Apple is set to roll out iOS 8 in the coming month or so, but we’ve already had a play with Apple’s latest OS as well as the awesome new Windows Phone 8.1. Dean Quinn discusses why Microsoft’s WP 8.1 is considerably more exciting than the creaky iOS…
Contrary to popular belief, there are actually mobile operating systems out there besides Android and iOS. You’d be forgiven for thinking otherwise though, especially given the blanket coverage afforded by both the tech press and mainstream media to Google’s little green robot-fronted Android platform and the ubiquitous iPhone.
The fact that many general consumers (i.e. anyone who can’t be categorised as ‘tech geeks’) hold this widespread belief is unsurprising. After all, the beefiest challenger to this two-way mobile stranglehold has sort of bumbled along for nigh on four years, failing to snatch up any real public interest.
We’re of course talking about Microsoft’s Windows Phone, the nearly man of mobile operating systems. The OS’s short history has been almost as colourful as its trademark Live Tiles interface. Since its transformation from Windows Mobile to Windows Phone in 2010 we’ve seen no fewer than seven updates, plus the swallowing-up of mobile legend Nokia by the Microsoft monster. Meanwhile CEOs have been in and out of the revolving door, amidst a shifting roster of manufacturing partners and the manic ramblings of wild-eyed perspiration king Steve Ballmer.
All these shenanigans have of course been highly interesting for tech hacks like us, but not really of any consequence to the end users. Until now, that is.
This is why we think that Windows Phone 8.1 knocks the latest iOS 8 into a cocked hat.
Live Tiles Interface
It’s been around for a while – since the very first Windows Phone emerged back in 2010 in fact – but the Live Tiles concept was a bit half-baked when it first launched. The user experience may have been quite sparkly and unique, didn’t Windows Phone sadly couldn’t match that with actual functionality. Pure Windows dressing, if you like (and can stomach laboured puns).
With Windows Phone 8.1 however, those twinkling squares of wonder have really come into their own thanks to the addition of skinable tiles and improved multitasking.
Now users can set a background pic as a sort of semi-translucent wallpaper that envelops the tiles, while apps can be closed down simply by dragging them off-screen in the multitasking menu. Sure, iOS 7 might have made things prettier, Jonny Ive-ing things up by way of new icons, menu interfaces and whatever a parallax wallpaper is. But for us, the sleek, colourful and interactive Live Tiles interface wins the day in terms of looks and functionality.
The legions of i-zealots out there will tell you that Siri was the dawn of a new era, both in the world of consumer tech and the world in general. That apparently people’s lives have changed for the better now that we can all carry around our very own talking personal assistant, to help us with every quandary life throws our way.
What they won’t tell you is that Google’s voice search had been doing Siri’s job for quite a while beforehand (albeit with slightly more limited functionality). They’ll also casually forget to mention that it can’t interact with third party apps especially well just yet, and that if you’re a Geordie or Glaswegian you might as well be barking commands at a dead dog with no ears.
Windows Phone 8.1 may be a little late to the digital assistant party, but the wait was actually worth it. Microsoft’s effort, dubbed Cortana, really is the business.
Not only does she have a cool name (anything that takes inspiration from shooty Xbox title Halo gets the thumbs up from us), but she also gets one over on Siri thanks to increased integration with native and third-party apps, and a little something called ‘Notebook’ functionality.
This clever addition means that Cortana will steadily learn all about you and your likes (however dodgy they may be) and make a note for future reference. So if, for example, you ask her to book a table at a restaurant, she suddenly knows what sort of cuisine you like, how far you’re likely to travel for grub and even how much you’re prepared to pay for a night out.
Meanwhile, Siri is the equivalent of a disinterested boyfriend, who’d rather blast his mates apart in a spot of online deathmatch action than ask you how your day went.
And sure, Google Now can learn about your daily habits too, but Google Now doesn’t give you time-sensitive verbal reminders. Unless you forget to take your medication at least.
Check out our full UK Cortana review.
Apple clearly had an inkling that its approach to cloud services was an absolute dogs dinner, so it’s attempted to remedy the situation with iOS 8’s iCloud Drive. Basically, iCloud Drive is a Dropbox clone that adds a Finder-esque browser and allows files and folders to be synced across OSX, iOS and Windows devices.
Unfortunately however, although iCloud Drive works on Windows, Apple being Apple have yet to open up the APIs so that Android and Windows Phone developers can cook up apps that actually take advantage. Pfft.
Microsoft on the other hand knew that it couldn’t afford to be so controlling when it comes to cross-device and cross-platform sharing of data. So, to avoid turning off potential customers worried about adding a Windows Phone device to an already diverse tech ecosystem, the big M went all out to make accessing your bits and bobs as easy and as streamlined as possible.
Whilst Windows Phone 8.1 supports Microsoft’s own cloud offerings such as Office 365 and OneDrive, you’ll also find it allows syncing of calendar and contacts from iCloud itself, along with a load of other competitor cloud accounts.
Apple looks like it’s gradually learning to become more caring and sharing, with the opening up of its APIs for health app devs to shovel data from their wares through the iOS 8 Health app, and by making provision for third-party widgets. Until that ball starts rolling faster though, Windows Phone 8.1 wins out here.
So, is Windows Phone 8.1 better than iOS 8?
Of course, being the erudite bunch we are here at Recombu, we don’t reckon the aforementioned reasons will be enough for legions of Apple disciples to hoy their iPhones and iPads into the nearest skip. Neither do we suppose that Androiders the world over will see anything here to worry about Microsoft encroaching upon their OS of choice.
What we will say, however, is that whilst the gap in market share might not be getting any smaller, the disparity in functionality and features certainly is decreasing.
That age-old sticking point of Windows Phone’s limited apps is as sticky as ever but, like third-rate mid-nineties indie band Shed Seven once sang, “it’s getting better all the time”. Unlike third-rate mid-nineties indie band Shed Seven though, Windows Phone doesn’t look like it’ll be confined to the annals of history alongside bottles of Two Dogs alcopops and TFI Friday, especially considering that mainstream apps such as Instagram and Netflix are steadily making their way to the platform.
Add to this an ever-increasing array of top quality hardware running Windows Phone, including the sumptuous Nokia Lumia 930 and the recently-outed Windows Phone variant of the HTC One M8, and we’d say that the top two could well be joined by an interloper quite soon indeed.