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Windows Phone 8.1 review

Our Rating :

A huge improvement on Windows Phone 8, this OS finally gives Windows Phone handsets the flexibility and user-friendly interface they deserve



One of Windows Phone 8.1’s more interesting new apps is Cortana. Microsoft describes Cortana as a “personal digital assistant”, but it’s essentially the company’s answer to Apple’s voice-recognition app Siri. It can make calendar appointments for you when you use voice commands, tell you the weather and fetch the latest news from the web. It’s not available by default to UK users, though, as it’s currently only being trialled in the US as a beta app. The UK Developer Preview of Windows Phone 8.1 should be getting Cortana this week.

Windows Phone 8.1

If you’re prepared to mess around with your phone’s language settings, you can get Cortana – Microsoft’s answer to Apple’s Siri – on your Windows Phone 8.1 handset

If you can’t wait that long, there are a few things you can do to trick your phone into thinking it’s in the US, involving switching your phone’s language, region and speech settings to United States English. Your phone will need to restart multiple times to apply all the changes, but once these settings have been altered, Cortana should appear automatically in the general app menu. Read our full guide on how to get the Developer Preview here.

On the whole, Cortana worked well and was almost as good as its Apple rival. It’s nowhere near as stable as Siri yet as it was quite prone to crashing mid-request when we tried it out, but when we spoke to Cortana ourselves, it was able to recognise smaller British towns and cities, accurately perform search requests and correctly make calendar appointments for us. It also had a few witty and intelligent remarks for Halo-themed questions (Cortana is an AI in the Halo games), but not all questions produce such specific and intelligent responses. Often, we simply got a Bing search about our question, which wasn’t particularly useful or helpful in most circumstances.

Windows Phone 8.1

Cortana was reasonably efficient at responding to voice commands to organise our life

To see how it performed against Siri, we compiled a list of questions and played them to Cortana and Siri at the same time using the Acapela online speech synthesiser, set to American English to eliminate any problems with speech or accent. Both produced answers with similar speed and simple questions such as “Where am I?” and “What’s the weather like in London today?” produced smart, personalised responses from both assistants. “Who’s the current president?” resulted in web searches rather than a specific answer, but whereas Siri listed sensible web entries such as the Wikipedia entry on the Presidents of the United States, Cortana’s first hit on Bing was a link about the president of the WHO.

When we tried making a doctor’s appointment for “Tuesday morning”, Cortana asked us whether its default option of 8am was correct and whether it should add it to my diary, but when we tried to change the time, she didn’t understand. Siri simply asked me what time my appointment was, making it much easier to schedule the correct information.

Neither assistant could tell us when our reminders conflicted with any appointments, though. For instance, when we tried to make another appointment for “5 tomorrow”, Cortana and Siri both made the appointment correctly, but when we asked them to “remind us to pick up our kids at 5 tomorrow” as well, they both created a reminder rather than a calendar appointment, so neither picked up the conflict. The result was the same even when we phrased the question differently to try and make it sound like a calendar appointment. Luckily, Cortana did recognise conflicting calendar appointments, but a lot will depend on how you phrase your request.

Cortana still clearly has a way to go before it’s as stable and efficient as Siri, but we like what we see so far and we’ll be testing the UK version as soon as it’s available.


Windows Phone 8.1 is a huge improvement on Windows Phone 8. It fixes nearly every problem we had with the previous operating system and finally makes Windows Phones almost as easy to use as iOS and Android devices. Cortana and the Windows Phone Store still have room for improvement before they’re as versatile as Siri and the Google Play Store, but with a huge range of improved on-board apps and a greater focus on personal customisation, this is easily the best version of Microsoft’s mobile OS so far.

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