11 things you need to know about Windows Phone 8.1

Here's your cheat sheet for the newest features and availability of Microsoft's newest mobile operating system.

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Microsoft's next generation mobile operating system, Windows Phone 8.1, is here and you'll be able to get your hands on it soon. This update makes Windows Phone better than ever, and brings it closer to iOS and Android.

You'll get the full run-down of why I say that in my review of Windows Phone 8.1, but if you're clamoring for a few fast facts about the update, I've got them here. I'll cover when you can get it on your Windows Phone device, and how to use some of the major features.

Windows Phone 8.1 is a free upgrade for anyone who has a device already running Windows Phone 8.

Microsoft says the update is designed to run on all existing Windows Phone 8 devices, and it will start rolling out to those devices in the next few months. That means some phones will receive it sooner than others. When your phone gets it depends entirely on your carrier, where you live, and your phone manufacturer.

Microsoft doesn't have any details on which phones will get it when, but you can check for updates on your phone -- just go to settings and then phone update. You'll also automatically get a notification when the update is ready to download and install.

Developers can upgrade to 8.1 today, but you can get access, too.

Anyone with a Windows Phone developer account can download and install 8.1 starting Monday, April 14. Developer accounts are usually reserved for, well, developers, but if you cannot wait to get your hands on the update, you can get an account for free through the Windows Phone Dev Center Web site.

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Cortana's your new voice assistant. Josh Miller/CNET

Cortana lives in two places on your phone.

You can get help from voice assistant Cortana in two ways. First, there's a live tile that you can pin to your Start screen. If you open it from there, you'll see Cortana's Notebook, a dashboard of helpful, personalized information such as weather reports, sports scores, and headlines. As you use Cortana, she'll learn what you search for and automatically populate the notebook based on your queries. You can also program the notebook yourself from Cortana's settings.

The more common way you'll open Cortana is from the search button at the bottom of your phone's screen. You can either tap that button once to open Cortana's main screen, where'll you see a greeting and a search bar, or you can press and hold search to open the app and immediately initiate voice search.

Your Start screen is getting more crowded.

Windows Phone 8.1 adds another column of live tiles to your Start screen, giving you the chance to fit more information on your display without needing to scroll. In order to accomplish that, each size live tile gets a bit smaller.

You still have the same live tile size choices; large, wide, and small. It's just that each of those sizes is slightly smaller than before. Exactly how much smaller depends on your phone's display size, but the difference won't be dramatic between two different phones.

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The Start screen has an extra column of live tiles. Josh Miller/CNET

Start screen wallpapers only show up in certain live tiles.

The new Start screen wallpaper option in 8.1 is really neat, but it doesn't work like wallpapers in iOS or Android. From settings, you can pick a photo to show up on your Start screen. When you do that, your live tiles become transparent so you can see the image, but still use the tile.

However, not every live tile changes -- so far it's only the ones for system apps, such as the phone dialer, messaging app, Outlook, camera, calendar, Internet Explorer, and settings. Other apps from Microsoft, such as Games, Office, and the Bing apps, keep their normal design, as do apps from third party developers, including Facebook, Twitter, and Pandora.

You'll eventually be able to customize your lock screen.

At Microsoft's Build developer conference, when the company first showed off Windows Phone 8.1, it also showed a fresh new lock screen with unique animations. Unfortunately, this feature isn't available yet, but it will soon arrive in the form of an app that you can download from the Windows Phone app store.

Details are thin, but the app will let you customize how the time, date, and other lock screen widgets look and move around on the screen. Once it's released, we'll give you the full run-down of how it works.

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Coming soon: Lock screen customization options. Microsoft

You can customize Action Center, the new notification menu.

Action Center, keeps track of all of your notifications from each app on your phone and gives you quick access to common settings. It's a very helpful menu that you can make even better by customizing it.

First, there are four slots at the top of the menu (or more, depending on your screen size), where you can keep common settings toggles, such as Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. From your phone's settings menu, under notifications + actions, you can choose which settings go into that top row in Action Center. There are only four slots available at a time, but you can swap out Bluetooth for airplane mode or rotation lock for screen brightness.

In that same settings menu, you can also control which apps' notifications show up in Action Center. Similarly to iOS, you can pick which type of notification you can get for common apps, including notification alerts at the top of your screen and sounds alerts.

You can swipe to type with gesture typing.

The updated Word Flow keyboard lets you typing by swiping your finger around on the screen to connect the letters in a word. The experience is very similar to Swype, an Android-only gesture keyboard that's been around for several years. In fact, Microsoft claims its keyboard is even faster and better than Swype and its competitors.

That's still up for debate, but it is true that a kid using Word Flow gesturing typing broke the Guinness World Record for the fastest typed text message.

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Windows Phone 8.1 gets gesture typing. Josh Miller/CNET

Wi-Fi Sense will automatically connect your public hotspots.

Another new addition to Windows Phone 8.1, Wi-Fi Sense will automatically connect you to open public wireless networks that need you to agree to terms of service before you get online. If you want this, you can head to the Wi-Fi menu, tap Wi-Fi Sense and choose to have your phone agree to terms of service, and even submit your name or email (if the network asks for it) on your behalf.

Business tools keep you secure on the go.

It's a small feature, but Windows Phone 8.1 now gives you the option to connect to a virtual private network or VPN. Many companies use these to keep email, file transfers, and other tools secure and safe, and now you can use your Windows phone to get access.

Windows Phone 8.1 also adds S/MIME support, so you can read and send encrypted emails.

Internet Explorer 11 comes to Windows Phone.

The newest browser from Microsoft makes its appearance on Windows Phone in 8.1. It brings a handful of features, including private browsing and reading mode. One of the more useful feature allows you to pin blogs and frequently updated sites to your Start screen. Once there, those Web site's live tile will show the newest headlines and content.

 

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