Microsoft announces Windows Phone 8.1 with Cortana digital assistant, new lock screens and more…

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At its Build conference in Moscone Center today, Microsoft took the wraps off its next iteration of Windows Phone. Version 8.1 is coming shipped with plenty of much-needed features.

Among the features is a new Lock Screen that’s customizable, “highly interactive and unique”. There’s also an “Action Center” which is essentially Microsoft’s version of the drop down notification center/drawer and Control Center found in Android and iOS. From here you can respond to notifications as well as control various settings for your device.

8.1 also has the ability for the user to change layout and design of the home screen. You can have three columns of live tiles, and have a wider variety of sizes and layouts. But perhaps the biggest news on the home screen front is that you can now set wallpapers. Unlike most OSes, it doesn’t fill in the background, it fills in the Live Tiles, keeping the black dividing gaps between them.

Cortana for Windows Phone

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Among the biggest changes was Microsoft’s Bing-powered digital assistant, Cortana. Windows Phone’s answer to Google Now and Siri is capable of doing the usual: setting reminders, sending texts, telling you information and  a whole variety of other tasks. Like Google Now, it can keep you up to date with your flights (for instance) by scanning your email. Perhaps is most exciting feature is its name: Cortana. It takes me back 12 years to when I first played Halo on XBox. They could not have chosen a better personality for the job.

Cortana also lets you set an “Inner Circle” of contacts, and set “Quiet Hours” which is essentially a “Do Not Disturb” for Windows Phone.

She (or it) also has the ability to set people-based reminders. It can remind you about specific things. At the show, they demo’d a reminder to ask a contact about a puppy, or cook dinner for a partner. It works alongside other apps, like Skype, making a Skype call an actionable task through the assistant. It’s got a one-up on Siri here. Siri let’s you open apps, but – as of yet – you can’t action anything directly from Siri unless it’s a stock app. Cortana can add shows to your Hulu Plus queue, or check a specific friend’s Facebook feed.

If the demo is anything to go by, Cortana is going to be right up their with the smartest digital assistants.

Other Features

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Part of the update software announcement included a new Windows Phone app store. It’s been redesigned to increase engagement, hopefully get more developers on board.

Wi-Fi Sense lets you detect nearby wireless networks and suggest the “great” ones in your area. It can automatically connect, accept terms of use and sign you in.

Enhancements to the keyboard have been made. There’s a new “Swype” like feature which lets users drag from letter to letter and type really quickly.

All in all, it looks like a much needed update to Windows Phone, which hasn’t taken off quite as quickly as Microsoft would have hoped. Still, if the developers get behind the new features, and they prove a hit with users, there’s no telling how big it could get. Even if it takes a long time to get there.

As for a release date on Windows Phone 8.1, existing users will get updated within the next few months. New devices will launch with it installed from the end of this month.

Images via CNET and Microsoft

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  • JustSaying

    Is it just me or does everyone from windows look like a nerdy guy trying to be trendy and cool?

    • $15454173

      Google “developers developers developers remix” which features Steve Ballmer who was the CEO of Microsoft from January 2000 to February 2014. They have come a long way :)

    • Ordeith

      That’s what I think every time I see a picture of someone wearing Google Glass.

    • Cam Bunton

      Like everyone from T-Mobile’s board? ;-) (except Legere of course.. he’s actually cool)

  • Boludo

    Any chance the lumia 521 or 925 is upgradable to 8.1? I’m amazed by how great the 521 is at that price – operates smoothly and outclasses any sub $300 android. The biggest draw back is a weak app market.

    • http://about.me/daylondeon Deacon

      yes T-Mobile announced it .. they’ll both get upgraded to 8.1

  • krym73

    At quick glance I thought this to be John Legere in a wig, lol

    • ccnet005

      I thought it might be Mr. Bean/Black Adder in his college days

  • So. Utah TMOguy

    My big questions are: Will we ever see 8.1 on the 925 and 521? And what will this new Lumia on T-Mobile be?

    • JaswinderSinghJammu

      I think i read that all WINDOWS 8 devices will be upgraded to 8.1

      • notyourbusiness

        Nope. Not the T-Mobile Nokia Lumia 810.

        • Cam Bunton

          Lol.. It’s like Tmo has a personal vendetta against the 810. It doesn’t get any of the exciting updates.

    • http://about.me/daylondeon Deacon

      yes T-Mobile has announced that those two devices will be updated to 8.1

    • Cam Bunton

      Yes. Part of the update stated that those two phones would be getting updates when available.

  • Paul

    Not a Windows Phone user, but these updates are ones that NEED to be done, and rolled out ASAP, if they want to hang with Android or iOS. Hopfully the updates roll out fast and furious.
    Also, they need to make sure to not overlook the early models or “mid-range” models.

  • Danny Lewis

    Gah! Neon green!?

  • 21stNow

    Windows Phone brings a word-tracing keyboard?! Color me excited!

    • Cam Bunton

      I know! Swype on WP.. love it.

  • Alex Zapata

    A trace keyboard AND Cortana?! Can’t wait to use them!

  • Alex Zapata

    A trace keyboard AND Cortana?! Can’t wait to use them!

  • mavricxx

    I personally don’t trust Microsoft, their products are cool but they have a tendency of letting people down. Look at the Zune for example, it was really awesome but they scrapped it and they never released an updated version. They also keep renaming their products which is annoying. From what I’ve seen Windows Phones still have a way to go to catch up to BlackBerry and Android as far as use features and options go.

  • mavricxx

    I personally don’t trust Microsoft, their products are cool but they have a tendency of letting people down. Look at the Zune for example, it was really awesome but they scrapped it and they never released an updated version. They also keep renaming their products which is annoying. From what I’ve seen Windows Phones still have a way to go to catch up to BlackBerry and Android as far as use features and options go.

    • Boludo

      What features do blackberry’s have, excluding a physical keyboard? Please list a nice list of meaningful ones.

  • edfranco1

    Wow as a none Windows user I am excited and makes me wanna try a windows phone out now. I love Cortana

  • edfranco1

    Wow as a none Windows user I am excited and makes me wanna try a windows phone out now. I love Cortana

  • xmiro

    too bad we won’t see the Nokia 930 in the US. I’d leave Android for it

  • Brent

    I really like Windows Phone 8, but I just can’t switch to it due to the lack of apps available. There are apps on Google Play or the iOS App Store that I use daily that aren’t in the Windows Marketplace, and probably won’t be there any time soon. I wish more software and app developers would get involved with WP8. It’s actually a nice phone with some slick features.