Microsoft unveiled Windows Phone 8.1 at its Build developer conference in San Francisco Wednesday, and the update brings some much-needed and long-overdue features to the mobile operating system. Many of the new features are borrowed from competing platforms but should be enough to make users happier with their Windows smartphones.
The foremost new feature is Cortana, a new voice-activated personal assistant. Cortana is like Apple’s Siri and Google’s Google Now combined. Cortana recognizes natural language requests and commands to perform a wide number of actions. For example, Microsoft’s Joe Belfiore used Cortana on stage to set reminders, schedule appointments, seek out local Mexican food, and find out which team won the Seattle Mariners’ home opener. Cortana pulls data not only from Bing, but from other sources such as Yelp. Cortana will be included as a beta feature in Windows Phone 8.1.
Windows Phone 8.1 includes a handful of user interface tweaks that make phones more customizable. The Start Screen, for example, can be laid over a personal image. The tile effect is a big improvement over Windows Phone 8’s start screen. The lock screen, too, can be customized. Microsoft plans to release APIs to developers so they can create unique lock screen apps. The platform now also includes a notification tray with drop-down screen that mimics the Android and iOS notification trays. It holds toggles for wireless radios, as well as notifications for email and messages.