Windows Phone 8.1 Review Roundup: Good, But Not Great
It’s been a year-and-a-half since the last major Windows Phone update, but Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) will be rolling out Windows Phone 8.1 to users in the coming months. Luckily for us, we don’t have to wait to find out what’s new in the update and what reviewers think of it. Let’s take a look at how Windows 8.1 stacks up against the current Windows 8, as well as the competition from Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) and Google (NASDAQ:GOOG).
The biggest new feature in Windows Phone 8.1 is Cortana, the new digital assistant. Like Google Now on Android and Siri on iOS, Cortana is a piece of software you interact with by talking into your phone. Cortana can answer questions and do the standard things we expect of our virtual assistants these days, like setting reminders and calendar appointments, giving directions, and playing music. She can also recommend nearby restaurants, launch apps, and tell you sports scores. Per The Verge, it’s not a stretch to imagine that Microsoft included Cortana at least in part “to make [the Windows Phone platform] seem less alien to those who might switch” from iOS or Android.
Overall, The Verge thought highly of Cortana, although the publication noted that “it’s not yet really meaningfully better than what Google Now offers.” On the other hand, the reviewer at Re/code reports that “Unlike Apple, though, Microsoft is giving third-party developers access to Cortana, so they can build apps or rework existing ones to support the service,” which could be good news down the line. In real-world scenarios, however, Re/code found some inconsistencies in Cortana’s findings, like not locating the nearest coffee shop and displaying sports scores differently depending on the phrasing of the question. It should be noted that Cortana is still in a testing phase, so many bugs should be ironed out as time goes on.
Other changes both big and small are included in the 8.1 update. The homescreen has become more subdued, with darker colors replacing the bright tiles currently in place, which nearly all of the reviewers liked. Microsoft has also added a new Action Center that shows you notifications and lets you access commonly used settings like Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and airplane mode. It’s accessed by swiping down, just like similar functions on Android and iOS. A new keyboard has been added that’s very similar to Swype for Android. It lets you type words by dragging a finger from letter to letter if you prefer that method to tapping each key. Mashable calls it “great for dashing off short notes quickly.”
Probably the biggest problem with the Windows Phone operating system, according to Time and many of the other reviewers, is the app ecosystem. When it comes to third-party apps, iOS and Android blow Windows Phone away. But with Microsoft starting to seriously compete in all other areas of its smartphone operating system, perhaps the apps won’t be far behind. But if you’re looking for great apps, Windows Phone is still the last platform you’ll want to consider.
While Windows Phone 8.1 won’t be available to customers for a month or two, depending on your phone and carrier, Microsoft has made the new operating system available for developers starting Monday. If you’re anxious to get your hands on the new operating system but you’re not a developer, you can sign up as a developer for free right here and download it for your phone immediately. There are certain risks to doing this, though, like potentially voiding your warranty and not receiving certain updates, so use caution.