Microsoft announces Windows Phone 8.1: Cortana, Action Center, Backgrounds and more

Microsoft announces Windows Phone 8.1: Cortana, Action Center, Backgrounds and more
Today, at the annual Build developer conference, Microsoft has announced the upcoming major update to its mobile platform: Windows Phone 8.1! The new version of the third ecosystem is set to come with a good number of new features, designed to improve upon Microsoft's maturing operating system.

The enhancements in Windows Phone 8.1 include the following key features:

Cortana digital assistant

Well, ever since Siri, personal digital assistants have been fairly popular in smartphone land. Of course, it didn't take long for the competition to come up with its own offerings. For example, Samsung created S Voice, while Google produced Google Now, which is a service that actually added some new elements to the whole thing - namely, Google Now introduced the idea of proactive delivery of information that's meant to be helpful to you, the user. And this is where Cortana comes in. Inspired by Google Now's proactiveness, Windows Phone 8.1's Cortana will attempt to ease your life by throwing all kinds of information at you, no matter if you've requested it or not.

Thankfully, Microsoft's personal digital assistant will be integrated with core OS applications, such as phone, messaging, calendar, email, alarms, etc. This means that not only will Cortana be aware of your contacts, appointments, messages and more, but it will also be able to do some useful work for you, such as initiating a call, setting up an appointment or alarm, or reading your latest email - you just need to ask us using natural language. However, Microsoft has gone the extra mile, adding some more advanced capabilities to its digital assistant. For example, the user can ask Cortana to remind them about something the next time that they are talking with a certain person! This way, the next time you're having a call, or a chat stream with that person, Cortana will tactfully remind you about whatever it is that you wanted to share with that contact. Sounds neat, right? What's more, Cortana has been designed so that it can be integrated with third-party apps and services, such as Skype, Hulu Plus, or Facebook.

Even more live tiles

It turns out that Microsoft's three-column homescreen layout that debuted on Nokia's WP phablets has been kind of successful, so the company has wisely decided to bring this feature to Windows Phones of all sizes. With Windows Phone 8.1, you'll be able to have that three-column live tile view even with smaller devices. Hooray!

Homescreen backgrounds

Yep, the rumors were true. With Windows Phone 8.1, you'll finally be able to set homescreen wallpapers, but of course, due to the nature of the live tile UI, those backgrounds will not appear as images behind your tiles. Oh no, those backgrounds will actually appear on top of your live tiles. Really, it's a weird effect, at least from what we've seen thus far, but at least it will let users add some variety and personality to their otherwise pretty consistent Windows Phone handsets. The new wallpaper option will be accessible from the themes menu.

New lockscreen designs

Previously, some apps were able to alter the look of your WP lockscreen by adding some kind of additional info or images, but with WP 8.1, Microsoft is opening things even further, allowing developers to produce lockscreen designs that are completely different in their visual presentation or content format. This is yet another neat new feature by Microsoft that's designed to enhance Windows Phone's customization functionality, and quite frankly, we welcome that. In contrast to wallpapers, which seem to look a bit weird (or at least quite different from what we're used to) on Windows Phone 8.1, the unique lockscreen designs that Microsoft demonstrated looked very cool, and we can definitely see this feature getting very popular among WP users.

Action Center

Every self-respecting mobile operating system needs to have one, and from its 8.1 version onwards, Windows Phone will no longer be an exception. The so-called Action Center will work similarly to Android's notification drop-down - Action Center will be expandable from WP's notification bar, revealing a various types of information and options for you. This will include things like toggles for Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, Airplane mode, and internet sharing, as well as actual notifications like Facebook updates, new calls, emails, and things like that. Obviously, Microsoft has followed Android closely here, which isn't such a bad thing.

Internet Explorer 11

With Windows Phone 8.1, Microsoft is once again updating the wonderful Internet Explorer browser that comes with its mobile platform. Internet Explorer 11 brings some new and notable features, such as InPrivate browsing (browsing the web without leaving any data about you..... YES!), tab synchronization between the user's Windows devices, file uploading capabilities, WebGL and normal mapping support, as well as a new YouTube HTML5 player. And yes, you will be able to have more than six tabs open at the same time.

Additional goodies

The above-mentioned things are some of Windows Phone 8.1's key features, but besides these, Microsoft has also added a number of smaller improvements to the OS. Some of the most notable ones include an enhanced application store, a week view for the calendar, Swype-like input method for the built-in QWERTY keyboard, an easy way to transition from a voice call to a video call, and a new Wi-Fi tool called Sense. The latter is designed to carry out a host of Wi-Fi-related purposes, such as new Wi-Fi network suggestions, automatic connection to free networks, or providing a secure way for your guests to connect to your home Wi-Fi network.

Windows Phone 8.1 release date

Microsoft hasn't avoided the availability question, which we're very thankful for, even if the information provided by the software giant is quite vague. So, here it goes: users of popular Windows Phone 8 models should expect an update to Windows Phone 8.1 sometime during the next few months, without any specifics being mentioned. And while the "next few months" time-frame doesn't really sound so encouraging, Microsoft is at least promising that brand new models featuring Windows Phone 8.1 will start hitting store shelves in April or May.



1. sip1995

Posts: 1771; Member since: Feb 07, 2014

Everyone is on WPCentral....

2. ArtSim98

Posts: 3535; Member since: Dec 21, 2012

Cortana seems awesome! I want it on Android lol Overall a nice update. Nothing too special though

3. Bioload25

Posts: 213; Member since: Nov 12, 2012

Wow! Very nice,MS!

