Windows Phone 8.1 Is Out

The Windows Phone 8.1 OS update is now available to ‘Developers’. In this case, a developer is anyone who downloads and briefly sets up the Preview for Developers app and then runs a phone update. This is actually a decent way to let people who are happy to play with an update do so, before released to the general public.

The upgrade process isn’t very exciting, but can take a while. On my Nokia Lumia 1020, there was a small 2mb update which took about 10 minutes to install, before the big 8.1 (of unknown size) update which took about 25 minutes. A very smooth process but don’t do this when you’re expecting a call.

After upgrading I had a headache, but that was unrelated. Overcoming this, I was looking at a phone that had many obvious improvements. 8.1 is a BIG update, and here’s some of the more interesting bits I found:

Screenshots – The button combination used to be Power and Start, but it’s now Power and Volume Up. They nicely tell you this when you try to take your first screenshot (say if you were writing an article):

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Notification Center – Yes, Microsoft has followed Apple who followed Google. I see this as a standard requirement for a smart phone now, and this notification screen gives you enough information. Yes, mine’s a bit blank but it shows you unread emails, SMSes and so on. It also can take you to the settings page, which for me means one less tile on the start screen.

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Another handy part of the Notification Center is the ability to turn screen rotation on and off. Now you can control it once you’re in an app, as I usually have it off for lying in bed where gravity is going the wrong way for the accelerometer, meaning my screen orientation is sideways.

Start Screen – At first glance this is no different, but under Settings > System > start+theme, there are two things you can do. First is having a photo background for your tiles, which will probably make your tiles unreadable (unless you pick the right photo that’s not very detailed), and more interestingly the ‘Show more Tiles’ option.

Turning this ‘On’ then gives you a lot more tile space, which I haven’t even managed to fill yet:

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I’m a big fan of this change, as now it feels similar to the Nokia Lumia 1520’s giant 6″ screen in terms of space used. To me, Windows Phone 8 works best when you’ve got a single front screen that both shows you everything you want to see at a glance with live tiles, as well as having all your commonly launched apps. Shrinking everything down allows this to happen.

Calendar – Before 8.1, the calendar wasn’t great. It was barely usable. Now it is great. At a glance you can clearly see what’s planned for the week, and drill down further with a single touch. It’s not flashy and pretty, but it’s functional, and that’s my primary want. You even get to see the weather forecast:

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FM Radio – Something Apple refused to put in their iPhones is now in Windows Phone. It’s hardware driven, because when you launch it without headphones plugged in, it will tell you to plug some in as that’s what it uses as an antenna. This is one of the basics that I wonder why it wasn’t done earlier.

Podcasts – I’m from Australia, and Podcasts has never been available here previously. But for everyone, this is a new app which is standalone, rather than being part of the Music hub. I added a few podcasts easily, and although it doesn’t have advanced options around when to delete podcasts, or a ‘select all’ button

VPN – There’s now VPN support! This is a big one for enterprises, you can now have your remote WP8 users connect to work resources. Not much else to say on it, but it’s a welcome addition.

Data Sense and Storage Sense – Data sense will show you your data usage on both mobile networks and Wifi, while Storage shows you what you’re using and where. If you have the ability to add external storage, this will also let you choose what gets saved where. Very good for keep track of your 1’s and 0’s.

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Games – These are no longer hidden under the Games app only, and will be listed in the full app list. Might be annoying for those who previously had a bunch of hidden games.

Keyboard – Swype is now active! There’s nothing to turn off or on, you just start swyping around and away it goes. I have to remind myself to do it, but for short messages I do find it a lot quicker to get words down. Changing your mind to spell ‘hello’ as ‘helo’ does take a bit, but it’s worth it. Early days too, as I tried to write ‘sucks’ and it really thought I was trying to say ‘sticks’ which is sort of the opposite.

Store – It looks different. I wasn’t a huge fan of the old layout, and maybe the new layout is better and I’m not used to it… but we shall see. It does have smarts built in to show you apps you want before you know you want them (called Suggestions):

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There’s a bunch of other additions in this update that I’m sure I’ve missed, so get in there and start playing!

One problem I found was that after the update, Google would no longer sync my emails. I had to remove the calendar from syncing under Settings > email+accounts > Google > untick Calendar. Without this, I was getting a sync error code of 801901F5 which may be due to this change from Google dropping CardDAV support.

Windows Phone 8.1 is one of those updates you can actually get excited about. It reminds me of the early Apple iOS updates where each update gave you some nice new features, but at the same time left you wondering ‘why wasn’t this already there!’. Microsoft is still playing catchup in the mobile world, and now 8.1 has made them several steps closer. If only the Windows App Store had more apps…

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