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April 02, 2014

Action Center, Lockscreens, and Cortana Make Windows Phone 8.1 Unveiling Big

Recently, Microsoft staged a series of roster moves designed to help get ready for the big Build 2014 conference. Now that conference has arrived, and with it came the official unveiling of Windows Phone (News - Alert) 8.1, a platform that had plenty of features brought along with it. With the new platform set to ship starting in late April—or possibly early May—there's quite a bit here set to entice users and potentially even break a few Apple or Android (News - Alert) users out of the current favorite.

One of the new features Windows Phone 8.1 brings into play is the Action Center, a tool that shows not only battery percentage available, but also four separate individually-customizable buttons to better work with a mobile platform and a complete range of notifications from the various apps that can be had on the device. Additionally, a new lock screen allows developers to provide new information to the device, displaying what information users might prefer. A new “high density” layout is available, to bring more tiles to the home screen, and users can even crop photos to the correct dimensions and make a user-specific wallpaper pattern.

These are all great features, but the clear winner here has to be the Cortana personal assistant. Essentially Microsoft's version of Google (News - Alert) Now and Siri, and launched as a beta with training to follow on the back end, Cortana puts Bing to work to replace the search function on Windows Phone devices. Launching Cortana, meanwhile, brings up a list of personalized suggestions based on how users have used the device in the past, and Cortana herself offers up plenty of features in her own right. Cortana offers a notebook system—basically a list of settings to determine what she should keep track of, much in the same way that Google Now's “magic wand” works—as well as a set of further options. Cortana can keep “quiet hours” for a phone to make sure nothing bothers a user during particular times, with an option to allow certain users to break the quiet hours as desired. But Cortana's biggest feature is how she works with third-party apps like Skype (News - Alert) and even Hulu to deliver information and valuable content in whatever fashion the user needs.

Basically, the new Windows Phone 8.1 looks to be a comparatively minor bump that still offers some noteworthy new features. It may have a bit of a tough time trying to get users out of the Apple and Android camps—which is exactly what Microsoft (News - Alert) needs to do in order to put itself out there as a force to be reckoned with in terms of what's already in play. But then, this is just Windows Phone 8.1 here, proof that Microsoft can move comparatively quickly, which is just what it will need to do long-term to establish itself as a proper mobile force.

While Windows Phone 8.1 may not do the job of breaking users away from current platforms, it may ultimately work to show that Microsoft can keep up in the faster-moving mobile segment, and whet appetites sufficiently for Windows Phone 9's ultimate release.

Edited by Cassandra Tucker

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