Microsoft has officially detailed Windows Phone 8.1 after months of leaks detailing key functionality. While today’s confirmation adds to the information already unveiled in the leaks, such as the development of the Cortana personal assistant and the Action Center, more features have also been confirmed for the update.
First, Windows Phone 8.1 adds the ability to personalize the lock screen, which can be interactive and appear in a wide range of styles. Microsoft also plans to offer additional APIs to developers so they can create their own lock screen customization tools. The second new feature is an evolution of the Start Screen. With 8.1, users can choose a high-density layout that will now include three columns for tiles, as well as use background images that appear behind all the tiles.
Windows Phone 8.1 also introduces Cortana, a voice-activated search assistant that responds to users’ voice commands and questions built on Microsoft’s Bing search engine, and can also perform searches, schedule appointments, and set reminders among more functionality. Cortana includes several components and can learn users most-frequently contacted people, places they prefer to go, and even what music they typically search for. Cortana can also be used to set “do not disturb” intervals, which Microsoft calls Quiet Hours.
Much like Google Now, Cortana will scan the user’s email for things such as flight details, and automatically provide details such as travel times to the airport, flight delays, and more. Microsoft says that Windows Phone 8.1 is also a better choice for business users thanks to new support for secure VPNs, and the ability to read encrypted emails. Devices can also be activated by businesses and turned into secure work machines, but can also be stripped of enterprise apps and features if an employee were to leave a company but keep their phone.
Windows Phone 8.1 also includes significant changes to the Windows Phone Store, such as more personalized recommendations, easier-to-use categories, and quick links along with a new calendar which allows users to swipe from day-to-day as well as see “week” length views. A new feature called Wi-Fi Sense suggests known, good, free Wi-Fi networks that may be available in public spaces – and will automatically connect to them.
Microsoft has also added a new keyboard to Windows Phone that allows users to swipe their finger across the keyboard rather than type, in a nod to the Android-exclusive Swype keyboard. Last, Microsoft has now included IE 11 into Windows Phone 8.1 along with new synchronization tools that will better share information between the mobile and Windows desktops.
Additionally, Microsoft has announced Skype integration into the Windows Phone 8.1 dialer and the elimination of licensing fees for OEMs that wish to release Windows Phone 8.1 devices that are 9 inches or smaller, making Windows Phone less of a risk for smaller OEMs that would have normally opted for Android to build low-cost devices. Windows Phone 8.1 is planned for roll out between late April and early May, with specific rollouts dependent on carrier.