Last week Microsoft have made the Windows Phone 8.1 Developer Preview available to whoever that signed up for the program. This is the first major update for Windows Phone 8.1 after three minor GDRs (General Distribution Release). I updated my Lumia 620 the very first second the update was published. After using it for one week, here is my impression on this major update on my phone.
To me performance is much more important than the new features added as this will affect our daily usage the most. Lower end devices users might be hesitate on such big update as we all are afraid that the unimpressive hardware cannot cope with the new features. Given the fact that Lumia 620 is not a high-end device, I think that the whole OS runs smoothly on the phone. Sometimes there are still lag noticed when I do things too fast but the lag was presence before WP8.1 too. So if you have no problem with the lag in WP8, your phone should do just fine in WP8.1.
Before GDR3 we relied heavily on spamming the back button to kill all the apps. After GDR3 we can close them by clicking the small ‘x’ button on the App Switcher. In WP8.1, Microsoft make it even more convenient where you can swipe down each card to close the apps, much like what we can do in Windows 8. The animation transition between apps have been faster too and all of these make multitasking more user-friendly and more efficient.
The centre attraction of all features added will be the presence of Cortana, the virtual personal assistant in your phone. Cortana is Microsoft’s answer for Siri and Google Now. You can ask her to set alarms, record a note, check for weather, remind you for task, launch apps and toggle settings. While she is still in beta stage, I feel that she is quite smart and she can do almost everything I expected. Furthermore, Cortana can be used for simple commands like setting alarms even in offline. This is totally unexpected when I first used it.
You can personalize Cortana to serve you the best. You can also tell Cortana what is your interest and she will record that in her notebook. Then when you power up her, she will show you headlines of news you might be interested, next game of your favorite sports team or the weather around you. I find this quite useful but there are also problems I noticed. Traffic condition is not available in Malaysia and temperature is shown in Fahrenheit and I cannot set it to Celsius.
I am not using Android phone so I cannot make comparison with Cortana and Google Now. Using Cortana and Siri gives me a very different feeling although what they can perform is quite in par. Personally I feel that Siri is more like a human than Cortana does. where she can give more natural response. Answers to the same question will be changed, making it more like a human. In the case for Cortana, I can hardly get different answer for the same question and I will get Bing search results very often when I ask her different kind of questions. There is nothing wrong with it but it just makes me feel she’s more like a machine (albeit the truth that both of them are). However, I believe that she will get more human-like when time goes by.
About speech recognition, frankly speaking my spoken English is not that accurate and I would expect both of them to have a hard time catching what I said. However, the results turned out to be quite impressive. Both of them can get what I mean most of the time but I would say Cortana can understand my accent slightly better. The ability of Cortana to let us type in our command is a great plus, given that we might be in a noisy environment or feeling too awkward to speak to your phone. Siri is available in lots of languages but Cortana is currently only available in English.
One thing Cortana can do better is that she can set location-based reminder such as ‘remind me to feed the dog when I reach home’ if you have told her where is your home. This is useful when you have no idea when you will get back. However, when I try out this feature, I need to be at the preset place for certain period before the reminder will be shown on phone. Although it’s a bit slow but this is a smart addition from Microsoft.
In short, Cortana is a useful personal assistant but she requires some improvement from her creator. The ability to personalize Cortana makes it more appealing than Siri and I can see that I would use it quite often. The only downside is that Bing Vision is harder to access now as I rely on it to scan QR codes.
Swiping from the top will lead us to the newly added action center where we can see notifications and four customizable quick action buttons. There will be a button to access all settings too. The date, carrier name and battery percentage will be shown too. This is probably the most welcomed feature for me and I use it all the time.
Speaking of the quick action buttons, it performs slightly different from what we have from Android and iOS. While the rest are just toggling the settings, in WP8.1 different quick action buttons will have different way of operating. Clicking Bluetooth, rotation lock and location will toggle it on and off but clicking on Wi-Fi will actually bring you to the Wi-Fi setting page. Clicking on brightness will interchange between 3 levels of brightness. Personally I am not a fan of this as this will make the OS inconsistent. I would prefer to toggle the settings by clicking on it and long press it to access the setting page. The other problem is that the function supported is limited. You cannot choose data connection or NFC setting as they are not in the list. I think a little brushing up will make the action center better. With this new setting I finally have a shorter start screen as the setting tiles can all be removed now.
