Everything we know about the Windows Phone 8.1 update

Everything we know about the Windows Phone 8.1 update as of Feb. 22, 2014
We have been hearing some rumors here and there about what to expect in the upcoming Windows Phone 8.1 update, but ever since Microsoft released the SDK for the update, the rumors surrounding the update have positively exploded. We have been posting a couple articles every day with new information that has been gleaned from the SDK or other sources, so it is time to do a rumor roundup to make it easier to sort through what we know so far about Windows Phone 8.1. Of course, this article will be updated (and has already needed updating as it was written because the news doesn't stop when it comes to Windows Phone 8.1

Before we dive into the features, let's just talk a bit about the availability of the update. As of right now, the rumors seem pretty believable that Microsoft will release a developer preview of Windows Phone 8.1 in April at its Build Developer Conference which is scheduled for April 2nd through the 4th. After that, it is expected that the update will be released to users over the summer, meaning sometime in July or August (in case you live in the Southern Hemisphere.) And, Microsoft has confirmed that all Windows Phone 8 devices will receive the update, so there are no worries of getting left behind as devices did with the jump from Windows Phone 7 to 8. 

As far as the feature updates coming in Windows Phone 8.1, this has been shaping up to be an impressive update, despite the fact that the number change is an incremental one. There are expected to be two major features added as well as a host of smaller changes that should add up to a solid update for all. As far as the major updates go, we are expecting to see:

Recommended Stories

Cortana voice assistant

The first major feature update we want to talk about is Microsoft's voice command/virtual assistant which has been codenamed Cortana after the AI computer in the Halo series. So far average users haven't taken much to voice controls, but if the various rumors do turn out to be true, Cortana could be one of the most impressive pieces of technology that we've seen on any platform. We know that Cortana will offer similar functionality to Siri and Google Now, allowing you to search the web, get answers, or control your phone in various ways, but the possibilities beyond that and the potential that Microsoft has hinted at make Cortana the feature that we want to see the most. 

There have been sources that have said that Cortana will be "revolutionary", and Microsoft expert Mary Jo Foley has said that Cortana will go beyond current voice assistant offerings by completely integrating with "the core services and experience -- of the future versions of Windows Phone, Windows and the Xbox One operating systems". Cortana is planned to be a central part of a push by Microsoft to offer a "deeply personalized" shell UI in all Windows platforms that will be "based on the advanced, almost magical, intelligence in our cloud that learns more and more over time about people and the world", according to ex-CEO Steve Ballmer.

That is a very lofty goal. Microsoft is building Cortana to learn and adapt, a process that will use the TellMe speech recognition, machine-learning technology, and the "Satori" knowledge database that powers Bing. It has been rumored to feature integration of Foursquare location data as well. Ballmer has also talked about the Windows shell supporting all of Microsoft's "essential services" which "will be great at responding seamlessly to what people ask for, and even anticipating what they need before they ask for it." Given that description, it sounds like Microsoft could be positioning Cortana to combine the best of Google Now's intelligent push model with the best of Siri's personal assistant model. 

From the few screenshots we've seen, it looks as though Cortana will play a part in changing your Windows Phone experience based on various contexts, including work and home; it could be deeply integrated with of the new Action Center; and, it looks like it will power the speak-back functionality in Windows Phone like text-to-speech and voice navigation. We haven't yet seen the evidence of it, but it is also likely that Cortana will power any potential universal dictation options coming to Windows Phone.

Beyond all of that, the info gets scarce on Cortana, especially because it isn't a part of the current Windows Phone 8.1 SDK. There have been rumors that Cortana will be "always-on" like the Moto X voice command, and allow for voice unlocking of your device. Unfortunately, we don't know yet if this will be available on all devices, or only specific devices like those running the Snapdragon 800 chipset which supports always-on voice with minimal power consumption. 

The voice commands themselves will likely cover the same sorts of things that you can ask Siri or Google Now, but there have been some rumors that Microsoft wants Cortana to be able to answer "why" questions, which is something that neither Apple nor Google can currently handle. But, "why" questions are extremely complex, so we wouldn't be surprised if this didn't make it to the initial release of Cortana.

