Mainstream support for Windows Phone 8.1—the last version of Microsoft’s mobile platform that was worth a damn—ends tomorrow. A moment of silence, please.
As Microsoft’s support website notes, Windows Phone 8.1 support ends on July 11, 2017, more than 36 months after this product version was released, on June 24, 2014. That meets Microsoft’s contractual obligations, and it will no longer supply any updates available, including security updates.
There’s a lot that can be said here. But let’s instead look back at some key points from my original review of Windows Phone 8.1, which I hailed as “Microsoft taking Windows Phone to 11.” Windows Phone 8.1, unlike its Windows 10 Mobile successors, passes what I called “the upgrade test,” where going back to the previous OS version is painful. It was great. And its time was brief.
It was a major update. “Pay no attention to the version number: Windows Phone 8.1 is a major upgrade for Microsoft’s smartphone platform, one that provides improvements virtually everywhere,” I wrote. “But 8.1 also ships with some major new features: A beta version of the Cortana digital personal assistant which, for now at least, makes Apple’s Sir and Google Now look tame by comparison and a notification center that, frankly, Windows Phone should have had years ago … If there wasn’t already a Windows 8.1 floating around, I have no doubt Microsoft would have branded this one Windows Phone 9.”
This was before the “One Windows” convergence. “What I’m not seeing is any real indication that Windows Phone is being merged into Windows,” I noted. “Yes, there are absolutely features from Windows 8.1 that now appear in Windows Phone, like settings sync, quiet hours, VPN and Workplace, and much more. But this absolutely isn’t a ‘phone version of Windows.’ It’s still very much Windows Phone as we’ve known it, with its own quirks and uniquely phone-based features and functionality. The Start screen is oriented for portrait mode and still cannot, for example, be used in landscape mode. It’s a phone, not a tablet … Perhaps the two products [Windows 8.x and Phone] will be updated in lock-step from version to version (but not with regards to interim updates) going forward, since the same product group at Microsoft is now responsible for both.”
Lock screen improvements. The lock screen has been evolved with a more attractive and, I think, more usable informational layout, with the clock displayed in a larger clock font and the day and date in a smaller font … it supports a new type of lock screen app that can take over the display and provide a unique look and feel.
Action Center. Action Center is one of the best new features in Windows Phone 8.1. It is activated by swiping down from the top of the screen. This works from anywhere in Windows Phone, including, interestingly, the lock screen. There are two parts to Action Center, a row of quick settings tiles and then a list of app notifications. All-in-all, Action Center looks like it accomplishes exactly what you’d expect. You’ll wonder how you ever lived without it.
Start improvements. Microsoft now provides a “show more tiles” option for all Windows Phones with a display with a resolution lower than 1920 x 1080. There’s a new Start Background feature that lets you pick a photo to display under tiles on the the Start screen. And there’s an interesting parallax effect that occurs when you scroll through the Start screen: The background image scrolls at a different speed than the tiles do.
Cortana. The most hyped feature of Windows Phone 8.1 isn’t even really a feature of Windows Phone 8.1, per se: It’s available in beta form and then only in the United States. Cortana is basically a new generation of Bing Search, in the sense that it replaces the Bing Search functionality in Windows Phone 8 with a new version that is more universally integrated with everything in the phone and with voice interaction. And… it works.
Settings sync. Like Windows 8.1, Windows Phone 8.1 now supports OneDrive-based settings sync functionality.
Wordflow keyboard. Windows Phone 8.1 picks up a Swype-type virtual keyboard. And it works very well. Microsoft calls this capability “shape typing.”
Skype. Windows Phone 8.1 is the first version of Microsoft’s smartphone OS to include a bundled and integrated version of Skype. That means that Messaging no longer works for Facebook or Messenger chats, and that you must now use Skype.
Internet Explorer 11. Windows Phone 8.1 includes a significantly updated version of Internet Explorer which brings this browser up to speed with the version in mainstream Windows. IE 11 for Windows Phone 8.1 includes PC features InPrivate Browsing and Reading View (shown below), and it now supports syncing Favorites, tabs and history between PC and phone versions of the browser. There’s also an updated address bar, unlimited tabs, and other improvements.
Calendar improvements. The Calendar app has been updated with some long-overdue functionality: New view pivots (Today, Tomorrow, and then subsequent day) and a new View button that lets you switch between Day, Week, Month and Year views.
