Windows Phone 8.1 hands-on: The good, the bad, and the ugly

The forthcoming Microsoft smartphone OS is the first version you can take seriously

Windows Phone has had a troubled history since its disappointing debut in 2010. Each version has suffered major functional gaps, making it clearly inferior to the iPhone and to the Android smartphone versions available, despite its very slick user interface. There was no cut and paste, for example, in the first version -- and no business-security features until the third version, 8.0, in 2012.

Windows Phone 8.1 hands on: The good, the bad, and the ugly

Windows Phone 8.1, which is slowly rolling out throughout the world this spring and summer, closes more of the gaps but continues the unfortunate tradition at Microsoft of lagging behind the competition. Based on my use of the beta version of Windows Phone 8.1 that Microsoft made available to InfoWorld, Microsoft still hasn't caught up, much less pulled ahead. Yet Windows Phone 8.1 is the first version I would suggest you at least consider as an option. You'll probably still choose an iPhone or an Android smartphone, but some users will find Windows Phone a surprisingly pleasant choice.

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Microsoft says all smartphones that run Windows Phone 8 will run Windows Phone 8.1 when each carrier chooses to make it available as an update to its customers. New Microsoft (formerly Nokia) Lumia smartphones will ship soon in Europe and some other countries, and they may appear in the United States this summer. Europe is one of the few places where Windows Phone has broken the 10 percent market-share level, so it's no surprise the region is getting first dibs on Windows Phone 8.1.

Windows Phone 8.1: What's new

Here's what's new of significance in the Windows Phone update:

  • Microsoft has created its own version of the Google Now voice-assistant-plus-recommendations system, called Cortana. As with Google Now and Apple's Siri, you can ask Cortana questions and give it orders, such as to find out what's next on your calendar or search for a nearby restaurant. The recommendations part is a clone of Google Now's info cards system that collects information Cortana thinks you want -- restaurant recommendations, news headlines, tips on healthy living -- based on a short profile you complete.
  • Microsoft has cloned the Notification Center that iOS adopted in summer 2012, itself "inspired" by the Android notification tray. Windows Phone's Action Center borrows another page from iOS and Android, providing quick-access controls for tasks like opening messages and toggling to and from airplane mode. Given how few apps use Windows Phone's live tiles feature, which was an innovative if overwhelming way to keep you current, the new notifications method is welcome.
  • Microsoft has copied iOS's Do Not Disturb feature, so you can schedule quiet time during which calls, emails, and other communications won't disturb you (Windows Phone calls this feature Quiet Hours).f
  • Microsoft has created its own version of the Swype keyboard familiar to Android users, which lets you trace patterns on the keyboard to enter text rather than tap each key separately. Essentially, the keys over which you drag your finger are typed for you.
  • Microsoft has added the ability to search your phone's data, something Android and iOS have long offered.
  • Microsoft has copied iOS's Passbook feature to let compatible apps store tickets and loyalty cards in the Wallet app. The Wallet app also takes a page from Android in letting you attach credit cards to it for use in contactless payments on NFC-equipped phones. In fact, if you connect your Windows Phone to your Microsoft account, the credit card you used there for the Windows Store is automatically added to your virtual wallet.
  • Microsoft has reworked the VPN support (long supported by iOS and Android) added in Windows Phone 8, with built-in support for the IKEv2 protocol; the use of other VPN protocols will require that you get a dedicated app from your VPN vendor.
  • Microsoft has broadened what can be synced via your Microsoft account to Windows 8 PCs and tablets, including passwords (à la iOS 7's iCloud Keychain) and favorite websites (à la iOS 6's iCloud Tabs).
  • Microsoft has deconstructed the People app, so you can no longer use it as your social-networking hub. You now have to use individual apps for Twitter, Facebook, instant messaging, and so on. People still shows you the latest posts from people in your contact list, but you can no longer reply, forward, or otherwise act on those posts.
  • Microsoft has added many new security and management features, and nearly all are things iOS has offered for a while. As a result, Windows Phone is now more secure than Android and can be managed at near iOS levels.
  • Although it's not in the developer preview that Microsoft made available to InfoWorld, Windows Phone 8.1 will have an app that provides a Windows Explorer-like file manager for moving, copying, deleting, renaming, and searching for files on the phone's own storage, on any SD card installed, and in OneDrive.

Yes, Microsoft has copied many of the key capabilities in the competing mobile OSes. But that's a good thing, as it makes Windows Phone 8.1 more competitive by filling in such core gaps. Better to swallow some pride than continue ignoring such features. Think of it this way: Windows Phone is now doing much of what "real" smartphones do. Isn't that what we all wanted?

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