It wasn't just the desktop build of Windows getting some lovin' at Microsoft's annual BUILD conference this week. Windows Phone 8.1 will see the company also give its smartphone OS a nip and tuck. There's a lot of new features rolling out to Windows Phone user's devices through April and May -- read on for the best of the bunch.
Named after the Master Chief's AI buddy in Halo, Cortana is Microsoft's answer to Google Now or Siri. Voice activated, it taps into the Bing search engine, letting you issue commands on all aspects of your phone, by voice alone. Microsoft's spent a lot of time on teaching Cortana differing speech patterns and semantics rules, meaning it should understand even the most esoteric of commands. Cortana will also be context-aware -- fire up the service from a pulsating icon on the Start screen and it'll pull in information from calendar details, messages, your current location and more in an attempt to anticipate your requests. It'll launch in the US first this summer, hopefully coming to the UK before the year is out.
Android has Swype, and now Windows Phones will get Word Flow. Microsoft's claiming this the fastest phone keyboard ever, letting you drag your finger across letters to form words, while also learning your regularly used words and phrases to anticipate auto-filling suggestions.
Making use of details from your Microsoft account, Wi-Fi Sense will automatically remember Wi-Fi hotspots and their associated passwords across devices, meaning you won't need to re-input passwords on a fresh device once you enter a recognised hotspot zone. Wi-Fi Sense will also recognise pals from social networks, and you'll be able to allow it to send them secure Wi-Fi password information for your personal Wi-Fi network automatically as they approach it.
In addition to the optional three-column home screen Live Tiles view, you'll now be able to add a background screen alongside Live Tile themes. These images will scroll behind transparent versions of Windows Phone 8.1's default, pre-installed apps. Developers will also be able to offer up fresh lockscreen experiences, delivering additional functionality and visual styles dependent on a device's abilities or user's preferences.
Though developers will reap the immediate benefits of this feature, it should ultimately lead to a vastly improved Windows Phone app store experience. Devs will now need only build one app for it to be compatible across multiple devices -- that's including the Xbox platform alongside desktop Windows 8.1 and Windows Phone 8.1. These apps will have smart scaling capabilities, allowing for a unified user experience across devices, with minimal extra effort from devs.
Or should that be Action Centre? The localisation police will be coming a'knocking, Microsoft. Working much like the notifications bar on an Android device, dragging down from the top of the screen in Windows Phone 8.1 will now display a notifications hub with a row of quick settings buttons. Everything from Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity through to Airplane Mode and screen auto-rotate locks will be found here, and a user can individually customise those that are present.
If you insist on using Internet Explorer, the least you can hope for is for the phone version to match the latest release of the desktop version, which Windows Phone 8.1 will do. IE 11 brings with it all-new HTML performance enhancements and supports in-line video playback and adaptive streaming, as well as offering up new Reading View and InPrivate tab options. We all know what the last one's used for, right? You saucy sods.
There are a host of other minor tweaks elsewhere too -- the Calendar app now has a more detailed monthly view, letting you check weather and appointment details at a glance without having to dive deeper into each separate day; the Photos app will organise snaps automatically by date and location, showing most recent shots first and allowing third-party apps to tap in directly; Data Sense and Storage Sense also join alongside Wi-Fi Sense, letting you manage mobile data usage and available local and cloud storage options respectively.
All new Windows Phone devices going forward will land with Windows Phone 8.1 installed.