*Update February 20th*
Today was a big day for info on Cortana. We learned that Cortana will be completely replacing the stock Bing Search app similarly to how Google Now has essentially replaced Google Search in all but name. Cortana will have personality both in how it responds to voice commands and with animations of the circular icon that will represent Cortana. The icon will be able to bounce around and even smile or frown to show emotion. 

Cortana will also offer functionality similar to Google Now, pulling information from your mail, contacts, and calendar, as well as learning about you from your usage. But, the big difference here is that Cortana will give you control over what information it can access using a feature called the Notebook. Items that Cortana learns about you will be added to the Notebook (after you approve the addition), and anything in the Notebook can be edited or removed. You will also be able to limit Cortana's access to things like your email, calendar, contacts, or location data.

Cortana be able to manage do-not-disturb times to mute notifications, and provide exceptions for contacts that are in your Inner Circle. It also will have all of the standard voice command options that you might expect, including calling contacts or numbers, playing media files, sending texts, searching the Windows Phone Store, getting weather info or stock prices, conversions, getting news, finding videos, finding recipes, and finding places. On the personal assistant side of things, you'll be able to set alarms, create calendar appointments, take notes, and set reminders.

*Update February 22nd*
The language pack for Cortana has been released, and as you might expect, there is a ton of info to be pulled from it. It seems that Cortana will be much more sophisticated than you might expect. Cortana will also strive to be more casual and personal than other systems, and will have multiple ways to convey ideas and even use slang in order to avoid repetition. As we mentioned before, the icon for Cortana will be animated, but Cortana will also be able to emote through speech as well. The language pack lists 6 emotional states: considerate, sensitive, satisfied (excited), abashed (embarrassed), thinking (thoughtful), and sorry. We would assume that Cortana's natural state will have some wit and humor, like Siri, which could explain why that isn't there. 

Cortana will engage in back-and-forth conversations in order to clarify commands, as well as to gather more information. For example, if you want to set an alarm or calendar event, Cortana will ask about the location and purpose so you don't have to add that later. In addition to being able to say "Call mom" or other relations, you will be able to set custom nicknames for contacts through Cortana. When making a calendar event, Cortana will warn you if you are going to double-book yourself. You will also be able to edit event info with voice commands. 

Cortana will apparently also be available while on a call, because there is a warning phrase for "I can't do this while on a call", and an option to turn on the speakerphone with a voice command. You will be able to set speed dial numbers and call those directly as well. After dictating a message, Cortana will ask "Send it, add more, or try again?"; and, when you receive a message, you can say "read it" or "ignore". After reading it you can say "reply", "call" or "I'm done". Maybe best of all, you'll be able to search for messages (SMS or email) either by contact name or by keyword phrase. 

There is also a possibility that Cortana will support up to 15 languages/regional language variations at launch, but the information on that is conflicting right now. 

Action Center

As we said, the average user still isn't that big on voice command with phones, which puts Cortana in a tricky position. But, the rumors point to quite a bit of functionality beyond just voice control to a more comprehensive service which learns what you need and do. Of course, that's all still just potential and possibilities, if we are talking about the major new feature for Windows Phone 8.1 that will get the most daily active use, the most useful feature could be the new Action Center, which is what Microsoft is calling the coming notification center for Windows Phone. 

Microsoft isn't trying to reinvent the wheel on this one, but it does want to make the Action Center a bit more useful than you'll find with the notification options on Android or iOS. As you would expect, the Action Center will be accessed by swiping down from the top of the screen; and, just like its counterparts on other mobile platforms, it looks like it will include Quick Settings toggles.

The screenshots we've seen have shown four Quick Settings slots, but the question is in what those slots will hold. So far, we have only seen screenshots that show settings buttons for Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Airplane Mode, and Driving Mode; and, a new video is showing that the Quick Settings options will be customizable. This means that you could choose to swap out any of those four options with buttons for: Camera, Rotation Lock, Internet Sharing, Brightness, Do Not Disturb Mode, VPN, Location Settings, and Screen Mirroring. 

