Windows Phone 8.1 review: Major league

Windows Phone is yet to become the game changer Microsoft wants it to be. It didn’t quite experience the kind of explosive growth that could’ve put Nokia back in pole position, but it has been steadily climbing up the ranks. Maybe an upgrade of the scale of its 8.1 version is all it needed to go into overdrive and really challenge the big two in the smartphone game.

While some analysts are predicting huge gains in the next few years, others are sending the OS straight to the OS cemetery, right next to Symbian and Bada. Sure, nobody knows what the future holds but Microsoft is certainly trying to leave nothing to chance. It has been busy building up its arsenal and now it’s ready to do some real damage.

Redmond must be quite confident everybody is going to be impressed that the update progress screen is filled with bold statements like “loaded with new features and improvements we think you are going to love”, “reinvented with you in mind”, “and it will be worth the wait”.

And it’s not just empty promises either – the 8.1 update is here to change the face of Windows Phone forever. You’ve got a notification center with toggles and improved multitasking to boost productivity, more customizable Live Tiles with cool wallpaper to sexy up the looks and automatic Store updates to make app-handling even easier. There’s also Cortana for those looking for something extra.

Here comes the complete list of novelties we’ve managed to find so far.

What’s new:

  • Action Center to display all of your notifications, plus customizable quick toggles
  • Cortana virtual assistant at your command
  • Universal Search
  • Start background on all of your tiles
  • Customizable number of tiles per row – four or six
  • Internet Explorer 11 with better UI, faster page load, in-private browsing, tab sync across devices and Reader mode
  • New Dialer app with Speed Dial, shortcuts to contact, and call time
  • Built-in Facebook with deeper integration, real-time notifications
  • Redesigned status bar
  • Quiet Hours mode for control over your notifications at night or events marked as busy
  • Move/install apps on SD card
  • Automatic app updates in Store
  • VPN support
  • Wi-Fi Sense
  • Better sound control with separate scrubbers for Notifications/Ringer and Apps/Media
  • Better multi-tasking with suspend mode
  • Camera burst mode, customizable viewfinder
  • Swype-like keyboard
  • Battery Sense app
  • Storage Sense app
  • New Music and Video apps
  • Podcasts app
  • Better backups with app data sync
  • App data syncing across devices
  • Customizable lockscreen and glance screen notifications
  • You can change the default SMS app and the default SMS notifications
  • Support for QHD displays, dual-SIM and fingerprint scanners, on-screen buttons

What’s still missing:

  • System-wide file manager
  • Options for more quick toggles
  • Richer app catalog
  • Cortana is some way behind Android and iOS rivals

That list of disadvantages is getting shorter with every next iteration, so Microsoft is certainly doing something right. At this point WP8.1 not only matches its rivals in almost all key aspects of the user experience, but puts its own twist on some popular features, while offering a few exclusives along the way. This last part is particularly important as it will help Microsoft’s OS try and steal some users from competing platforms, and not just serve as an entry point into smartphones.

Of course that’s all only true if all the Windows Phone 8.1 novelties work as promised. And that’s exactly what we are setting off to check now – join us for the UI overview after the break.

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