. Y’know, job security.” Ask “What are you wearing?” and she’ll tell you “Just a little something I picked up in engineering.” For Halo fans, the references are numerous. Ask her where the game’s protagonist Master Chief is and she’ll say “Probably off saving the galaxy somewhere. He’s good like that.” There are many more, and I won’t spoil them. What’s great here is that Microsoft has recorded hundreds of natural language phrases. Inquire as to whether you’ll need an umbrella tomorrow, and Cortana could say “Not likely” or “You shouldn’t have to bring one” before offering a weather synopsis. The natural, personality-rich phrases, free from robotic blandness, offer a human touch to this digital assistant.

She’s not perfect, but she’s certainly got all the hallmarks of a great entry into the voice-assistant club. Google Now is still the most functional, but Microsoft’s focus on personality could well see it taking the lead should it iron out any hiccups and inject more features before Cortana leaves beta. Either way, she’s a mascot for Windows Phone, one it sorely needs right now.

Ready for action (center)

Yup, Windows Phone just got a notification center, dubbed the “action center.” Android pioneered it, Apple deftly stole it for iOS, now Microsoft is jumping on the bandwagon. Swipe down from the top of the screen and a list of notifications are presented, which can be selected or cleared at whim. Apps can intelligently leave notifications there for users to find, removing them if they’re time-sensitive and no longer necessary, for instance. Along the top, the quick settings toggles – again, pioneered in Android and liberally borrowed by Apple and now Microsoft – live, which can be changed to suit each user and offer fast toggle access to WiFi, brightness, GPS, Bluetooth and other functions.

There’s nothing new here, but that’s not what users will care about. What matters is that it just works. It offers exactly what people wanted – though it doesn’t sit as well with the rest of OS. It’s functional, but not as stark, minimalist and well designed as the other parts of Windows Phone. Again, it could change in future, but right now, notifications are no longer restricted to Live Tiles. That’s reason enough to rejoice.

App-solutely wonderful

Windows Phone 8 has made great strides to catch up with iOS and Android. There are still some apps missing from the two main platforms, but those that matter are here. Vine, Instagram, Pocket, Netflix, Scruff, Snapchat and many more. What matters for gay people is Grindr. For years, it was missing, as Grindr ignored users who cried out for an official app. Grindr still has its fingers in its ears, acting as if Windows Phone doesn’t exist, but a third-party app maker has stepped up to fill the gap. Meet’m – yes, it really is called that – offers full access to Grindr. For gay men, that could be all they need to finally jump ship, as shallow as it sounds.

What’s more, the store now makes it easier to find the apps you want. It also updates your apps automatically, while downloaded apps can be stored on SD cards to free up space on your phone. These may sound like minor additions – and that’s because they are. They should have been here long ago, but hey, they’re welcome changes all the same.

Enterprising

This is the big one for those who rely on a Windows Phone for work. The main headline is VPN support – it’s not built in at the OS level, and can be auto-triggered for whenever you reach the office. Also on board is S/MIME to encrypt emails, certificate management to enroll, update and revoke certificates for user authentication, the ability for admins to change passwords and remotely lock devices and support for password-protected Office documents. Speaking of Office, Microsoft’s brilliant Office Lens app is here. It can scan documents, blackboards, receipts and a number of other surfaces, importing the information into OneNote and allowing search of recognized text. Need to keep track of expenses? Fire up the Lens app and receipts are automatically captured, stored and organized for you. Enterprise WiFi is also here, with support for EAP-TLS and enhanced MDM policies to secure functionality for more enterprise control, on top of greater app management. They’re not the sexiest features, but there will be companies and individuals all over America rejoicing at them.

Sense-ational

windows cortana wifi

There are three new features in Windows Phone 8.1, bundled under the heading of “Sense” apps. Battery Sense comprises Battery Saver and Battery Power Sense. The former can be toggled to activate when the phone’s battery drops to a certain level, restricting the functions of background apps, turning off notifications and otherwise turning everything down from 11 to help eke out the last few drops of juice from the battery. The latter is an extension of this, showing which apps are draining what amount of battery, letting users uninstall problem apps or restrict what functions they can perform when the device is locked or the app is running in the background. Both should help Windows Phone’s already impressive stamina get even better.