Video Thumbnail

As far as notifications themselves, they will be organized similarly to what you would see on iOS with each set of notifications listed under the app they represent. Users should be able to swipe away notifications, but we don't yet know how interactive they will be. It could be that tapping a notification will simply launch you into the app. But, given that the feature is called the Action Center, we would expect users to be able to perform actions on those notifications, which could mean replying to or deleting messages and maybe audio controls.

We don't know what kind of interactions users will have with notifications, but we do know that app developers will have deeper control over notifications than what you might find on other platforms. It has been said that developers will be able to add, update, or delete notifications. This would mean that notifications should always be up-to-date, and developers would be able to remove notifications that you may have dealt with on another device. It is unclear yet if Microsoft will have a service like Google to help with syncing read notifications across devices or not.

The rest of the updates are more minor changes, but there are a ton of them. To make it a bit easier to sift through, we'll split it up into Apps & Windows Phone Store updates, and System & Settings updates. Many of these features can be seeing in a hands-on video of the Windows Phone 8.1 emulator that came out recently. 

Apps & Windows Phone Store

We've done our best to pull together screenshots directly from Windows Phone 8.1 to illustrate the updates coming, but for some features there aren't any screenshots available. We've used screenshots from Windows Phone 8 and Windows 8.1 as stand-ins for some features, because many features can already be found in Windows 8.1, and we have noted when a screenshot is not directly from WP8.1.

System & Settings

There are quite a lot of under-the-hood improvements to Windows Phone 8.1, which we'll get to in a second, but first we'll go through the front-facing system changes and new settings options. 

From here on out, the changes are smaller and not really worth the imagery that we could pull together with screenshots. We'll try to organize it as best as possible, and explain what needs explaining.

Front-facing system changes

  • Share to any app
  • Start screen themes and backgrounds
  • Downloads folder
  • Double-tap to unlock phone
  • Double-tap to sleep
  • Swipe away Live Tile updates
  • Favorite photos with heart icon
  • Set notification Quiet Hours
  • Take screenshots with Power + Volume Up (changed from Power + Start)
  • Audio/video editing and effects
  • Slow motion video
  • Grid view for apps
  • Sort phone contacts
  • Create Inner Circle contacts group of up to 40 people
  • Speed Dial
  • File explorer
  • Option to always download pictures in emails
  • Xbox Music and Xbox Video apps replace than Music + Video app
  • Wallet supports tickets and membership cards
  • Upload status for photos

New Settings options

  • Battery Sense - monitors apps for how much power they use
  • Battery Saver mode will allow exclusions for certain apps to run in the background
  • Wi-Fi Sense - allows you to share secured Wi-Fi networks with other Wi-Fi Sense users without sharing the password
  • Project My Screen - mirror mobile device display on compatible TV or PC display
  • Phone Storage renamed Storage Sense
  • Advertising ID - control if apps can keep track of you through ads
  • USB - confirm USB connection and notify when connecting to a slower charger
  • NFC support including tap to pay
  • VPN support including auto-triggered VPN
  • Workplace account (unsure yet what this is)
  • Support for iCloud accounts

Under-the-hood improvements

  • Bluetooth 4.0 LE support
  • SD card health checker
  • Geofence monitoring
  • Support for encrypted and signed email
  • Email checking learns your usage patterns to save data/battery
  • S/MIME to sign and encrypt email
  • Apps can access corporate servers with firewalls
  • User authentication certificate management
  • Enterprise Wi-Fi support with EAP-TLS
  • Enhanced mobile device management (MDM) for enterprise to lock down devices and limit installation of apps
  • Back button suspends apps rather than closes
  • Hardware accelerated audio/video transcoding
  • Miracast support (possible, not confirmed)
  • Mouse and keyboard support
  • Stereoscopic 3D support
  • Virtual SmartCard support
  • Fingerprint scanner support
  • QHD display support

That's everything we know right now. The update list is huge, and we're pretty sure we've covered everything, but if we have missed a feature or two, kindly let us know in the comments. The news keeps coming though, so we will update this article as necessary. 

reference: Cortana screenshots, Cortana to be "revolutionary", Windows Phone 8.1 feature list 1 & 2

Recommended Stories

Loading Comments...
FCC OKs Cingular\'s purchase of AT&T Wireless