With a marketshare around 4 percent globally, Microsoft's Windows Phone platform needs a significant boost if it's going to compete with the likes of Android and iOS. At its Build conference in San Francisco, the company took the wraps off of Windows Phone 8.1, which adds a Siri-like personal assistant named Cortana and a slew of new features designed to help you customization your phone experience. We had a chance to go hands-on with a Nokia Lumia 1520 running a beta version of Windows Phone 8.1 and were intrigued with its flexibility and powerful personalization capabilities.
These days, having a friendly voice assistant is table stakes in the mobile space and, though it has taken Microsoft years to ante up (Siri launched in 2011 and Google Now in 2012), the end product looks promising. Using the voice of Jen Taylor, who voices the character Cortana in Halo, the assistant sounds a bit like Siri in our test and provides personalized updates that remind us of Google Now, but gives you a level of control and customization that its competitors lack.
You can get to Cortana either by hitting the search button at the bottom of the phone or by tapping on its live tile (provided that you pinned it to the home screen). Like Google Now, it shows a circle icon that reacts to your speech, but this circle doesn't pulsate while you're talking like Google Now does. If Cortana knows anything about you, the Cortana app will show a stream of relevant info that looks a lot like the Google Now screen, complete with sports scores from your favorite teams, upcoming appointments, flight information and weather.
Unlike Google Now, which learns about you from your online activity but never tells you exactly what dirt it has on you, Cortana has a feature called "notebook" which lets you get a full look at your profile and add or remove information from it. Going into the notebook, we were able to tell Cortana that we wanted to follow the Yankees by hitting the plus button under the sports header. Under the Inner Circle menu, we were able to select friends or relatives to add a special whitelist of people who can call you, even if you've set "quiet hours."
More importantly, in the Inner Circle menu, you can assign up to three nick names to inner circle members. So you can assign a title such as "my wife" and when you tell Cortana to "call my wife" it knows whom you're talking about. We assigned the nickname "goober" to a contact and asked Cortana to remind us to call Goober, but unfortunately the assistant did not properly connect the nickname to a person. What remains unclear is how much Cortana prepopulates the Inner Circle menu with information it knows about you. A Microsoft rep said that Cortana learns from the People app, but we're not sure whether it learns about your relationships (ex: whether someone in Facebook is tagged as relative) on its own or not.
Unlike Google Now, which reads through your email and pulls out information like a nosy neighbor with binoculars, Cortana requires your permission to read through your email and, even then, asks for your permission to track flights it has found there. We're not sure whether the permission to read email is on by default, but it's available as an option in the Cortana settings. If you don't like something that Cortana knows about you, the notebook lets you erase it.
Cortana's voice recognition feature offered mixed results. Sometimes it accuractely transcribed what we said and others it did not. We found that we needed to put our mouth very close to the Lumia 1520 to get an accurate reading, but we also found that the delay before it stopped capturing our voice was too long. So, if we asked it "What was the score in the Yankees game" and then started talking to a friend too soon after, it started recording our conversation as part of the request.
Like Siri but unlike Google Now, Cortana accepts follow-up questions. When we asked Cortana "what's the weather in Las Vegas," it showed us a chart with the forecasted temperatures listed in Fahrenheit. When we asked it to "show that in celsius," it provided the same chart in celsius. However, when we tried the same thing on an Android phone with Google Now, the phone had no idea what the "that" was that we were referring to.
Though a Microsoft rep said that Cortana is supposed to provide some functionality offline, we found that when we put a demo unit into airplane mode, the assistant was unable to process any commands or even transcribe our voice.
Unlike Siri, Cortana accepts commands from the keyboard as well as your voice, a welcome feature for users who feel awkward talking to an inanimate object or anyone who doesn't want strangers to hear their search queries. Cortana can launch apps by command which we found particularly useful when we entered open settings and were transported to the settings menu. Considering how messy the all apps menu seems, we'd rather type "open hulu" than go looking for its shortcut.
Like Google Now, Cortana sometimes reads you answers and other times simply spits search results at you. We found that when we asked "How did the Yankees do last night," Cortana read us the results and showed a box score on screen. However, when we asked "Who is the president of the United States," it just gave us search results for Barack Obama where Google would have given us a card and read it to us. It's unclear which types of questions get direct answers and which just display search results, but we mostly got search results.
We've long been fans of Android's rich notification drawer and now Windows Phone is adding a similar feature. When you swipe down from the top of the screen in Windows Phone 8.1, you see what Microsoft calls the Action Center, which contains four quick settings buttons to toggle Bluetooth, rotation lock, Wi-Fi and airplane mode, which is a lot fewer than the two dozen toggles you find on Android phones such as the Samsung Galaxy Note 3. There's also a button that takes you directly to the settings menu.
Like the notification drawer in Android, Action Center shows you recent alerts from email, phone, messaging and other apps. We noticed, however, that unlike Windows Phone 8.1 does not provide a reply button or other ability to take action on a message directly from the drawer.
Home Screen Customizations
Windows Phone's home screen has become more customizable with the new OS, but it's still not quite as advanced as Android's. Using the settings menu, we were able to designate a wallpaper which appeared behind some of the tiles on the home screen. Unfortunately, the background, which moves with you as you scroll, only shows through tiles that have been designated as translucent by the app developers who created them. Strangely, some default Microsoft programs like the phone dialer and Cortana have translucent tiles and others, such as Office and the Games hub, are solid. We would prefer if users, rather than developers, got to decide which tiles were translucent considering that most developers probably want their tiles to stand out rather than showing part of a picture of the user's cat.
In the settings menu, you can also choose to "show more tiles," which changes the home screen from two columns to three. We would definitely recommend having three columns, which is what our test unit displayed.
Microsoft has also revamped its stock keyboard adding the ability to type by tracing, a feature made popular by Swype that is now part of almost every Android keyboard. Microsoft calls this ability "Shape Writing" and claims that it recognizes your words faster than the equivalent function on other phones. During a morning keynote, Microsoft Exec Joe Belfiore even said that the new keyboard has been certified fastest by the Guiness Book of World Records. In our experience, tracing on the keyboad was very smooth and produced results quickly but not necessarily accurately. When we tried to draw the name "Avram" it outputted the word "scream" instead, a problem we've had with other trace typing software on Android. However, the software recognized more comon words with ease. We still wish that Microsoft would allow users to install third-party keyboards and provide optional haptic feedback.
One of the most intriguing features of Windows Phone 8.1 is its ability to transition from voice calls to Skype video calls without hanging up. Though we could not make any calls on our sample phone, a Microsoft rep demonstrated the service for us, calling a user with Skype and showing that a button appeared which would allow him to switch to video. He said that the button will only be active if the person you are talking to is logged into Skype, but it will work whether the person is signed into Skype on their phone or on another device. We can imagine getting a call from our mother and then telling her to walk over to her PC and open Skype to video chat. The rep told us that the phone will terminate the voice call once Skype has connected, allowing you to save precious voice minutes.
While still not as customizable as Android, Windows Phone 8.1 gives Windows Phone users a level of control over the experience that they didn't have before. We particularly appreciated the notebook feature which lets you see and control exactly what Cortana knows about you, a capability we wish Siri and Google Now would offer. The Skype hand-off feature is also unique and compelling. We look forward to learning more about Windows Phone 8.1 as it rolls out in the months ahead.