5 Features in Windows Phone 8.1 We're Excited For

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This time last year, the first batch of Windows Phone 8 handsets were making their way into the hands of eager consumers around the world. Since then, however, Microsoft has been slow to update the platform, leaving most tweaking to its OEM partners—Nokia, in particular.

Windows Phone 8.1 will be the first major update to the platform since it’s release and recent leaks point to a lot of things to be excited for. Microsoft says 8.1’s development is on schedule at this time and leaked reports point to the update hitting devices in April, so here are the things you should be looking forward to for Windows Phones in the immediate future as well as signs of better things to come down the road.

1. Action Center

Windows Phone fans and critics alike have been calling for a traditional notification centre since the platform’s redesign in Windows Phone 7. While live tiles can convey a decent amount of information at a glance, it’s not sufficient for the mobile junky with multiple apps to eye over the course of the day. I use Windows Phone 8 regularly and find it difficult to keep track of what calendar reminders have come up, what mentions I’ve gotten on Twitter, and what kinds of tags I’m getting on Tumblr if I’ve been away from my phone for a while.

For now named the “Action Center,” Windows Phone 8.1’s notification will keep track of everything going on in individual apps in greater detail than we’ve seen with live tiles. Not only will this keep current users more aware of what’s going on with their world, but it should easy the transition to the platform for converts from iOS and Android. It’s worth noting that the Facebook account settings tab is absent from current leaked versions of Windows Phone 8.1, so Microsoft may be shuttering some of the established notification aggregates—such as the People hub—that have been built into Windows Phone until this point.

2. Cortana

Windows Phone has not really had a competitor to Siri and Google Now. While TellMe has been built into the platform for some time, it is not the conversational virtual assistant that iOS and Android offer. With Windows Phone 8.1, Microsoft plans to fix that by introducing an assistant of its own named Cortana.

Video game fans should recognise the name from Microsoft’s best selling franchise Halo. In the game, Cortana was an AI who accompanied and assisted the main character wherever he went, so the name is somewhat representative of the goal. We don’t know much about Cortana at this point, other than Microsoft will be leveraging data from Foursquare to make location tracking and other predictions based on user patterns. As exciting as all of this is, users should probably temper their expectations since all assistants to this point have taken a few revisions to become truly useful.

3. Merging RT With Windows Phone

Windows RT is Microsoft’s flagship platform compiled for ARM based devices an it has not gained much traction in the consumer space outside of Microsoft’s Surface tablets. The best solution espoused by critics of the platform has been to merge it with Windows Phone to compact Microsoft’s branding and thus make them more accessible to the less technically savvy and easier for the technology press to cover.

The beginnings of this merger are present in Windows Phone 8.1, from Microsoft’s repackaging apps in the .appx standard that it uses for Windows 8 applications to the support for “universal apps” built from the same HTML or JavaScript that will be accessible on both Windows Phone and in the Windows Store. The closer Microsoft comes to merging these similar platforms, the better, because it will result in a greater diversity of apps and possibly devices for consumers to get their hands on in the future.

4. More Flexible Storage Options

Although only Samsung’s additions to the platforms have had the requisite removable backs to support expanded storage, Microsoft may be looking to expand support for the feature with its next update. Windows Phone 8.1 has a settings tab for managing storage called “Storage Sense” that seems to let users decide where certain types of content will go once created on the phone. This would make using SD cards and perhaps cloud options such as OneDrive less of a headache for the user. Being able to store apps to SD cards or have pictures automatically upload to the cloud instead of taking up space on one’s hard drive could be a convenient way to extend the life of a device without having to make difficult decisions about how many pictures of your cats you really need.

5. Customizable On-Screen Buttons

With KitKat, Android has made on-screen buttons less of an annoyance for users frustrated by the screen-space they make unusable. Nokia may be releasing the first Windows Phone with exclusively virtual buttons later this year, so it makes sense that Microsoft would expand options for handling such a device. In Windows Phone 8.1, it appears that users will be able to customize the look of on-screen buttons as well as swipe them away when they aren’t needed. That simple option makes those buttons less annoying when they are on screen and less intrusive since they don’t permanently hog sections of your screen. It’s a small change, but a simple one that could mean a more comfortable user experience on future devices and sets a precedent that other platforms could follow.