Windows Phone 8.1 review: Windows Phone is better than ever, but still falls short on app selection

The wallpaper shows up in the background of your live tiles and scrolls as you swipe up and down on the start screen. However, you'll only see the image you pick in certain live tiles, mostly the pre-installed system apps such as the phone dialer, messaging app, Outlook, and Internet Explorer. Any apps where the developer creates a specific live tile design, such as Office or Pandora, won't show the wallpaper.

A place for your notifications

Finally, Windows Phone gets a place to organize all of your notifications. When you received a new message or email in earlier iterations of the operating system, you'd see a small banner at the top of your screen that would disappear in a few seconds. There was no way to recall that information once the banner was gone.

Now, you can swipe down from the top if your screen to reveal Action Center, a brand-new menu that gives you quick access to common settings and all of your notifications. The design is very similar to the notification drawer you see on most Android phones.

At the top, there's a row of customizable control toggles that switch on or off common settings, including Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and brightness. You can change those options in the settings menu, but you're limited to four total toggles (though the Nokia Lumia 1520 has five toggles). I really like this feature, because it puts all the most common settings within easy reach. It's also easy to get to the full settings menu, thanks to a small button at the top of the Action Center.

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Your notifications now live in the swipe-down Action Center menu (left). You can also adjust the volume for ringer and notifications independent of media and apps (right). Screenshot by Sarah Mitroff/CNET

Below the settings, you'll see all of your notifications from your apps, such as text messages, missed calls, and new emails. You can swipe away each app's notifications individually, or clear all of them at once if you want. Similar to the Notification Center in iOS, you can customize which apps' notifications show up in Action Center.

Given that Android had this feature from the start and iOS adopted a notification menu in 2011 with the release of iOS 5, it's surprising that it took Windows Phone this long to add such a useful feature. Of all the additions in 8.1, I believe Action Center is the most useful.

Swipe to type

Gesture typing, another feature that Android has had for several years, has made its way to Windows Phone in 8.1. The stock keyboard that comes with Windows Phone now lets you swipe your finger around the keyboard to type. It's faster than pecking the keys and just about as accurate.

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8.1 adds gesture typing, where you can swipe around the screen to type. Josh Miller/CNET

You just place your finger on the first letter in the word you want to type and then drag your finger to the other letters. You don't have to be completely accurate, because the keyboard guesses what you want and shows predictions as you swipe, which means you can swipe quickly to type. However, if I was too sloppy with my swiping, I'd get a lot of misspellings.

In my experience, using Swiftkey's Flow gesture typing for about a year, the Windows Phone gesture typing is just slightly less accurate.

What can you sense?

Your phone can now automatically connect to open public wireless networks with the help of Wi-Fi Sense. This feature is tucked away in Wi-Fi settings app, and will passively agree to the terms of service that most public Wi-Fi hotspots ask you accept before you can connect on your behalf. You can also enter in other common details that networks ask from you, including your email and phone number.

Wi-Fi Sense also allows you to share private wireless networks with your friends, without needing to give them a password. You can share the network with your Outlook contacts, Facebook friends, and Skype contacts, but they'll only be able to connect to the network you share if they have a Windows Phone and also use Wi-Fi Sense.

Internet Explorer 11

The newest version of Microsoft's mobile browser, Internet Explorer 11, makes its debut in 8.1. It gets just a few new features in the update, most notably Reading Mode and InPrivate browsing.

Reading Mode strips out ads and other design features on a webpage so that you can read with fewer distractions. InPrivate browsing is similar to Chrome's Incognito mode and Firefox's private browsing, in that it won't track your browsing history or cookies while you move around the Internet.

Another interesting addition to IE 11 is that you can now pin websites to your Start screen. The live tile shows the most recently published articles and headlines from that website, which is particularly helpful on news sites. The downside here is that if you tap the live tile when it is showing a particular headline you want to read, IE11 will only open to the website's homepage, not that particular article.

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Windows Phone 8.1 gets a ton of helpful features. James Martin/CNET

A handful of extras

Windows Phone 8.1 also adds a bunch of smaller features that aren't as noticeable, but are still useful.

Additional features added to Windows Phone 8.1 include:

  • Two separate volume controls: one for ringer and notifications, one for media and apps.
  • A redesigned calendar app.
  • A new version of Skype.
  • VPN for secure browsing.
  • S/MIME support for encrypted emails.

Windows Phone versus iOS and Android

Windows 8.1 absolutely makes Microsoft's OS better and more capable of competing with Android and iOS. However, it also shows Microsoft is still late to the party with the top features that smartphone users have come to expect on their phones, including a notification center and a voice assistant.

What's more, while 8.1 finally delivers to Windows Phone most of the features that you'll get with the other mobile operating systems, it's still lacking the deep customization options from Android and the attention to detail and easy approachability of iOS.

But those are mere quibbles compared to the app deficit. Despite Microsoft's best efforts, the Windows Phone app store is still missing titles that Google Play and the Apple App Store have had for years. Even though in the six months leading up to 8.1, Windows Phone got Instagram, Vine, and Waze, many of those apps aren't as full-featured as their iOS and Android versions.

Meanwhile, other must-have apps are cobbled together by third-party developers -- or worse. You'll find a decent Dropbox app, but it was cooked up by a developer named ly2314. Want a dedicated Gmail app? You'll need to sort through this list of spammy apps -- with no official Google version to be found.

It's not all bad news though. Windows Phone remains a great choice for first-time smartphone buyers because it's both easy to use and has enough customization options without being overwhelming. And frankly, more than a few excellent smartphones run it.

Looking at the big picture of design, features, ease of use, and app selection, Windows Phone still hasn't reached the point where it's going to lure away those who already own an iPhone or Android phone, but it's edging closer.

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