Windows Phone 8.1: A Major Upgrade, Specs and Updates (video)

Windows Phone 8.1 is finally here! An updated Start Screen, blazing-fast keyboard, and voice recognition software make 8.1 an entirely new animal. Demo video.

aNewDomain.net — Microsoft’s Build developer conference had a nice payoff for the Windows Phone faithful. Microsoft’s corporate vice president and manager for Windows Phone Program Management, Joe Belfiore, has been the company’s showman for the product and did not disappoint. He showcased the shiny new additions in Windows Phone 8.1. These key additions continue to move Windows Phone forward and indicate a growing platform that is a great alternative to the current dichotomy in smartphone operating systems.

Home Screen

Windows Phone Start Screen

Windows Phone Start Screen. Image credit: Microsoft

The third-column configuration of the Windows Phone Start Screen was, up until now, only available on certain-sized screens. Now every version of Windows Phone has this capability, which provides a dense, customizable and almost-Tetris-like layout, offering ultra-efficient use of space on the device. This layout is perhaps the best representation of Microsoft’s glance-and-go philosophy to date. There is more information at your fingertips than ever before. It’s an attractive addition that makes the user interface unified, yet varied.

Also, cosmetically speaking, the added ability to use a custom Start Screen background really personalizes the device. A translucent pane can now flow beautifully through your content, eliciting a delightful and smile-inducing flair.

Blazing fast typing — err drawing? The new keyboard feature, that Microsoft calls the Word Flow Keyboard, is a gesture-based keyboard option that follows in the footsteps of popular apps such as Swype and Google’s own native Android keyboard. This popular method of inputting text, which is a flurry of finger swipes that create words, now (finally) comes built in with 8.1. It is much needed, and Window’s unique software has even broken some records along the way.

Cortana

Microsoft Cortana

Microsoft Cortana. Image credit: Microsoft

Moving past the Start Screen, one of the most-anticipated changes to Windows Phone is Cortana. Despite the cool name, Microsoft’s Cortana is basically a Siri clone — honestly, it’s difficult to view it as anything but a clone. Even in the video demo (featured below), it takes Cortana through a gamut of almost-identical tasks to Apple’s Siri. But the tasks do illustrate its value and function.

Belfiore even goes so far as to expose Cortana’s lighter side — a string of scripted questions and statements right out of Apple’s playbook circa a few years ago. The ability to type in your question or command is novel for those stealth moments we all face, and I do like the third-party app integration (this is huge), but stripped down this beta Cortana is pretty much Siri’s overachieving sister. That might not be a bad thing. With the addition of Cortana, Microsoft has emphasized the virtual assistant nature of the feature to boost productivity. Cortana is a welcome and much-needed addition to even the race between Apple iOS and Android.

Another notable mention is the long-awaited and rumored Action Center, which mimics iOS and Android UI advances. Lastly, Skype integration with the dialer, which opens up a video chat with a caller (much like FaceTime in iOS) is handy and invaluable in certain situations.

Look forward to Windows Phone 8.1 rolling out over the next few months, with new hardware options available even sooner. Do you think it’s time to switch to Windows Phone? Is there enough steak with this sizzle? Let me know in the comments, and see the demo video below!

For aNewDomain.net, I’m Demetrius Mandzych.

Based in New Jersey, Demetrius Mandzych is passionate about tech and has worked in game development, programming, graphic design, 3D modeling and photography. Read all Demetrius’ consumer tech articles here on aNewDomain.net. Follow Demetrius on Twitter at @Redestium. On Google+ he’s +Demetrius Mandzych.