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Microsoft Windows Phone 8.1 review: Major upgrade closes the gap with iOS and Android

Mark Hachman | April 15, 2014
With the Cortana digital assistant and a vibrant new interface, the OS is finally positioned to attract the users and developers it critically needs.

Keep reading: Automatic Wi-Fi sensing, better camera and calendar apps, and more

Wi-Fi Sense: Not quite as good as promised

Windows Phone 8.1 ships with Wi-Fi Sense, a new app that, according to Microsoft, will automatically sign you into all of the free hotspots found at coffee shops and airports. In addition, you'll automatically share your own home Wi-Fi credentials with friends. 

In practice, Wi-Fi Sense is great for logging you in after you've arrived at a location. Loitering outside Starbucks, a local Marriott hotel, or a random office building never logged me in automatically--not once. But after manually accepting the terms of service at a free Starbucks hotspot, I was able to return and connect automatically. (This is probably for the best: You wouldn't want to connect automatically and unwittingly to a "honeypot" Wi-Fi access point that's out to snatch your data.) Wi-Fi Sense maintains a map of local open hotspots, a convenience that was also in Windows Phone 8.

There's also an improved Data Sense, where you can set limits for your cellular data use. It can also instruct your phone to restrict background data in certain situations. Data Sense can cut consumption by 45 percent by compressing HTML and Javascript and slightly degrading the quality of downloaded images; or by 70 percent through more aggressive compression, as well as blocking some ads. I didn't test this, but it's a nice addition for those with prepaid plans.

Both Data Sense and the new Battery Saver app track data and power consumption, respectively, on an app-by-app basis. They're both well thought-out and organized.

Battery Saver also provides a "time remaining" estimate before your phone runs out of juice, something I'd like to see on other platforms. Naturally, there's an option to conserve the available battery, which kicks in automatically when the phone is at 20-percent charge or lower. At that point, your phone drops into standby mode, accepting calls and texts, but syncing email and other apps only manually. It's at least conceptually similar to the ultra-low-power mode added to the Samsung Galaxy S5, but without the special power-sipping, black-and-white formatting.

You can also prevent a given app from running in the background by manually turning off those features.

Action Center notifications: A bit TMI?

Within Windows Phone 8, the Start screen's Live Tiles were the primary source of communicating information, such as the number of unread emails. With Windows Phone 8.1, that's augmented by a new Action Center notifications pane that can be pulled down from the top of the screen, even from the lock screen. 

At the top of the pane are four icons: the local Wi-Fi router (if one is connected), a Bluetooth toggle, an "airplane mode" toggle, and a rotation lock toggle. You may replace them with other functions, such as the camera. Apps have the option of swapping in their own icons, too. There's also a small link to the Settings page, plus a "Clear All" control. As it turns out, the latter's rather important.

 

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