Microsoft has finally answered the prayers of Windows Phone users the world over, announcing Cortana, a Siri-style voice-activated personal assistant, notification centre, an improved keyboard and more.
Unveiled at Microsoft’s Build 2014 developer event in San Francisco, Windows Phone 8.1 is the first major update to the company’s mobile operating system, and will be available on new phones from “late April or early May”, as well as an update to select older models in the coming months.
Similar to Siri on the iPhone and Google Now on Android, Cortana is named after the artificial intelligence character of the Halo Xbox games and uses Bing search to answer your questions. Cortana has ‘her’ own LiveTile on the Windows Phone home screen, where she displays information she thinks will be relevant to you, similar to Google Now.
Cortana can also search the web, control your calendars, send messages, makes calls and can even be used to control third-party applications. The voice-activated assistant keeps everything she learns in a “Notepad” app, which can be modified to help improve accuracy. She gets to know who your friends and family are, placing them in an ‘inner circle’, which can then be excluded from the operating system’s new “Quiet hours” mode, meanings calls from only these people will come through, should you desire.
But Cortana doesn’t have to be controlled by voice. Users can type phrases like “remind me to cook dinner for my wife when I get home” and the system will do so, knowing when you get home via the phone’s GPS coordinates. Cortana can even control third-party applications, so if you ask your phone to Skype a friend, it will open the app and do so.
Another new feature of Windows Phone 8.1 is Action Centre, a notifications system which, like iOS and Android, is a pull-down drawer with quick access to Wi-Fi, screen brightness and phone settings, as well as all unread notifications.
Windows Phone 8.1 also has updates to how handsets connect to Wi-Fi. Phone with 8.1 will automatically connect to open public networks, accepting the terms and conditions without the user needing to do anything. Plus, if you have logged into a Wi-Fi network with Windows PC, then your WP8.1 phone will automatically connect to that network too.
A smarter keyboard
Finally, Windows Phone 8.1 brings a Swype-style keyboard to the mix, letting users type by dragging their finger from one letter to the next, instead of tapping them individually. The software will even intelligently add emoticons based on what you’re typing.