Posey's Tips & Tricks

First Impressions of Windows Phone 8.1

While there are some obvious bugs with the preview release, the Cortana voice assistant looks to be a game changer for the platform.

As someone who has published two books about Windows Phone, I have had a lot of people asking me what I think of Windows Phone 8.1. As such, I wanted to take the opportunity to share my first impressions.

Before I get started, I need to point out that the Windows Phone 8.1 operating system is currently only a preview release. As such, it still has some bugs and Microsoft will likely make some changes before general availability.

In case you are wondering, the biggest bug that I have found so far is that the WiFi code doesn't seem to work with my device. When WiFi is enabled, my phone gets extremely hot and somewhat unresponsive. It also reboots itself at least once an hour. Needless to say I didn't have this problem before I installed the Windows Phone 8.1 preview.

In spite of this very annoying bug, I have been genuinely impressed with the new build. It feels much more like a major new OS release than an X.1 release.

One of my favorite new features is the Notification Center. When you swipe down from the top of the screen, you will see all of your current notifications from sources such as your mailboxes, your social networks and text messaging.

More importantly however, the Notification Center also displays four icons at the top of the screen --WiFi, Bluetooth, Airplane Mode and Rotation Lock. I absolutely love the fact that Microsoft has made these settings so easy to get to. I travel almost constantly and use airplane mode on a daily basis. Prior to the release of Windows Phone 8.1, it was cumbersome to invoke airplane mode. You had to go to the app list, scroll to and click Settings, and scroll to and click Airplane Mode. Only then could you enable or disable airplane mode. In contrast the new method is to swipe down from the top of the screen and then simply tap the Airplane Mode tile. Enabling airplane mode is now so much quicker and easier.

My other favorite new feature is Cortana.  Cortana is a personal assistant similar to Apple's Siri. At first it is easy to dismiss Cortana as a "me too" feature, but believe me when I say that Cortana is awesome. I have had Windows Phone 8.1 installed for about two weeks (although it wasn't really usable for the first four days because of the previously mentioned WiFi bug), but already Cortana has become a feature that I depend on.

Cortana goes way beyond simple tasks like telling you the weather or playing music (although it can do that too). Cortana is aware of your location and also aware of your personal relationships and personal data.

For example, I was working in Dallas last week and without thinking I told Cortana to tell my wife that my flight was canceled. Cortana came back and said something to the effect of "Is your wife Taz Posey?" When I said yes, Cortana said "OK, I will remember that."

Similarly, I asked Cortana if it was going to be raining when I arrive home. Cortana was smart enough to know where I live and what time my flight was scheduled to arrive and gave me an answer based on that information.

I also love Cortana's alert system. For one thing, Cortana can be used as an alarm clock. All you have to say is something like "wake me in half an hour" or "wake me at 9:00 tomorrow morning." Even so, this is just the beginning of what Cortana's alerting mechanism can do.

The thing that makes the alerting mechanism so powerful is that it is tied in with Cortana's location awareness. For example, while I was in Dallas last week, I realized that I had forgotten to bring a cable for my laptop. I wanted to make sure that I had the cable before I flew to Houston this week. I simply told Cortana, "next time I am at home remind me to pack an HDMI cable." Sure enough, three days later when I was at home I got a reminder to pack the cable.

The reminders can be used for other things too. For instance, I recently told Cortana, "next time I am at Home Depot, remind me to get some construction adhesive." Sure enough, about fifteen minutes after walking into Home Depot, I received my reminder.

Cortana is also tied into cloud data sources such as Yelp. Last night I was trying to figure out what to have for dinner and I told Cortana to "show me nearby Mexican restaurants with good reviews." Cortana used my location and Yelp data to give me exactly what I was looking for.

I could go on and on about all the cool things that Cortana can do, but I think you probably get the idea. I think that the thing that impresses me most about Cortana is that it works with natural language queries. There are no commands to memorize, which means that you can use it from day one.

About the Author

Brien Posey is a 22-time Microsoft MVP with decades of IT experience. As a freelance writer, Posey has written thousands of articles and contributed to several dozen books on a wide variety of IT topics. Prior to going freelance, Posey was a CIO for a national chain of hospitals and health care facilities. He has also served as a network administrator for some of the country's largest insurance companies and for the Department of Defense at Fort Knox. In addition to his continued work in IT, Posey has spent the last several years actively training as a commercial scientist-astronaut candidate in preparation to fly on a mission to study polar mesospheric clouds from space. You can follow his spaceflight training on his Web site.


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