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Windows Phone 8.1 goes official at Microsoft Build 2014. So what’s new?

It’s day one of Microsoft’s 2014 Build developer conference and the company just made Windows Phone 8.1 official.

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We, along with thousands of others around the world tuned into Microsoft’s Build developer conference live stream, coming from the Moscone Center in San Francisco. The company’s manager of all things Windows Phone, Joe Belfiore kicked proceedings off by stepping onto the stage to confirm that Windows Phone 8.1 is official and practically ready to go.

It’s no secret that Windows Phone is still playing catch-up to the likes of iOS and Android; it’s been said a hundred times before, but Windows Phone 8.1 is one more step in Microsoft’s favour, as the company hopes to narrow the gap in functionality offered by smartphones running its operating system, and that of its main rivals.

As we’ve mentioned before, Microsoft already spilled the beans on the key additions Windows Phone users can expect in this forthcoming release, but Belfiore took the time to showcase these features in greater detail.

Action Centre

Much like the rich notifications panel now found in Android, Action Centre brings added functionality to notifications in Windows Phone. With a swipe down from anywhere on the device (including the lock screen) a user can get at four customisable quick toggles for various settings tied to their phone, under which notifications will now appear in a continuous stream, with support for things like dual-SIM information in real time (another added feature of Windows Phone 8.1).

Action Centre

What’s more, developers will be able to enjoy access to new APIs offering third-party support for notifications and quick settings too. Users will be able to set notification behavior from their phone’s settings for toast pop-ups, vibration feedback and more.

Customisable Lock and Start screens

Customisation has always been pretty limited in the world of Windows Phone. Setting a theme colour, a lock screen image and maybe a different ringtone is really as far as users have been able to push their individuality, but Microsoft has finally baked in some long-overdue new options.

Developers can now create much richer customisable lock screens, with examples of two radically different clock designs being shown on stage. Both integrated animated elements and additional calendar information too.

Lock screenStart screen

Get past the lock screen and the background of the Start screen Live Tiles no longer needs to remain one solid colour. Slap your favourite photo, or a cool custom design on there and Windows Phone will let you overlay it underneath the important content on each tile. Finally.

Show more tiles

Nokia recently worked with Microsoft to bring extra Live Tiles to the Start screens of its latest phablets, the Nokia Lumia 1520 and Nokia Lumia 1320. Both devices currently run Windows Phone 8, but their enhanced interfaces allowed them to squeeze more tiles with more information on show at a glance.

More tiles

The ‘show more tiles’ option pushed into Windows Phone 8.1 now brings that same, richer homescreen to all supported Windows Phone handsets (even smaller ones) and it can be switched on or off using a simple toggle in the Settings menu.

Cortana goes live, sort of…

As is often the way with live demos, things didn’t go exactly according to plan, but we were finally able to see the much talked about Cortana voice assistant in action. Unlike Siri and Google Now which remain genderless, Cortana was referred to numerous times throughout the event as ‘she’, and although her voice isn’t as natural as the fictional artificial intelligence that she takes her name from, she performed admirably in offering up the right information at the right time (for the most part).

Here’s an overtly dramatic, abstract launch trailer for the voice assistant. Hopefully she’ll sound as natural as this no matter what query she’s answering, but at this stage, conversation comes across as a little more stilted.

Just as Google uses its robust search back-end to power Google Now, the primary engine used by Cortana is Microsoft’s Bing. As such, the Bing button that’s found on every Windows Phone handset will now link you straight to Cortana instead, who you can interact with by voice, or silently, if you’d prefer to type out your queries manually. She also gets her own Live Tile, should you wish to pin information she has on offer at a glance.

Speaking of the information that Cortana can offer up, even before you start a search a scrolling list of potential queries will appear with things you might find relevant, based on Cortana’s ability to scan your emails, calendar and so on to pull up important questions you’d potentially want to put to her.

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Beyond basic search, you can map relationships with people, track flights, sports scores and more. Information which she learns about you during use is stored in ‘Cortana’s Notebook’. A user can browse the information on file surrounding important locations, people and so on, and if they wish, edit, add or remove content too.

You can also set a ‘do not disturb’ period which holds back any notifications until you next switch it off. At the user’s discretion, calls, messages or other communications sent by contacts assigned to an ‘Inner Circle’ can still cause the phone to ring or vibrate, even when the phone is set to not disturb you.

Cortana

The most unique thing about Cortana at this stage over her main adversaries is that queries can be modified along the way. An example could be the request to find some nice restaurants in the area, once the results pop up, typically that’s the end of the query, but with Cortana you could then add in a second command, “which of those take reservations” and she can then refine the results. This process can continue, offering a greater depth to search. Pretty cool, if it works in the real world.

What else?

Windows Phone 8.1 also includes a number of smaller improvements, or as Joe Belfiore puts it, ‘features to make you smile’.

For instance, the Windows Store now has greater emphasis on apps, with a boosted ‘For You’ section that helps you to find the apps you want, with lists such as ‘top 100 free apps’.

The Windows Phone calendar now allows you to swipe right and left to switch between days, or swap to a week view for a general overview. Admittedly these are features that should have already existed, but better late than never, we guess.

WiFi Sense will now automatically sign you into networks that you’ve accessed before, and also allow you to jump onto a friend’s network to use their internet in a quick and painless way, without them stressing about you snooping around on their connected devices (i.e. trawling their drives for dodgy smut).

The Word Flow keyboard has also seen some improvements, to enable faster swipey typing – in fact, Microsoft had some moody-looking kid break the Guinness world record for typing a sentence live during the conference.

Mr Belfiore finished off by announcing that Windows Phone 8.1 will start rolling out to consumers in the next few months. Expect the US users to be first in line, followed by the UK, China and other markets soon after.

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