Windows Phone 8.1 (2 week review)

Windows Phone 8.1 is set to roll out in the coming months, and while, numerically, it looks like the changes should just result in a minor update, the latest version of Microsoft’s smartphone operating system is anything but. Between the introduction of the Siri-like Cortana, a new input method for the platform’s keyboard, and, finally, a proper notification system, Windows Phone has reached a new level of refinement and feels one big step closer to maturity.

But don’t be mistaken, Windows Phone 8.1 isn’t a complete re-working of the operating system. Instead, it introduces a few high-demand features and other smaller upgrades that bring it more in line with Android and iOS. Not only does the latest update deliver some significant additions, but it also gets rid of some problems that have been holding back the operating system from achieving parity with its more established competitors.

By far, my biggest gripe about Windows Phone, up until this point, has been its bare-bones notification system. Live Tiles, while attractive on the home screen, are extremely limited in terms of functionality. In order to make them work in any decent manner, you would have to make sure the app is pinned to the home screen and adjust the size of the tile to show the desired information. Even then, you couldn’t interact with the notification in any meaningful way. But these issues have been completely erradicated with Windows Phone 8.1.
The most useful addition to the operating system—and one you’ll likely take advantage of on a regular basis—is the new Action Center. Like with Android and iOS, Windows Phone users will be able to drag their finger down from the top of the screen to reveal notifications and quick settings. Notifications can either be swiped away or tapped to access, and toggling Wi-Fi or airplane mode is now as simple as tapping one of the pre-set icons. If you need to get to more settings, the standard menu can also be accessed from the pull-down shade.
Another feature that we’ve seen on Android that has made its way to Windows Phone is a swipe-enabled keyboard. Dubbed Word Flow, the new input method works just like Swype, letting users drag their finger across a series of letters to create a complete word. Microsoft’s smartphone keyboard was good to begin with, and this just makes it better.
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