Windows Phone 8.1 review

Nearly a week ago Microsoft released a developer preview of the Windows Phone 8.1 update.

The beta of Windows Phone 8.1 has just been published. Since I can't wait for the final version to be released, I instantly downloaded the developer preview. Some little things have been improved like changing the audio settings or providing a speed dial menu in the phone app. The notification center is a very nice addition and yields a much better overview. Also important settings are directly accessible, which is another benefit. Overall the notification center follows the direction given by the implementations in Android and iOS phones.

Features like WiFi sense or storage sense are useful additions. Another crucial app is the battery saver. It basically contains an overview of the battery consumption of all apps. This might make battery apps obsolete, however, right now no battery consumption charts are included. Hopefully this will be improved in the future.

Before I come to Cortana, the IE11 or the swipe keyboard, I'll want to remark that some things could still be improved (or should be improved). An example would be that I still cannot add more than 5 apps to show quick status. I find that unflexible. Also as I have lots of space on my screen, I wonder if that could be filled with useful information.

First to the swipe keyboard. This is a lovely gadget. I now wonder how I could ever live without it. Typing something with the swipe gestures feels freaky, but gives me a feeling of productivity and (typing) power. It would be really awesome to have a competition "real keyboard vs touch swipe keyboard" just with myself. My guess is that the touch swipe method performs really well for standard texts, however, once many symbols, numbers and more are involved, it is (as usual) nearly impossible to beat a real keyboard.

The IE11 is wonderful. Actually I've been waiting for this since Windows Phone 8. Now we have a good browser that also offers crucial JavaScript APIs like reading the accelerometer data. Also with IE11 supporting WebGL, we can bring 3D applications from the web to the phone. The performance is outstanding and really competitive. I am still amazed how well this all works considering the hardware specification of my Samsung Ativ S phone.

Now to Cortana. I had high expectations and they have been met at least partially. On the one hand it is an amazing piece of technology. It feels more natural than Siri and the voice recognition seems to be on the same level (for the English language). However, Cortana rarely knows an answer to my question. The only questions Cortana is able to answer, are really artifical ones that seem to be demo'ed all the time. Cortana is really useful for making appointments or scheduling reminders, but modifying an existing appointment or reminder does not seem possible right now (unless there is a conflict - then rescheduling works).

Of course this is still a beta and Cortana is not expected to be fully functional. But Siri had answers to a lot more questions - and this was 2 years ago. Cortana is great and using Bing together with voice search is certainly an amazing thing, nevertheless this thing needs clearly a much bigger question - answer database. Additionally the contextual understanding must be improved. It is alright when Cortana understands "viking" instead of "biking" (three times!). When I said "mountainbiking", Cortana understood "mountain biking" (not "mountain viking"), which was alright. Other things have not been corrected by context, even though my pronunciation should have been close enough. I agree that my pronunciation is probably a challenge (as I am no native speaker), but this is the challenge for all voice recognition systems.

Therefore my review for Cortana is mixed. I feel empowered by the integration and I still believe that this is a huge step forward, however, I think that in the current shape Cortana will not be as impressive and it must be. Nevertheless I believe that in the next couple of months Cortana will vastly improve and shine even brighter than Google Now or Apple's Siri did.

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