There have been a lot of rumors and speculation about Microsoft's Windows Phone 8.1 release. I have the developers preview and can confirm some if not most of them are true. Microsoft raises their game with huge user interface changes and tosses their offering in to the personal digital assistant ring with Cortana. There are a lot of ups in this build and a few misses of the mark; but I expect those to be addressed by the time 8.1 goes public or in subsequent builds.
On the surface the user interface is greatly improved, from the start screen down to the way contacts and the calender for example. This is for all intents and purposes the same interface since day one, but then it isn't. what I mean is it retains the same flow and interaction and familiarity that Windows Phone users are used to, but they have made the look and feel more refined and what many think it should have been. The tiles are cleaner and you can even add an additional row. On my Nokia Lumia 925 that was already running Lumia Black I was able to show even more tiles and it was still crisp and readable for me. Since we are talking theme, the options are similar to offering from other platforms typically using third party implementations. The stock available is impressive, and a good start. I expect a lot of people that enjoy customizing their start screen will be please with the new changes.
A big feature that was long overdue since Windows Mobile 6.5 i think it was, it native VPN support and email certificates. The signed email only works so far as I can tell with Exchange or "enterprise email" from the device. This makes the device more enterprise friendly when you think about corporations looking for an option beyond Blackberry. The ability to secure, manage, administer devices is critical and this give administrators a powerful and secure platform to build on.
I have to go back for a second in case it was missed and mention how fast and snappy the user interface is. I read impressions from other people that ran benchmarks and understanding that sometime speed is subjective. After the update was installed on my dual core device, it was genuinely faster. Transitioning between apps was noticeably snappier. As if the phone had something to prove.
I want to touch on some other key improvements, but keep in mind there are a plethora of changes and improvements in Windows Phone 8.1.
the notification center is a welcome addition. you can customize what you want quick access to after a quick swipe down. you can dismiss all the notifications with one click or dismiss a group, it's fast and its your choice. You can also quickly get too all the settings from there also. no need to drill down to turn your Bluetooth on, or connect to a hot spot.
A small but huge addition for me is the new Podcast app. The playing of podcast from the Xbox app was hit or miss and you couldn't download them OTA if they were RSS. You still can't as of this posting for the most part; but the layout is better and the app continues where you left off automatically. I have not opened my Xbox Music except to play music.
Another welcome change is the way the photo album is setup. Photos are now grouped by date if you like. If you use Windows 8 or OneDrive, this will be at home for you. Also, when you look at photos, there is an intuitive tag that lets you open the App you used to take the photo so you can go back and check details of manipulate it.
The Wallet app has been advanced also and the settings in Windows Phone 8.1 are a good indicator that Isis on Windows Phone is on the horizon. I expect to see this feature live by this summer and out of the test markets.
The calender is now way more helpful and intuitive. I find myself using the week view with weather updates for each day. it is a lot of information, but it is compartmentalized so i get everything at a glance and can drill down to a single day if I need more granular information. I would like to see this layout as is as an option in my Exchange Calender.
Another great improvement is the behavior of NFC. before you had to always acknowledge NFC activation. If i came home and touched my phone to the wireless changer stand I had to accept the launch of an application. Now you can tell the phone to trust that interaction and just launch the application of function without asking.
Before I go to the biggest new feature, i want to mention there are a LOT of changes and additions. If you are looking for a new device and were already leaning to Windows Phone you should do it by this this summer. You will get the latest and fastest quad core offerings and an HD display. Any improvements will likely be in the OS. Hardware wise they are all the same. The difference comes when you negotiate cameras, additional feature or cellular technology.
Not the best new and way overdue and most talked about feature is Cortana. Coratna if you don't know is an AI character of Halo fame. It was indicated that it was not likely that the name would stay the same because Windows Phone and Xbox are not directly relate. I wasn't entirely surprised but pleased to see the name was the same. I expected it remain Cortana since Microsoft initiated the purchase of Nokia. Also, marketing and branding. Halo has a huge following and what better vehicle to drive Xbox users that don't have a Windows Phone to a complete Windows ecosystem. Cortana is cool, she's sassy, she's funny, intuitive and extremely helpful. You can talk to her in a normal way and she responds and fulfills your request. She still has some work to do; but in as many days she has already become a big help for me. You can tell her to remind you to do something when you get to a certain place and she does it. Tell her to schedule an appointment, she does it. Tell her to remind you to ask your boss for a raise the next you call them, she'll do it. Wife asked you to pick up milk on the way home, Cortana will alert you when you have a store in your path. And she will only get better. She is leveraging tech that Microsoft bought a long time ago along with the enormous cloud computing power. in some offerings its a gimmick, or a poor implementation that still needs work, but Cortana is the real deal. A solid contender out the gate that firmly has a grasp on the median between Siri and Google Now. I have even had associates that are avid Droid or Iphone user comment on the new UI and the features.
I look forward to see what is release by all the phone manufactures over the next few months. Windows Phone 8.1 will have then on notice and hopefully they all will continue to innovate and not imitate. One thing that is still holding Windows Phone back is the same thing in past years, the exclusive hardware agreements. Certain provider promised the latest and best in cellular hardware and continually only offer the latest Galaxy or Iphone but have yet to keep their promise and provide a true flagship Windows Phone. This writer jumped ship to another provider because there was no device on the horizon. I have not written much on hardware because media request to ATT which gets everything or Nokia have gone unfulfilled or not responded to. As time permits I will try to report on developments or hardware. For now 8.1 is hot and growing. Get it if you are in the market. You can always go back to your old platforms if it does not suit you.