21. giani

Posts: 269; Member since: Nov 13, 2012

Totally agree.

4. NokiaFTW

Posts: 2072; Member since: Oct 24, 2012

WP8.1 looks great! Watch out Google & Apple!

10. SleepingOz unregistered

Watch out? Both platforms had these features for years now.

12. NokiaFTW

Posts: 2072; Member since: Oct 24, 2012

Sure Android & iOS have had these features for quite a while, but Cortana seems better than Siri & Google Now and that could be a killer feature.

17. SleepingOz unregistered

It might be better than Siri but I have yet to see how it performs against Google Now.

13. NokiaFTW

Posts: 2072; Member since: Oct 24, 2012

Sure Android & iOS have had these features for quite a while, but Cortana seems better than Siri & Google Now and that could be a killer feature.

15. NokiaFTW

Posts: 2072; Member since: Oct 24, 2012

Sorry for the double post :P

18. Berzerk000

Posts: 4275; Member since: Jun 26, 2011

I'm interested in Cortana, but otherwise WP 8.1 is just Microsoft playing catch up with iOS and Android.

19. giani

Posts: 269; Member since: Nov 13, 2012

Hey catch up is good and we need this badly. Now bring in a decent device and I'll give it a try. Decent other than Nokia.

34. DFranch

Posts: 557; Member since: Apr 20, 2012

Hopefully, now that the camera button and capacitive buttons are optional, OEM's will be able to make their flagship devices for both Android and WP. Also, all WP devices will be able to use Nokia Here Drive.

29. Tsepz_GP

Posts: 1176; Member since: Apr 12, 2012

My thoughts exactly, there's nothing in particular that truly stands out. I guess they 1st had to catch-up before they truly innovate. I'm glad to see WP has come this far though, the hardware and software are almost exactly on par with Android (Android still has a few things over WP though) but for 90% of Smartphone users I think WP in WP8.1 is now right there next to Android, we now have a well balanced OS to compete with Android, and it also has a variety of phones from a variety of manufacturers, I'm not a fan of MS really BUT I love competition, and WP8.1 should help MS gather up a lot more marketshare and get Apple, Google and Samsung innovating again. Awesome times ahead.

30. Berzerk000

Posts: 4275; Member since: Jun 26, 2011

I'm looking forward to the next version of WP. Hopefully by then they'll be done catching up and will focus on developing unique and useful features. Until then, I'll keep on rolling with Android, because this is just an update with features I already have, and it isn't worth trying out.

35. Deaconclgi

Posts: 405; Member since: Nov 03, 2012

Did you say that when Android and iOS were catching up with Symbian, WIndows Mobile and Black Berry OS? Remember when iOS couldn't do Copy and Paste and MMS or when Android couldn't do video recording or when neither OS had an application store or when they had low resolution screens or other areas that were lacking? Each OS, like any software matures over time as features are added and things are improved. Whatever OS you are using is the way it is today after years of improvements. There are things that iOS and Android are still missing but all that matters is that they eventually get those things IF the developers plan on adding whatever features that people deem to be missing.

32. bigdawg23

Posts: 467; Member since: May 25, 2011

Not much to look out for. I have an iPhone 5 and Note 3 along with a Lumia 1020. On my Note 3 and iPhone 5 I don't use the assistants much nor do most people I know so it won't matter much. To me what matters is for Apple and Microsoft is finally put the ability for me to reply to any email and insert any document and file like my Note 3 or Android has for years.

5. Nexus4lifes

Posts: 298; Member since: Feb 13, 2014

YAY finally ios5(siri) or ICS 4.1( G now) for wp users

7. hmd74

Posts: 540; Member since: Jan 31, 2013

ICS : 4.1 ??? and your username is Nexus...? What a shame :|

9. Nexus4lifes

Posts: 298; Member since: Feb 13, 2014

forgot a comma between em...ics, 4.1(G NOW) good find WP fan... didn't expect it...

14. Berzerk000

Posts: 4275; Member since: Jun 26, 2011

I'm pretty sure he's pointing out that 4.1 was actually Jelly Bean, not ICS, and Google Now didn't appear until Jelly Bean

27. SemperFiV12

Posts: 949; Member since: Nov 09, 2010

LOOOLLLL! Barikala :)

6. NokiaFTW

Posts: 2072; Member since: Oct 24, 2012

Hey Nexus4lifes, we know you hate WP. So please stop trolling on any WP article at least today. It's a big day for us WP users. I know you probably don't care about today's announcements, but can you or any WP hater not ruin an article today? please?

8. mhk258

Posts: 5; Member since: Apr 02, 2014

Finally more Live tiles and they are customizable.Would be interesting to see it on nokia lumia 520/521/525 and 620

16. zennacko unregistered

Their low-res screens would make it a little hard to be done.

11. corporateJP

Posts: 2458; Member since: Nov 28, 2009

All Windows Phone 8 devices getting the upgrade, even low-ends?

20. jibraihimi

Posts: 815; Member since: Nov 29, 2011

Missing Rodneyj today, it was big day for him, and PA had blocked him....... Really nice update from microsoft, now wp is looking little tempting.......

22. hurrycanger

Posts: 1765; Member since: Dec 01, 2013

He just commented 3 hours ago. Did he really get blocked again?

23. sennarose88

Posts: 55; Member since: Jun 18, 2009

Ew, all those screenies look ugly. At least WP got the much needed features.

24. livyatan

Posts: 867; Member since: Jun 19, 2013

USB hosting? File management? Third party keyboards? Folders? Those were all in the rumours also but now not a word about it

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