This latest update to Windows Phone is not generally available yet, so most users will need to wait until their networks push out the update. If you’re interested in grabbing it now, you can do so via the Windows Phone developer program.

Despite the 0.1 version increment, this is a HUGE update. What follows is a list of new features and improvements, but I’ll probably miss some because there’s so much. Click on the small images to see the full version.

The start screen

Windows Phone 8.1 start screenProbably the most visible changes are those to the start screen. There’s two main updates here – the first is the ability to select a background image for translucent tiles. Rather than go for the well-worn approach of selecting an image for background wallpaper (which often gets hidden by stuff in the foreground), in Windows Phone 8.1 the image can be applied to tiles. Not all tiles support the background image approach, so group those that do together. The effect is visually very pleasing if you get it right.

The second new feature for the start screen is the ability to have an extra column of tiles (or two tiles if you make them small). This does have the effect of making all of the tiles smaller but it means that live tile junkies (like me) can cram more on the start screen. You can compare the 8.1 start screen with an 8.0 start screen by viewing this post. Please note that larger devices such as the Nokia 1520 already have enough tile space so there’s no increase.

Notification centre

Windows Phone 8.1 notificationsPre-version 8.1 notifications to various events and apps showed up as ‘toast’ – a little banner appearing at the top, and if you caught it in time touching the banner would navigate to the new item. However, once the toast had gone it was gone. Toast is still a feature, but the new notification centre provides a list those notifications so you can see any you may have missed and navigate to the items. It can be accessed by swiping down from the top of the screen, and also provides quick access to settings and a set of quick-access items of your choice (e.g. WiFi, rotation lock, Bluetooth, etc).

Cortana

A reminder via CortanaThis may warrant a blog post in its own right, so I’ll summarise quickly. Cortana is your personal assistant – it does the funky speech / request recognition but also tracks items for you. Cortana learns certain things about you (e.g. my wife’s name, where I live, where I work) so that I can ask how long it will take to get to work without stating the address.  It will read my schedule for tomorrow, allow me to dictate a text message, and tell me how the Microsoft stock / share price is doing (complete with a chart). I believe there’s something else on the market that does this. Cortana also allows me to set reminders against actions – for example, I can ask Cortana to remind to raise the topic of a pay rise next time I talk to my manager, so if Stan calls or sends me a text message that reminder will appear. I’m told it’s also possible to invoke a reminder if I go to a certain place (e.g. drop off my expenses when I’m in the office) but I haven’t tried that yet.

Cortana is also linked to the phone’s new ability to recognise text items and turn them into an item – for example if I receive an e-mail containing the words ‘next Friday at 9am’ they will be blue and underlined, and if I click on these words Cortana will offer to create a calendar appointment.

Please note that Cortana is currently a US-only feature (typical), but you can get round this by setting your phone’s region to US. International support will come later this year.

Word flow keyboard

The keyboard has been updated to allow you to trace out words with your finger. Once you get the hang of it it’s much quicker than typing and very accurate.

Battery saver

Battery saver and usageThe battery saver feature is nothing new to Windows Phone – this was basically a service that allowed you to extend the battery life by turning off all background services. In Windows Phone 8.1 it’s become something that you can pin to the start screen for quick access, and provides a list of apps that have recently sucked batter power. So if you find your battery draining quickly this may highlight the app that’s the worst culprit.

The battery saver screen also gives you access to changing the permission of an app to run in the background – there are some which really don’t need to be humming away in the background despite the best intentions of the app developer (e.g. the British Airways app, unless you’re tracking a flight status), so block them and save some juice.

And there’s more…

A whole lot more, and here’s a quick run-down:

  • A new week calendar view, showing weather at your location
  • Re-designed app store, with option to automatically update apps
  • Date-organised photos from all albums
  • Summarised phone history
  • Independent volume settings for the ringer and apps
  • VPN capabilities
  • Encrypted and signed e-mail
  • And finally my favourite, the predictive text offers an emoticon based on what you’ve just typed

There’s loads more but these are the main features. Come back soon for a more detailed look at Cortana.

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