Maps improvements. Bing Maps gets a big update in Windows Phone 8.1 and now includes improved navigation, though you will still need a “drive” app (like Nokia Drive+) for turn-by-turn navigation with voice control. Maps also integrates with Wi-Fi Sense, so you can find nearby trusted Wi-Fi networks easily.
Microsoft Camera. With Nokia really turning things up a notch with its Pro camera app, it is perhaps no surprise that the built-in Camera app in Windows Phone 8.1 now works in a similar (if simpler) manner. It offers three main modes—photo, burst, and video—and five quick launch buttons for camera roll, camera chooser, flash, lenses, and scenes.
Photos improvements. The Windows Phone 8.1 Photos hub is finally now extensible, so you may soon be able to access your non-Microsoft, cloud-based photo services from this interface. But even without that integration, Photos has been updated visually and no longer sports the sweeping panorama from before. Instead, you see a new layout that is all business, but gets you to your photos quicker.
Xbox Music, Xbox Video, Podcasts and FM Radio. The Zune hub is gone and replaced by separate apps: Xbox Music, Xbox Video, Podcasts, and FM Radio. Each works exactly as you’d expect, though Xbox Music seems to still perform pretty slowly.
Quiet hours. Like Windows 8.1, Windows Phone 8.1 supports a “quiet hours” functionality that lets you configure the phone to not bother you during set hours of the day (typically at night, when you’d be asleep).
Wi-Fi Sense. Windows Phone 8.1 picks up some nice Wi-Fi functionality from Windows 8, including the ability to sync known Wi-Fi networks and their passwords between whatever Windows PCs, tablets and phones you may own.
Storage Sense. As with Windows 8.1, you can now dive into your storage and see exactly what’s taking up the space. In Windows Phone 8, you could see that apps were taking up whatever amount of storage, but you couldn’t do anything about it. Now, you can see exactly how much space each app and game is using and uninstall the ones you don’t want directly from this interface.
Business features. Windows Phone 8.1 includes a number of new features for businesses, including a few—like enterprise VPN and Workplace—that debuted first in Windows. Also available is enterprise wise—which wipes only your corporate data from a phone, and not all data as with a normal remote wipe—S/MIME email encryption, and various improved MDM (mobile device management) capabilities.
Ease of Access controls. Microsoft is rightfully criticized for not doing as much as Apple does for those with vision or hearing disabilities. But Windows Phone 8.1 does include a few additional ease of access controls over its predecessor. Key among them is Narrator, which will read aloud any text that’s on the screen, and new options for zooming in on all web content. You can also change the appearance of captions for videos in IE and apps that use the browser to display content.
Screen projection. Windows Phone 8.1 now supports both wired and wireless screen projection, much like Windows 8.1 does. Wired projection occurs over USB—a feature that was previously available only on specially designed handsets Microsoft and its partners used for public demonstrations—while wireless uses Miracast. (But as you might expect, Miracast is limited to newer devices that support it, including the Nokia Lumia 1520, Icon, and 930.)
Apps. The Apps view—reachable by swiping to the left from the Start screen—has been updated in some subtle ways. For example, now it displays games, which were previously available only in the Games hub. And it also displays key settings, like Battery Saver, Data Sense and Storage Sense, each of which can now be pinned to the Start screen too. That’s helpful, but I wish you could still pin any setting to the Start and/or Apps screen.
Windows Phone Store. The Store app has been significantly upgraded in this release. For starters, it’s now all about apps (including games). If you want to find music, videos or podcasts, you need to do so through those apps instead. It’s also been updated with a new layout, and categories that match those in the Store app in Windows.
Availability. Windows Phone 8.1 is a free update for all Windows Phone 8 handsets. Anyone can get it, and while the general public availability will vary by device and carrier, Microsoft expects this process to happen in force by the summer. Don’t want to wait? Anyone who has signed up for the Windows Phone developer program—including the free version—can get the final version of Windows Phone 8.1 right now, for free.
Final thoughts. “As you must know, I’m a huge fan of Windows Phone 8.1 and am quite eager to get going with this update on all of my handsets,” I wrote at the time. “If you invested in Windows Phone 8 and were wondering about the next version of the OS, it’s time to celebrate. Windows Phone 8.1 is a huge update. Windows Phone 8.1 is awesome. And Windows Phone 8.1 is here today.”
Tagged with Windows Phone 8.1