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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.

Granted, I can see the point: By connecting Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, you can end up with a ton of somewhat meaningless contacts. To add contacts from those networks, you'll need to visit the Email + accounts submenu in the Settings.

Internet Explorer 11: New views and features

Windows Phone 8.1 adds Internet Explorer 11, which most users simply will think of as "the browser." IE11 brings a host of improvements to the table: Reading View reformats websites into clean, ad-free pages. InPrivate provides (mostly) anonymous browsing. A High Savings Mode trims data consumption and is linked to the new Data Sense app, as one of many performance enhancements. As mentioned previously, you can now pin websites to the Start screen as Live Tiles and watch them dynamically update over time.

Calendar, Messaging and Email improvements

Some Windows Phone 8.1 aim to satisfy business users, including the addition of VPN support and a "workplace account" to create a portion of the phone that can be managed by an enterprise. Unfortunately, my employer, IDG, minimizes this, so I could not properly test it, nor could I connect to my workplace VPN. Email now includes S-MIME encryption support.

The Calendar app does a nice job of straddling your work and business life by simply combining calendars from Outlook, Exchange, Google, and others, pulling in birthdays from Facebook, and displaying each in different colors. Microsoft added daily weather data, too, although it's not clear whether it's keyed to the location of those meetings.

While you can set Calendar appointments via Cortana, there's still room for improvement. Note to Microsoft: please consider adding some sort of "travel buffer" between appointments, so that salespeople and other mobile teams have an idea of how many meetings they can physically pack in a day.

Finally, it's worth noting that you can now "mute" an SMS chain between you and someone else, in case you're busy or someone is simply bugging you. You can also delete the SMS message chain altogether.

Windows Phone keeps getting better

While the Windows 8.1 Update for PCs introduced a number of improvements, it all felt like Microsoft was fidgeting, trying to fine-tune the computing experience to appease its most irate critics. The updates to Windows Phone 8.1, by contrast, feel far more fundamental. Yes, the latest iteration of Android, KitKat, pushed Google's Voice Search and Google Now into the forefront. Apple's iOS7 added notifications and a redesigned user interface. So we've seen this before--it's Microsoft just playing catch-up, right? 

Yes, to an extent. But with Windows Phone 8.1, Microsoft has built significantly onto an already-decent OS, and other pieces are falling into place: Microsoft's continued courting of developers, the imminent assimilation of Nokia, and Microsoft's recent commitment to universal apps spanning Windows and Windows Phone.


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