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.
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.
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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.
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.
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.
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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.
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.