Windows Phone 8.1: What You Need to Know

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Windows Phone owners will be getting an update to the operating system in the coming months. The 8.1 version will bring performance enhancements and much-needed features, including the a voice-controlled digital assistant and a notifications center. Unveiled today at Microsoft's Build 2014 conference, Windows Phone 8.1 packs updates that will bring it closer to competing systems such as Android and iOS, but also adds some cool Wi-Fi connection tools that hotspot scouts will love. Here are the top features you can expect.


Microsoft's answer to Apple's Siri and Google Now is Cortana. The voice assistant sounds like a deeper-voiced Siri, and helps you schedule appointments and tasks, look up movie listings, nearby restaurants and random facts just by speaking a command.

We like that you can call out particular apps by saying their name first and getting those programs to execute tasks. For instance, saying "Hulu, add Once Upon A Time to my queue," opens the Hulu app and puts the show on your watch list. You can also add a note to a contact to remind you what to talk about the next time you converse. 

More: Cortana: Top 5 Features

Action Center

A notifications shade has been around in Android and iOS phones for some time, and Windows Phone is finally catching up. Windows Phone 8.1 brings an Action Center that collects your notifications and displays them in a slide-down panel. You also get quick access to Settings and toggles for Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Airplane Mode and Internet Sharing in the top row of this shade.

More: Best Smartphones 2014

Wi-Fi Sense

When turned on, Wi-Fi Sense lets you connect to free public hotspots and opens up portal pages, accepting the terms of use on your behalf. Friends using Windows Phone can also connect to your home network without you giving out a password. Just enable Share Wi-Fi Networks and choose which contacts (Outlook, Skype or Facebook) to allow.

More: 7 Ways to NSA-Proof Your Smartphone

Customizeable Start Screen

With Windows Phone 8.1 you can add your own background image for some personal flair. Images are overlaid across the Live Tiles on your page and act as the background for each shape. The update also lets you choose the size and number of tiles to display so you can either keep your screen free of clutter or fill it up with as many icons as you'd like. 

More: Top 10 iPhone Alternatives

Shape Writing in Keyboard

Microsoft's improved its native keyboard by packing a trace-typing option it calls Shape Writing. This Swype-like feature is already on Android phones and available as an app for iOS devices, but Microsoft claims its solution is the fastest. So fast, in fact, that the Guinness world record for fastest typing on a smartphone is now held by a person who used the Windows Phone 8.1 Shape Writing keyboard. 

More: The Best Gaming Keyboards You Can Buy

Calendar Improvements

The pre-installed Calendar app now comes with a weather indicator at the top right so you can quickly see what the day's forecast. Microsoft also added more views such as day, week, month and year, and you can swipe sideways to get to the next page.

More: Top 25 Windows 8 Apps

Business Features

Thanks to its support of enterprise VPN and mobile device management, IT managers can easily hand off Windows Phones to employees. After a simple setup, corporate apps such as email or Office will be installed and employees can send and receive encrypted and signed messages. Managers can choose to disable specific apps in controlled phones to ensure the person holding on to it only uses it for serious business.

More: Top 25 Windows Phone Apps


Internet Explorer 11

You'll be able to launch private browsing modes thanks to Internet Explorer 11, which comes with the 8.1 update. The browser also offers a Reader mode that scales web pages to make them easier on your eyes. Internet Explorer 11 also offers enhanced performance, great syncing tools and a touch-friendly interface. 

More: Best Windows 8.1 Browser: Chrome vs. Firefox vs. Internet Explorer

Author Bio
Cherlynn Low
Cherlynn Low, LAPTOP Staff Writer
Cherlynn joined the Laptopmag team in June 2013 and has since been writing about all things tech and digital with a focus on mobile and Internet software development. She also edits and reports occasionally on video. She graduated with a M.S. in Journalism (Broadcast) from Columbia University in May 2013 and has been designing personal websites since 2001.
Cherlynn Low, LAPTOP Staff Writer on
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