Windows Phone 8.1, the biggest update Microsoft’s smartphone platform has arguably seen since its first release in 2010, is now available for everyone to download.
Users begin reporting that their Windows Phone 8 devices were allowing them to upgrade to Windows Phone 8.1 earlier this morning. Microsoft announced that Windows Phone 8.1 was available to download in a post on its Windows blog this morning.
Windows Phone 8.1 is the same update that Microsoft showed off at its BUILD 2014 developer conference earlier this month. There are dozens of fixes and important changes contained in it. The most important one being Cortana, a new voice assistant at least appears to be every bit as good and helpful as the iPhone’s Siri or Android’s Google Now.
Users anxious to get their hands on Windows Phone 8.1 will need to do a few things before their phone will download it. Formally, Windows Phone 8 devices aren’t scheduled to get Windows Phone 8.1 until sometime this summer in the United States. Owners who don’t want to wait that long can sign up for the Windows Phone Preview Program. Joining the program is free and after doing so, users simply download an app to their device and head to their device’s settings to install the latest updated software. No complicated codes or hacking are required.
Windows Phone 8.1 is important for a few key reasons. For starters, it’s the first time Windows Phone 8 has actually received a major update since devices with it arrived in 2012. Microsoft had been updating the operating system, however each one of those updates were designed to add small specific features that were mostly needed for newer devices. For example, Windows Phone 8 GDR3 added a third row of Live Tiles for devices with larger displays like the Lumia 1520. That feature is only now rolling out to smaller devices with Windows Phone 8.1.
It’s also important because Windows Phone 8.1 includes key updates that finally puts it on even footing with iOS and Android. The new Action Center now gives users a place to manage all of their incoming notifications and quickly change their device’s most important settings. That’s key since Windows Phone previously relied on Live Tiles and Toasts to act as notifications. Most Live Tiles forced users to dive into each app and Toasts disappeared permanently after a few seconds. Both the iPhone and device’s running Android have had notification centers for some time.
This update also includes new Bluetooth profiles so that users can connect Windows Phone to fitness bands and smartwatches without their device’s daily battery life suffering too much.
The Windows Phone 8.1 code is much closer to Windows 8, Microsoft’s desktop and tablet operating system, code as well. Users can download one app for both their Windows and Windows Phone devices, finally putting an end to the ridiculous constraints that left Microsoft users buying the same apps on two different platforms separately. Windows Phone 8.1 also includes the Quiet Hours system that Microsoft first introduced in Windows. Going forward Windows Phone users will be able to have their device go quiet daily at an appropriate time, like after they’ve gone to bed or when they need to get work done without distractions.
Internet Explorer on Windows Phone now fully integrates with Internet Explorer on Windows. Windows Phone users don’t get Flash video support, however HTML5 videos from YouTube will play in the browser instead of a separate video player with the update. Users can also sync and share open tabs between their laptop, desktop and tablet and their Windows Phone.
All of these changes do come at a price. Windows Phone users who’d liked the Hubs for Music, Photos and Games are out of luck. Microsoft has killed every single one in this version of Windows Phone, formally ending an experiment that started with Windows Phone 7.
The original idea was that creating hubs and allowing developers to integrate their own apps would make for a simpler browsing experience for users. For example, users would just go to the Music + Video hub for anything media related. In practice Hubs failed to live up to expectations. None of them offered any real functionality beyond sometimes forcing users to dive into them for essential functionality. Microsoft barely updated any of those Hubs. In Windows Phone 8.1, the Music + Video hub has been replaced by separate apps for FM Radio, Podcasts and Xbox Music and Xbox Video apps. The Games hub is still available, however Xbox Games are finally available outside of the Hub as well, leaving little reason to visit the hub outside of answering Xbox Live messages.
All told, Windows Phone 8.1 is a pretty robust update, one Windows Phone users will want to get their hands on as soon as possible. New devices with Windows Phone 8.1 installed should arrive on store shelves beginning next month.