Review: Windows Phone 8.1, a tell tale of looking in the mirror and it says nothing but the truth

Windows phone 8.1 preview

UPDATE: Nokia is rolling out Windows Phone 8.1 as an over-the-air update (to everyone with a Windows phone 8 device) that comes bundled with “Cyan,” a special feature package that’s exclusive to Lumia devices.

The Lumia Cyan update bundles all of the previously announced Windows Phone 8.1 features, including UI tweaks, the Action Center for organizing notifications, automatic hotspot connections via Wi-Fi Sense, the ability to search the entire device via Bing, an updated Internet Explorer 11 and Cortana, Microsoft’s voice-powered personal assistant software.

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The Lumia Cyan update, including Windows Phone 8.1, started rolling out on Tuesday (15th July 2014) and will make its way around the globe in the coming weeks.

The Review…

It was an exhilarating 3.5 hours of downloading the developer preview of the much awaited Windows Phone 8.1 on my Lumia 820. The time it takes to download, however, is dependant on how updated your WP8 device is. For some it took just about 30 minutes. With about 500MB of data used via wi-fi to rejuvenate the life of a struggling platform, it was worth the wait whatsoever.

It is rumoured that Windows phone 8.1 will be available to the general public on 30th May 2014, but if you can’t wait any longer, this site clearly guides you step by step on how to update your Windows 8 device.

The nail-biting process was filled with “agreeing” to verbose T&C’s agreements that were spewed after almost every single step. At some point I thought, it was a token for accomplishing some task.

Everything makes “sense”

I find this convention of adding the word sense to metrical apps on the windows phone platform quite clever. Following the windows 8.1 update Data, Wi-Fi and Storage Apps have the extension “Sense” to their names. For Battery Sense; the phone can tell you what apps are eating the battery, and when they are eating it. It’ll show if the battery is being used by apps in the background or in the foreground. Data Sense hasn’t changed much from how it was in Windows 8, it still shows the amount of data consumed both via cellular connection or via wi-fi and still allows one to limit data use for a particular time. The “sense” category is capped by a new entrant –Wi-Fi sense– which sniffs around for nearby wi-fi hotspots, of course with the help of location services, and enables quick sharing with friends without necessarily giving them your wi-fi password.

Action CenterAction center

Finally. The much coveted notifications center that braced the iPhone and Android phones is the major cut on this update. Swipe down from the top and get notifications in one place. You get quick access buttons for airplane mode, wireless, etc. Even better, those buttons are configurable. I added Internet Sharing to mine. You can also swipe down then press Settings as a fast way to get to the main settings page.

Transparent Live Tiles

You can use a background image for your whole start screen, and it will show through transparent screentransparent tiles. It also has a nice parallax effect when scrolling.

“Show more Tiles” on smaller resolution devices — The 1520 on the right has the 1080p screen, while the 920 is a lower resolution screen. Previously only high-res screens got the extra column of tiles. Now smaller screen devices can choose their start screen size and add lots more info to a single screen.

Pinnable Website Tiles

This one surprised me. You can pin this website to your start screen and get an updated Live Tile showing the latest stories in real-time. However the website developer would need to enable support for Internet Explorer (IE 11).

Cortana Voice AssistantCortana

I have never seen an app so good at voice recognition as Cortana. Gone are the days of trying so hard to add a cockney or Texan grain of accent to be understood by a machine. Cortana simply digests whatever accent you throw at it and replies without resolve. You could say this is the Windows’ Siri, but it’s more like Google Now with a personality. The voice recognition happens as you speak as opposed to after the fact, which is nice. You can ask questions like “Do you know Siri?” and she (or he) just knows. Expect a somewhat witty but sarcastic answer though. It can also be used to set remainders and also place voice calls entirely through voice commands. I still don’t know why Microsoft insisted on naming the 2 year in the lab project BETA! The app feels mature enough, I guess they didn’t want such an unenviable predicament  Apple faced when they launched Apple maps in the wake of bludgeoning Google maps from the default iPhone menu. Talk of playing it safe. The instructions for downloading Cortana are in this article.

Quiet Hours

A similar feature is quite common on the iPhone. Quiet Hours takes this a little further with the concept of an “Inner Circle” and a more sophisticated series of configurable rules like “Don’t bother me at night on weekdays unless it’s these three people, and text everyone else back that I’m not answering calls.” It is like that personal aide but contextualized in an app format

Driving Mode

This was added in a Windows Phone 8 update but I love it. It knows you’re driving because you associate your cars’ Bluetooth with it, then it will text folks “I’m driving, I’ll get back to you” if they text you. You can choose to never see the text until you stop. Very cool.

Keyboard Swiping

It’s built into the main keyboard now, no separate app. It’s an addition that makes that suddenly turns everyone in a supersonic texting machine, I mean it figuratively predicts the word as soon as the swiping is completely and it often nails the word. The predictive text has gotten better as well. I bet this isn’t yet the time to say R.I.P Auto Corrects but the keyboard is a tad too smart at mastering slang and non English words.

What we liked

In summary we like all the features stated above but profoundly the voice recognition capabilities of Cortana, the ability to customize the home screen with transparent tiles or even adding another column of tiles and of course, the action center.

What we didn’t like

Notification Center; it isn’t flexible enough  in a way that there are few select apps that can be pinned on it for example my most used phone setting, switching on cellular data, couldn’t be enabled, yet it is my single most important feature. Further, the notification center doesn’t seem to be in sync with the apps that support push notifications. One, for instance, can’t know the number of emails or whatsapp messages they would have received in total just by looking at the notification center.

Internet Explorer; remains a pain, it is ruthless on data consumption and a beast to draining battery. Much as there are quite a couple of improvements such as download capability among others, the browser remains terrible on basic actions such as copy and paste. I still struggle on whether to double touch, swipe left or right just to copy and paste, although somehow stuff works out, I am sure other users are not any different. To bring the point of notorious data consumption into perspective; imagine talking to someone and they have to remind you every second that passes that they are listening to you. Annoying. Now the browser won’t allow you to click back without reloading the whole webpage afresh and neither will it give you the opportunity to click forward (that option doesn’t exist anyway).

Undeniably Internet Explorer is the best browser one can use on the Windows platform given that the other competitive browser makers patronized the platform. There is no choice left other than dwelling on IE for all your browsing needs besides relying on individual apps which are worse at the economics of minimizing data usage.

I couldn’t help but notice the digital brawl between Microsoft and Google in a microcosm of sorts on IE. Gmail, Docs and even Google search are rendered in the worst ways possible you could ever find on a modern browser. IE doesn’t find shame in washing dirty linen in public; it often asked me to search via its search engine, Bing, whenever I would start punching in the Google search domain. LOL.


Word on the streets has it that for the first time, the execution of the singular vision of hosting the same app on all windows platforms –WindowsRT, Windows 8, Windows Phone 8– is coming real. Basing on the file extensions say (.appx) would bind the platforms and subsequently making it much easier for developers in deploying their apps. Also, the Windows store got a face lift that organizes apps more or less like how the Google Play does. It categorizes them in groups of say Top paid, Top free et al so as to give a user direction.

In hindsight, Windows 8.1 is a springboard that many will fall for besides giving Microsoft the opportunity to woo more developers and users onto the platform. But the hard truths still hold — alot needs to be done, especially to cater for emerging markets such as Africa.

Rating: 3.5/5

Image by Mwesigwa Daniel for Dignited