Data Sense has been seen previously on some Windows Phone devices, but was limited to certain handsets or carriers. It now comes bundled with the OS and keeps track of how much data is being consumed by the phone. Set your data limit, and Data Sense will do its best to help you make the most of every megabyte, crunching down data-heavy Web pages when accessed over mobile networks and shutting off your data connection when you’ve reached your limit – though this can be turned off for those happy to keep spending.

WiFi Sense is the most impressive function here. It can detect trustworthy, open networks – such as airport or Starbucks WiFi – and automatically accept the T’s & C’s and connect you. WiFi can also activate based on location – stray from your home router and it’ll automatically switch off WiFi to save battery life. A really cool feature is network sharing. If a friend comes over and wants to access your WiFi, you no longer need to give them your password. Simply check a box in WiFi settings and, if the friend is in your Skype, Facebook or Hotmail contacts list, they’ll be automatically connected. No more hunting for that password card next to your router.

Nip/Tuck

The whole OS has undergone something of a beauty treatment. Fonts and app spacing have been adjusted to make better use of the space on larger and denser screens as Windows Phone gains more 1080p displays. The calendar finally displays a week view, as well as the standard day and month (seriously, it’s ridiculous it took this long to get here). Google calendar is back aboard after Google yanked support for the system Windows Phone originally used. The camera app has been given a Nokia-esque makeover with greater manual control over images and a refreshed UI. The browser has been updated to Internet Explorer 11, which should make it faster, slicker and more compatible with websites – tabs will now show up as windows in the multi-task view, which should make it easier to jump to a specific website from another app. Speaking of multitasking, pressing back in an app will no longer close it; it will merely suspend it to speed up resuming times. To close an app, swipe the appropriate window away in the multitasking view – yes, just like iOS, which borrowed the idea from Android (seeing a pattern here?), which in turn borrowed the idea from webOS.

windows 8 phone cortana

There’s a new keyboard addition, with the much-loved “swipe” functionality popular on Android present here, letting users trace over words rather than tapping individual letters. There are now separate volumes for ringtones and music/media when the volume button is pressed. (Yes, this has just been added, four years after WP7 launched.) Low-energy Bluetooth is here, which should be perfect for all of the fitness bands and smartwatches that use low-energy Bluetooth to sync with devices. It’s just a shame very few actually support Windows Phone.

Finally, there’s a nifty parallax effect available for the Start screen. Instead of picking a themed color for live tiles, you can now pick a photo, which will appear as if underneath the tiles. Scrolling up or down will move the tiles over the top of the photo. It’s a nifty effect, and breathes additional life into the live-tile format that so many Windows Phone users have fallen in love with.

Ultimately, Windows Phone 8.1 is a big step in the right direction. For Microsoft, there are two key battles. First, it must convince developers that Windows Phone is finally ready to step into the limelight and receive apps at the same time as iOS and Android. Second, it needs to convince consumers that swapping to Windows Phone no longer means losing the usability and apps they enjoy on other devices in order to sample Microsoft’s beautifully stark OS.

With new devices coming from Nokia and Samsung this month, and hopefully more from other manufacturers this summer, it will be interesting to see if the folks in Redmond, Wash., can leverage the press buzz surrounding 8.1 into actual sales. For current Windows Phone owners, who’ll receive 8.1 this summer, the onus is also on them to get the word out about the changes. Every time friends have asked me if they should switch to Windows Phone, I’ve had to be honest and tell them that they’d likely find a lot missing.

Not anymore.

Yes, there are still a few loose ends and a few things that could be better, but the core of the OS is finally reaching parity with Android and iOS. For the average user, the notification center and Cortana will be reason enough to jump in – they’re banner features that Microsoft needs to push. I can imagine Cortana, and her delightful personality, being a feature worthy of selling to the masses with numerous demonstrations detailing her wit and natural inflection. Ask her yourself why you should buy the phone you’re using and she’ll happily keep listing the features of the OS she’s baked into. If you’re entrenched in Google or Apple’s ecosystems, there’s likely little that will entice you over to Windows Phone now. If you’re platform agnostic, however, Windows Phone is finally something for which I can say, “Yeah, try it. It’s great.”

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Rhuaridh Marr is one of Metro Weekly's contributing editors and covers cars, technology, gaming and world news. He is usually found with a game controller in one hand and a smartphone in the other and can be reached at rmarr@metroweekly.com.

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