I was an early fan of Windows Phone 7. I remember completely switching over to the platform for about a month back in 2010, and being relatively happy. It wasn’t until I needed tethering support (which didn’t exist in the first release of WP7) that I had to move away. Unfortunately, Microsoft’s software and hardware update cadence for Windows Phone couldn’t pull me back.

In its first three years of existence, Windows Phone received roughly the same number of major updates as Android and iOS. From 2010 - 2013, Google took Android from Gingerbread to KitKat, Apple revved iOS from version 4 to 7, and Microsoft gave us Windows Phone 7, 7.5 and 8.0. At best, you can consider the software release cadence competitive. At worst, it’s not enough. Windows Phone started behind both Android and iOS. To come out ahead, Windows Phone updates had to be more substantive, more frequent or both.

The same could be said about hardware. Microsoft lagged behind Apple and Google to dual-core, 28/32nm silicon, higher resolution displays, and LTE support among other things. Although the situation has improved over the past year, if the goal is to take the #1 or #2 spot, the upgrade cadence needs to be more aggressive.

It always felt like the point of Windows Phone was to be a midpoint between the flexibility of Android and iOS’ guarantee of a certain level of user experience. The platform was born during a time when Android was not yet ready for the mainstream (Gingerbread) as an iOS alternative, and when it still looked like the Windows licensing model would work for handset OEMs.

Today the world is a different place. Android is far more mature than it was in 2010, and it’s polished enough where it can easily be a solution for the enthusiast as well as the first time smartphone user. While Microsoft’s strategy in 2010 might have been one of eyeing the crown, in 2014 the strategy is more humble and focused.

Improve the platform, address issues both little and big, and continue to grow. That’s the mantra these days and today we see it put in action with the arrival of Windows Phone 8.1, the fourth major release of the platform since its arrival in 2010.

I’ve spent the past few days using a Nokia Lumia Icon with the Windows Phone 8.1 developer preview (software available today). All devices capable of running Windows Phone 8 will be getting the 8.1 update for free over the next couple of months. Any new hardware vendors looking to ship Windows Phone 8.1 will be able to do so without paying Microsoft any licensing fees for the software itself.

Although the biggest change to Windows Phone 8.1 happens to be at the API level (including support for universal apps that can run on PCs, tablets and phones), there are a number of user facing feature enhancements that are worth talking about. Microsoft’s reviewer’s guide for Windows Phone 8.1 clocks in at 239 pages, so there’s no way I’ll be able to get to everything here, but I’ll go through several of the highlights.

Start Screen Updates

With the GDR3 update to Windows Phone 8, Microsoft added support for a third column of medium sized tiles on 1080p devices with a large display. With Windows Phone 8.1, that flexibility comes to all devices.

The third column is pretty nice, although admittedly the Lumia Icon I was testing WP8.1 on already had it thanks to the WP8.0 GDR3 update. You can use the third column to either have an insane amount of tiles on the display at once or keep everything nice and spread out. Windows Phone ends up covering the broadest spectrum of information density on its home screen as a result.

The other big change to the start screen is you can now set a photo as a background, instead of being limited to just white/black. With a photo as your background, your live tiles become transparent and allow your background to show through. Tiles that have a colored logo (e.g. Xbox Games, Facebook app) as well as any hub tiles (e.g. People) remain opaque. Despite going through three major revisions of the OS, Windows Phone hasn’t really changed much visually since its introduction in 2010. The ability to personalize the start screen goes a long way in making the UI more interesting.

 

The multitasking UI gets a slight update as well in WP8.1. You still tap and hold the back button to activate the UI, but you can now quit out of apps by swiping down on the app’s card.

This is quite similar to what’s supported under iOS 7 (where it’s swipe up to quit). Unlike the iOS implementation however you can only swipe down one app at a time.

Revised System Specs

At the introduction of Windows Phone, Microsoft required that all OEMs have a physical camera button in addition to physical or capacitive buttons for back, home and search. It didn’t take long for Microsoft to remove the physical camera button requirement. With Windows Phone 8.1 the back/home/search buttons can be relocated on-screen, similar to what’s done on many Android handsets today. To accommodate those devices that inevitably ship without dedicated OS buttons, the screenshot button combination has changed from Power + Windows button to Power + Volume up.

The adjusted hardware requirements should make it easier for OEMs to take an existing Android hardware design and port it over to Windows Phone.

People Hub API, Disconnected Music+Videos Hub

When Windows Phone launched one of the major focal points was the People Hub, a single location for all of your contacts across all accounts/social networks. Previously you had to add accounts to Windows Phone in order for the People Hub to grab contacts from those accounts. With Windows Phone 8.1 Microsoft moves the People Hub from a push to a pull based service. If a 3rd party app supports it, all you need to do is login to the app itself and the People Hub will automatically pull in data from the app. Facebook is the best example of this as you no longer need to login to the Facebook app and then add your Facebook account separately to the People Hub. It’s a subtle change but one that echoes Microsoft’s new position on Windows Phone: rather than you conforming to Windows Phone, the OS should try and conform to you.

The other big hub change is the Music+Videos hub has been split up into two individual apps, each which can be updated independently of the OS.

