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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.

By default, the Notifications pane displays what appears to be every email you've received that day, from multiple accounts. On my device, that means my personal Gmail and accounts, as well as my work email filtered through Exchange. And that's not counting the score updates from my MLB At Bat application. That's a lot of scrolling. In this regard, Google's Android does it better, with miniature tiles that let you drill down for more information.

Camera improvements: Stealing a page from Nokia

Given that practically every Windows Phone is made by Nokia, which offers its own Nokia Camera app, Microsoft's efforts to improve its Camera software might seem wasted. But Microsoft's decision to eliminate Windows licensing fees from small-form-factor devices clearly is aimed at attracting a new wave of low-cost hardware partners.

The Windows Phone 8.1 Camera app offers a new burst mode, a virtual necessity on hardware like the Icon, which is plagued by shutter lag. The Camera app now includes "lenses," connections to third party apps like Twitter or 4Blend HDR. There are also new scene modes, including optimized settings for closeups, night shots, night portraits, sports, and backlit scenes. But you still won't find the degree of customization available from Nokia Camera, which makes virtually everything manually accessible (including shutter speeds of a second or more). If you own a recent Lumia phone, use Nokia's app--which will automatically launch if you hold down the camera button.

On the other hand, the Windows Phone Camera Roll will now organize your photos by date, location, and even activity, rather than the chronological order they defaulted to previously.

New People hub favors those with phone numbers

If you have an iPhone, you can speak to friends via voice or FaceTime. Now that Skype has been integrated natively, you can do the same in Windows Phone 8.1.

Skype is now always active on your cell phone, too. Personally, I've never been a fan of trying to hold a video conversation on a wildly moving cell phone. It also appears that simply calling an Android user with Skype installed on their phone (and active) doesn't allow one to upgrade the call from voice to Skype.

Integrating Skype also means that your database of Skype contacts will now be pulled into the People hub, which aggregates your contacts from Outlook, Gmail, Skype, and elsewhere.

But there's a catch: On Windows Phone 8, Microsoft pulls your contacts from all of the possible connected services. But on Windows Phone 8.1, some of my contacts didn't make the trip.

Why? Because, by default, Windows Phone 8.1's People hub won't show contacts that don't have phone numbers attached to them. That's a big change from Windows Phone 8, and one that caused me a bit of angst as I tried to track down what happened.


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