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

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The Good Windows Phone 8.1 puts more tiles on your Start screen and finally gives us a notification center. Voice assistant Cortana is fast, helpful, and just a bit witty.

The Bad Cortana is in beta, so you'll encounter a few bugs. The Windows Phone app store has fewer titles than Google Play and the Apple App Store, and what's available isn't as full-featured as the iOS and Android versions.

The Bottom Line Windows Phone 8.1 is the best update yet, thanks to its revamped design and modern features, but it lags behind iOS and Android.

Visit manufacturer site for details.

7.9 Overall
  • Interface 8
  • Features 8
  • Apps 7
  • Performance 8

Review Sections

The latest version of Windows Phone, version number 8.1, brings a slew of new features to Microsoft's smartphone operating system. We get home screen wallpapers, an extra column of live tiles, a notification center, and, the star of the show, voice assistant Cortana, which is just like Siri and Google Now.

More than just a handful of upgrades, Windows Phone 8.1 elevates the entire operating system to a higher level, where it can better compete against iOS and Android. If you're a first-time smartphone buyer, Windows Phone is looking better as one of your choices because it's very user-friendly. That said, it still has some way to go before it will lure anyone away from iOS and Android, because it still cannot deliver as robust as an app store as its rivals nor can it bring as many features, like customization or file management.

Windows Phone 8.1 will roll out to devices over the next few months. Any Windows Phone currently running version 8 of the operating system will get the update. Brand-new devices will launch with it in late April and early May.

From 8 to 8.1

Version 8.1 is the fourth generation of the Windows Phone OS, and it replaces Windows Phone 8. That version was updated in October 2013 with Windows Phone 8 Update 3, which set the stage for many of the features in 8.1 by adding a new row of live tiles to the home screen on larger phones, task-switching, and a hands-free driving mode.

Meet Cortana

The most interesting addition to 8.1 is Cortana. Like Siri, Cortana is a female voice assistant who can help you search the Web using Bing, set reminders, get directions, create new calendar events, call or text your contacts, verbally jot down notes, and play music on your phone, to name a few.

You do all of this by by tapping the search key on your phone to open Cortana, and then either type in what you need or tap the microphone to speak it. Or, you can simply hold down the search key until Cortana opens and start talking immediately.

Cortana is a personal voice assistant with a personality. You can use her to search the Web, set reminders, call your contacts, and so much more. Josh Miller/CNET

Like Siri and Google Now, you can ask Cortana questions and get answers. For general questions, such as "Who's the CEO of Microsoft?" or "What's the capital of Australia?" Cortana will speak the answer back to you, if she has it. Otherwise, like Google Now and Siri, you'll just get a list of search results.

For questions with more detailed answers, including "What's the weather like in London?" and "How did the San Francisco Giants do last night?" Cortana will not only speak the answer, but also show you a page with helpful information, such as a weekly forecast or stats from your favorite team's most recent game.

Instead of asking a question, you can just run a basic Bing search by typing in or speaking a few keywords (think "chocolate chip cookie recipes"), and you'll only get a list of search results -- Cortana won't talk to you.

You can also talk back and forth with Cortana to complete a more complex task, such as setting a reminder or creating a new calendar event. You can start by saying "new event" and Cortana will ask you questions to get all the details it needs on time, location, and description.

Beyond voice commands and search, Cortana also shows you a dashboard of information, called Notebook, it thinks you want to see, such as weather conditions and news stories. Open the app, and swipe down to see your personalized Notebook, which is broken into sections for weather, traffic, news, sports, and more. You can manually program each section in the settings menu.

The differences between Cortana, Google Now, and Siri is in the details. While all three services can set reminders, create new calendar events, and take notes, Cortana has a few extra tricks. One of them is setting a reminder for the next time you call one of your contacts. That reminder will show up on the call screen below the person's name. Cortana can also control your phone's quiet hours, when notifications and your ringer are turned off.

Microsoft (and voice actress Jen Taylor) gave Cortana a strong dose of personality, and she's far more fun to talk to than Google Now's nameless assistant. She's also more witty than Siri. By that I mean, when I asked Siri, "Do you love me?" her response was, "I don't know." Asking Cortana the same question, I got, "There's certainly a spark," and another time she said, "Y'know, I'm not really ready for love. I'm still working through serenity and apprehension." If I ask Google Now the same question, it will heartlessly just search Google.

Cortana gives you a dashboard of information it thinks you want, including weather reports and top headlines. Josh Miller/CNET

So far, my biggest gripe about Cortana is the design. When you open it, there's a large circle in the middle of the screen that looks like where you would tap to start talking. Instead, you tap the tiny microphone in the corner, which is hard to press without looking at your phone. You also cannot start voice search with a verbal command, like you can with Google Now, which means Cortana is not completely hands-free. You can, however, just hold down the search hot key on your phone to launch voice search, which is helpful.

Cortana is still in beta, that means some features don't yet work as advertised and there are a few bugs. For instance, there are some issues with setting reminders, as Cortana sent me into a loop of asking what I wanted to be reminded and where over and over. Microsoft says Cortana will continue to learn how humans talk and interact with her, so that the natural language processing gets smarter and you have an easier time using the feature. Keeping in mind that Cortana is still being developed, I think the feature works remarkably well.

Aesthetic enhancements

Just glancing at the Start screen, you'll see a difference in 8.1. There's now an extra column of Live Tiles, so you can fit more of them on the screen, not matter your screen size. In previous versions of the OS, you only got that extra column if you had a large phone with a 6-inch and bigger screen.

To accomplish this, the live tiles have shrunk down to fit, but the size will vary slightly based on your phone's screen size. You can now have three large size tiles side by side, one wide tile and one large tile side by side, or six small tiles in one row. Compared to Windows Phone 8, the Start screen now looks more modern, with less wasted space.

Taking some inspiration from Android and iOS, you can also now set a wallpaper on your Start screen to add some personality your phone. Just like before, there's still a white or black space between the tiles (depending on the theme you choose), but instead of a solid color background on each tile, you'll see a piece of the larger wallpaper image. You can pick from several stock images from Microsoft or choose your own photos.

The Start screen now has an extra row of live tiles for every-sized phone, and you can set a custom wallpaper (right). Screenshot by Sarah Mitroff/CNET

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.

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