For notifications, it performs as it should and I have no major complaints on it. I just wish that we have the choice to choose toast notification with alerts but not on the action center for certain apps. For example I would like the Battery apps to notify me the device is fully charge but I do not need it to be in the action center to be seen later.
The easiest way to spot a Windows Phone with WP8.1 update will be looking at the live tiles. We can now set a background for our phone and those live tiles with accent color will act as a window and make the background visible. This make OS nicer without sacrificing the simplicity. I love it very much as I finally have more freedom to customize the look of my phone. For the selection of accent color, it is still the same and I hope Microsoft will add in a color palette for us to choose the color we want.
One more noticeable visual change is the ability to add third row of medium tiles to the start screen regardless of screen size. This is basically useless for me as Lumia 620’s 3.8″ screen is too small for the third row.
The only glitch I noticed is that when I return to start screen from apps, the tiles with pictures will load slower than normal tiles. Not a big deal but certainly not an eye candy to be seen.
I hate to admit this but the battery life was significantly shorter after the update and it seems that I am not the only one. In the first few days I thought the draining of juice is caused by my heavy use after getting the update so I decided to use it for a couple of days before I draw any conclusion on it but it seems that there was no improvement on it. The battery can still stay for a day with medium usage but I need to be more cautious when I use it. Stand by time is not that great too as there was a day where my battery drop 20% after a 7-hour sleep. This is really bad and I am considering a power bank right now.
Other New Features
In WP8.1, live tiles can update every minutes, making live tiles living up to its name. So we can expect faster update on tiles and more apps using it. The app Clock Hub is an example of apps using this feature fully.
The new camera app have been updated and we can now shoot photos in burst mode. A handy addition is that we can choose what button to be shown on the UI and this grants more freedom to user. Photo enthusiasts can choose ISO, exposure level and white balance for more control over the photo and normal people may choose scenes and lens picker for easier shoots. However, I noticed that the camera app took longer to load as compared to WP8.
The store has been given a new look but I like the old one more as it is more colourful and nice. Under the store setting we can now check for apps update manually or let the phone update the apps automatically. This is a new addition but I hope that it can be reached with fewer clicks as I would do quite often. The phone will check for updates itself but more often than not, the updates will not appear until I check for them manually.
The way we type in Windows Phone will be different after this update. The introduction of Word Flow keyboard allows us to swipe over the letters to type. This make typing more enjoyable and more importantly, much faster. This is the first time I use this kind of keyboard and I faced no problem at all when I use it.
There are also some little things that make the experience even better. The ability to install apps on SD cards save my day as I always find 8GB of internal memory insufficient. Just make sure you have better SD cards for faster apps loading time. For me, the choice to set a period to turn WiFi on after you switch it off is very convenient. While using NFC, the users can choose trusted apps and the next time you tap on the NFC tag, the apps will be started without prompting a message that asks for your permission. This comes in handy especially when you are driving.
Improvements I Hoped
- Battery draining issue
- Improvement on Cortana
- Always displaying battery percentage
- Easier access to Bing Vision
- More choices on quick actions on Action Center
- Apps having choice to show only toast notifications
- Sync favorite places among Here Maps and native map apps
- Ability to hide games on all apps list
- Easier navigation in settings as the list grows longer
- Improve native apps load time
- Save Start Screen arrangement before enabling or disabling third row of tiles to change back easier
Windows Phone 8.1 is great. I am happy that my phone can perform more, way more than what I was expecting when I first bought the phone more than a year ago after few updates. After using WP8.1 I can never go back to WP8 anymore as the new addition are so great. The addition of Cortana, action center and new appearance make the phone better and I would say the OS can finally catch up with Android and iOS. There are few glitches here and there such as battery life and Cortana needs improvement, indicating there is still a lot of work for Microsoft. But I believe the greatest is yet to come. If anyone ask me whether it is a worthy update now, my answer will definitely be a great ‘yes’.
Thanks for reading and feel free to comment! Your feedback will be much appreciated. Cheers