Action Center & Cortana
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  • rgba32bit - Saturday, April 19, 2014 - link

    Really like my 8X can't wait for my contract to be up to get the Icon or similar. All the reviews pose the question can windows phone beat android, ios... what os is better or inferior. Like it needs to be black and white. I think it can now be said WP isn't going away and is firmly number 3. Personally android annoys me and just seems counter intuitive and the form factor of the iPhone was a nonstarter for me. I think it can be said at this point all three are good platforms and it will be better for everyone if it's a three horse race. When I got my 8x I almost never saw another wp but now I see many on the train. The only thing that really annoys me are when people make crazy blanket assertions like wp has no apps because it doesn't have this or that and that it doesn't go the other way at all. Some of my favorite apps aren't on android or ios and work much better for ME then their counterparts. In a world of coke and pepsi I think there's room sprite as well. Reply
  • mean_streets - Saturday, April 19, 2014 - link

    I installed the 8.1 dev preview on my Lumia 810, and one of the first things that I noticed when looking at the action center was a "project" to external screen quick action. This seems like a great feature, but I haven't been able to find a word about it in any of the preview articles. I tried plugging in to the USB media connection on two Samsung TV's that we have, but got nothing. Reply
  • BMNify - Saturday, April 19, 2014 - link

    Here are the detailed instructions for using "project to screen" feature on WP 8.1:
    http://www.wpcentral.com/project-your-windows-phon...
    Reply
  • lmcd - Saturday, April 19, 2014 - link

    I *liked* having games tucked away into the Game Hub -- any way to bring that back with a setting? Reply
  • YoshoMasaki - Tuesday, April 22, 2014 - link

    Not currently. But WP8.1 is far from final and especially the decoupled hub apps are expected to see quick updates over the next few weeks until the RTM. Reply
  • rburnham - Wednesday, April 23, 2014 - link

    I have 8.1 on my Lumia 920, and it's a mostly good update.

    I have some complaints though. The ability to use an image as wallpaper is neat, but the fact that some apps do not have transparent tiles interrupts the uniformity of the OS. Oddly enough, it is mostly Microsoft apps (One Note, Podcasts, Music) that lack transparent tiles.

    I like that Microsoft replaced Music+Videos with apps for each type of media. The new Podcast app is a big step up from the limited functionality of Music+Video. I like not having to rely on the Store to get podcasts, and that you can add custom feed URLs. I love that you have the option to stream or download shows. It also seems that the download file size limit has increased, because I am seeing shows being downloaded over cellular that previously required WIFi.

    However, the Podcast app is buggy. It crashes regularly, audio cuts out, it forgets that podcasts have already been played and downloads them again, and it doesn't automatically delete files. Once these bugs are ironed out, it will be an excellent podcast app. I have to admit that I was initially sour about the way WP8 handles podcasts when compared WP7, but I have completely changed my opinion with this new app.

    Lastly, audio options seem to have changed. Before the update, my phone remembered different volume settings for different Bluetooth devices. In my case, it kept the audio level for my car stereo Bluetooth connection at maximum volume (30), and my Bluetooth headset at half volume (15). Now both devices share the same volume level. I would like to see them go back to how it was before.

    Also Bluetooth will occasionally cut out completely when I pause a podcast, requiring me to use the Bluetooth settings to manually reconnect, or I have to reset the phone. To be fair, this was a problem before 8.1, so it just means they have not address the issue yet.

    If they can iron out these bugs, that would be great. As is, it's still a really good mobile OS that I have enjoyed since WP7.
    Reply
  • Fgne - Saturday, April 26, 2014 - link

    I think that the force of WP8 is that it runs still extremely well and fast on a hundred dollars device, something that on android devices is simply fantasy, no comment for ios. Reply
  • whatsa - Sunday, April 27, 2014 - link

    Nice to see a fair review from this site...
    The brightness issue? I have found the auto to be excellent on the 1520
    I was outside the other day comparing some offline mapping with some people who were camping
    and all three of us could see my screen and map clearly but the Iphone was impossible to read and only if it was 4" from you nose and sheilded from the sun. So we all just discussed it looking at my phone from different angles in the sun.
    Is it perfect ...no but there are a lot of basic things it just does better.

    But thanks again its good to see anandtech willing to look at WP stuff in a more serious way.
    Reply
  • bloonsfreak2 - Monday, May 12, 2014 - link

    Being a Windows Phone user since the beginning (Lumia 800, 900, 920), I have to admit that one of my favorite features was the integration with Facebook and Skype in the messaging hubs. However, for some odd reason, MSFT decided to remove that feature in Windows Phone 8.1 and now messaging is only for texting, even thought the social integration was probably the best part about it and set it apart from its iOS and Android counterparts. Does anyone know why they did this? Is there any particular reason that make me feel better? All of the other features are amazing, but the messaging hub just isn't really a hub anymore. Reply
  • hangfirew8 - Thursday, May 15, 2014 - link

    The Lumia 800 was hardly the beginning of Windows Phone, the 800 debuted at 7.5. There was a lot of wasteland before that. We had a Dash (5/6) years ago, and even that wasn't the beginning. Reply

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