Software: A Look at Windows Phone 8.1

The Nokia Lumia 930 is my first experience with Windows Phone 8.1, Microsoft’s updated mobile OS that was first launched in April 2014. Like Windows 8.1, Windows Phone 8.1 includes some major changes and upgrades from its predecessor, bringing it closer in line to Android and iOS in terms of its usability and feature set.

One of the big additions to Windows Phone is the Action Center, which is a pull down menu accessible by swiping down from the top of the display. Many people have been calling for a notification center since the launch of Windows Phone 7 in 2010, and Microsoft has finally delivered, meaning you don’t have to solely rely on Live Tile notifications to get alerts from apps.

Windows Phone 8.1’s action center is similar to many OEM implementations of Android’s notification pane, in that there’s an area for both notifications and quick settings toggles. The quick toggles are swappable in the Windows Phone settings, allowing you to chuck in items such as brightness in place of the default Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Airplane Mode and Rotation Lock toggles.

The notification area itself is pretty basic: it essentially shows one-line snippets of notifications from apps, similar to what you’d get from their toast notifications. Although it lacks the polish of the Android equivalent, which gives apps far greater control of what can be displayed in the notification area, it’s still useful and solves a long outstanding Windows Phone issue.

Another new feature and one of my personal favorites in Windows Phone 8.1 is the ability to add a background to your Start screen, changing previously-monotone tiles into a colourful array (depending on your background). Thanks to the feature, the main screen in Windows Phone can pack more flare and personality, and on the AMOLED display of the Lumia 930 a colourful image looks particularly excellent.

A flagship feature in Windows Phone 8.1, Cortana, is one that I’m unable to review thanks to infuriating location restrictions that bar anyone from outside of the US from using it. Cortana is Windows Phone’s personal assistant that performs a similar function to Siri on iOS, but with arguably more features and a more personal approach to voice-assisted smartphone usage.

I will have access to Cortana when Windows Phone 8.1 Update 1 is officially made available for the Lumia 930. The update has already launched through the Windows Phone early access program for developers, and brings Cortana to more countries in beta form, among other updates. While it’s relatively easy to use the early access program to update the Lumia 930 to Windows Phone 8.1 Update 1, I haven’t done so for this review because it hasn’t yet reached official OTA update channels and it wasn’t installed out of the box (as is my policy for all smartphone reviews).

Shape writing has made it to the Windows Phone keyboard, allowing you to type using Swype-like actions across the keys on the keyboard. Personally I prefer to tap on the keyboard than swipe, but with practice it can be a faster way to enter text. Also, with the feature now included, the stock keyboard is now more versatile, which is always welcome.

Internet Explorer 11 is included with Windows Phone 8.1, but it’s unlikely you’ll be able to tell the difference compared to the version included with Windows Phone 8 (IE10). Most of the changes are in the backend code to improve performance and rendering, although it’s still several leagues behind Chrome or Safari on other platforms, mostly due to web developers not targeting mobile IE.

I do hear that IE11 has been drastically improved in Update 1 to the point where it renders like Chrome on Android (thanks to a sneaky user agent string change), but again, I haven’t tested it just yet.

There are numerous other updates in Windows Phone 8.1, including proper VPN support and other enterprise features; double tap to unlock your smartphone; Wi-Fi Sense for sharing wireless networks with contacts; custom/live lockscreens; separate volume controls; and updates to the vast majority of the stock applications.

I’ve always liked Windows Phone, especially the information-rich Start screen with Live Tiles, and Windows Phone 8.1 continues to address issues while adding new features. However, there are still a few things to note.

Firstly, there is no ‘killer’ feature per se that makes Windows Phone 8.1 a standout over Android or iOS. This could make it a hard sell for those on other mobile platforms, who might not want to switch away from a familiar environment. I don’t believe that, on features alone, Windows Phone is worse than Android or iOS, but I just can’t see an end user choosing to switch when the experience for basic tasks is largely the same.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the quality of Windows Phone apps is still inferior to that of Android or iOS. Every time I use the platform it gets better, and the issue with app availability has largely been resolved, but it’s hard to ignore the quality issue. Apps that perform similar functions are usually better on Android/iOS, a product of developers targeting platforms with more users and spending more time and money improving them.

That’s not to say apps on Windows Phone are bad – you can find some true gems in the Windows Phone Store if you look hard enough – but it’s definitely an area that Microsoft needs to place the most emphasis on fixing.