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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  • Hrel - Friday, April 18, 2014 - link

    Get the dolphin browser. The other must have app for me, touchpal keyboard. Reply
  • vanster - Monday, April 21, 2014 - link

    maybe just for some site not all site, yeah iphone and IE not doing what you mean, but i never try it on android Reply
  • StormyParis - Monday, April 14, 2014 - link

    I'm not sure text can be overused as a UI element. I'm a geek, and I'm sometimes baffled by icons or even worse gestures (which have 0 discoverability). Text is immediately obvious, visible... My non-geek relatives feel even more strongly about this:: it doesn't look good, but it is extremmely user-friendly, especially casual-user friendly.
    An example: if I want to send a text, do I click on this envelope, or that one ? "Text" vs "email" is way clearer.
    Reply
  • StormyParis - Monday, April 14, 2014 - link

    I didn't know only Android had that. Indeed, I use it all the time, whether with the basic browser or Opera. Reply
  • jeffkibuule - Monday, April 14, 2014 - link

    Most people read words in their head before recognizing them, which makes them slower to process in the brain. Plus, compared to images, text is *obviously* language dependent. I often think the white text on black background motif is overdone since it makes apps look rather monotonous. Screens have color for a reason, color communicates a LOT more densely that text ever will. Reply
  • dorekk - Saturday, June 21, 2014 - link

    "Most people read words in their head before recognizing them"

    That's not true. The way most people read is by recognizing whole-word shapes subconsciously.
    Reply
  • nafhan - Tuesday, April 15, 2014 - link

    That sounds like it would be more of an issue for people changing devices all the time. I just tap the mail icon that's always the same and always in the same spot on my primary home screen. Reply
  • Kenazo - Monday, April 14, 2014 - link

    Next thing we'll be seeing a review of BlackBerry 10.2.1 on the Z30 (actually I wouldn't mind reading that....) Reply
  • creed3020 - Tuesday, April 15, 2014 - link

    Would be nice to see some more coverage in that area but I'm doubtful that AT is going to even consider BB devices.

    For example the BB browser is excellent, it's get a score of 491 out of 555. I'd love to see how a Z30 compares in some of these benchmarks as conducted by a trusted source like AT.
    Reply
  • cashkennedy - Wednesday, April 16, 2014 - link

    The scores on the HTML5 benchmark are fairly useless because half of the score is for form elements and other silly coding that no one uses. Yes IE11 doesn't support a color input type that will come so handy. Reply

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