Windows Phone 8.1 review
Windows Phone 8.1 is the newest version of Microsoft's mobile operating system. It comes as standard on all new Windows Phone devices, starting with the Nokia Lumia 630 and Nokia Lumia 930, and is currently being rolled out across Nokia's entire Lumia range of Windows Phone 8 devices as part of Microsoft's Lumia Cyan update programme. All Lumia devices with Windows Phone 8 should have the update within the next few weeks, but we've been spending some time with both the current consumer version of Windows Phone 8.1 and the Windows Phone 8.1 Developer Preview to see what's new and what's changed for the better.
LIVE TILE CUSTOMISATION
At first, the operating system looks exactly the same as Windows Phone 8. The home screen is still dominated by the Live Tiles which bring in information from your apps, but now you can customise the tiles to show a background image of your choice. Just go into the Settings menu and select Start + Theme and you'll find an option to choose an image alongside the usual accent and background colour options.
Three columns instead of two leaves more space for Live Tiles, and they can now show a background image rather than just a solid colour
Once you've selected an image, the picture will permeate through almost every Live Tile on your home screen, giving the previously block colour icons a lot more personality. Admittedly, this does make some tiles a little harder to see at first glance, particularly those that don't have a large icon in the middle to help differentiate them from the rest of the tiles on your home screen.
A handful of tiles have kept the traditional block colour background, such as Xbox Music, Office and Photos, making them much easier to pick out when you first look at your phone. Whether you'll like the mix of solid colour and background image is down to personal taste, but it does give you the opportunity to mix and match the various different styles of Live Tile to create a home screen that feels much more personal and unique.
Windows Phone 8.1 also allows all handsets to show up to three columns of tiles instead of two. Previously, this feature was only available on larger, Full HD handsets such as the 6in Nokia Lumia 1520 and Lumia 1320, so it's great to see this making its way to lower resolution phones as well - especially if you like to have a large number of tiles on your home screen.
The latest update to the Developer Preview has also introduced Live Folders, which allows you to organise apps into folders. As its name suggests, the live tiles of apps appear in the tile of the folder, making it easier to pack more apps onto the home screen without having to scroll all the way to the bottom of the screen.
One of the biggest changes to Windows Phone 8.1 comes in the form of the new Action Centre. This is a drop-down notification bar that appears when you swipe down from the top of your phone. It's very similar to Android's notification bar and behaves in much the same way, making Windows Phones a lot less alienating for would-be users who were thinking of switching over from Android. You'll get email and app notifications here as well as more detailed information about your remaining battery life, the date and your current network.
The new Action Centre will be familiar to those coming over from Android
There are also four customisable icons across the top of the Action Centre, and these can be changed in the Notifications + Actions tab in the Settings menu. You only get a choice of ten options, so you won't be able to put any of your favourite apps here, but all the important settings are there to help make using your phone more practical, including brightness, flight mode, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and camera shortcuts.
One of our biggest complaints with Windows Phone 8 was how Internet Explorer never remembered your previous browsing history once you'd returned to the home screen. Instead, when you went back into the browser and hit the back button, you'd simply be returned to the home screen rather than your previous web page. This has been fixed for Windows Phone 8.1, so you can now go back through your internet history regardless of whether you visit the home screen between browsing sessions.
Bing's search engine has also been improved. Instead of simply searching the web, Bing will also search for anything local that's related to your search term, such as shop locations and maps, as well as dig through images, video and anything on your phone's internal storage. This means you won't have to dive into your photo gallery or look through Xbox Video every time you want to fish out a file to show your friends and family. If anything, it finally justifies having a dedicated search button next to the main home button at the bottom of your handset, as you can now search your phone much more thoroughly than before.