Windows Phone 8.1 review: Smarter, better and more personal

As I watched Microsoft’s Joe Belfiore use Windows Phone 8.1 on stage earlier this month, I kept thinking that in many ways, Microsoft(s msft) has finally caught up to its competitors in the smartphone software business. After using Windows Phone 8.1 for the past week, the possibility that Belfiore showed off has become reality: Windows Phone 8.1 is a superb update to Microsoft’s smartphone operating system.

Cortana is my new best friend

Arguably the biggest new feature is Cortana, a personal digital assistant of sorts. I’m a heavy user of the similar Google Now feature on Android(s goog) phones, and I’ve been relying on Cortana to provide me with information just as often as I do with Google Now. The good news is that in some ways, Cortana is even better. The so-so news is that sometimes, her performance is just that: so-so. Cortana is still a beta service, however, and I’ve given Google a pass before on beta services; it’s only fair to give Microsoft one too.

Cortana scores

In general, Cortana works as advertised. Simply tap a button and ask a question or state a command out loud. Cortana’s voice recognition worked quite well in my testing, only garbling a word or two here occasionally. She uses Bing for searches and when she can, Cortana will speak back answers to your question. When she can’t, expect Bing results on screen.

What I like here is how Microsoft has blended the best of Google Now and Apple’s(s aapl) Siri software. Google Now surfaces contextual information, but has no personality. Siri has plenty of personality but is feature-limited and not really open to a wide range of third-party apps or services. Cortana acts as a contextually aware assistant that does have some personality — a mix that is what you’d expect from a modern digital assistant these days.

Cortana thinks about Siri

I also appreciate the approach Microsoft has taken with personal data. Cortana keeps a notebook of your interests and data so you know what the software is considering when answering your queries and commands. You can personalize that notebook by adding or removing information. And it’s up to you if you want Cortana to scan your email to add more information to your local notebook. You manage your own information instead of giving carte blanche to scour emails at the server level, which is Google’s approach. I think many consumers and enterprises will appreciate this and give Cortana a try because of it.

Cortana interests

One thing I don’t like is how many button presses it can take to get Cortana to work. Admittedly, I’m spoiled by the always listening functions found in certain Android phones: I can simply say “OK Google Now,” for example, and get information without even touching the phone. Cortana is an app — one that I placed on my Start screen at first — so with that setup I have to tap the app and then tap the microphone button before speaking. There’s a simpler way to wake and use Cortana though: tap and hold the dedicated Search button to “wake” her and immediately speak your command.

Visual updates and an easier way to get around

Microsoft has long said that Windows Phone is the most personal handset software and that theme continues with version 8.1. Although I never minded the basic home or Start screen colors, you can now personalize them with your own photos. Yes, it’s one of those little things that competing phones have long been able to do, but many people will appreciate it.

The new Action Center is a simple way to view or change important phone settings. This is just like Android’s notification shade and Command Center in iOS, which followed. It doesn’t really matter which company had the idea first, though: It’s super helpful. Just swipe down from the top of the display on any screen and you’ll have one-touch access to Airplane Mode, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and screen rotation lock by default; you can pick which quick actions appear.

Action Center

If you want to see all of your phone’s settings, there’s an button option for that as well in the Action Center. This is also where your notifications reside — a welcome improvement, though it’s still a little lacking. You can interact with notifications on other platforms. In Windows Phone 8.1, you can only tap them to open the corresponding app, which is still an extra step.

After using the Action Center — and Cortana, for that matter — I’ve found that these functions help offset some the challenges of Windows Phone app navigation. It’s faster to search, set a reminder or check local weather with Cortana. It’s quicker to use the Action Center than to find the Settings tile on your phone or hold the Back key down to see open apps and find Settings. Microsoft is bringing more efficiency to navigating Windows Phone without modifying the multitasking approach it already had in place.

Odds and ends and the big app question

While this is a “point” update, meaning Windows Phone 8.1 should only incrementally improve upon Windows Phone 8.0, there are tons of small goodies in here. The new Word Flow keyboard lets you quickly swipe through letters to type words. I was already enamored of the stock keyboard — I find it’s among the best available — but Word Flow makes it even better. WiFi Sense can log you in to public hotspots with ease or be used with private networks to share Wi-Fi with friends in a controlled manner. Battery Sense shows which apps are slurping power. VPN support has been added, although I didn’t test that particular function. Traditional voice calls can be turned into Skype video calls with a button press. Internet Explorer 11 has a great new Reading Mode to show pure content. And the list goes on.

IE 11 reading mode

Make no mistake: All of these are welcome features. And in many ways Microsoft has brought Windows Phone 8.1 on par with competing mobile platforms. In some very specific ways, it may even exceed them. So Windows Phone 8.1 will bring worldwide domination for Microsoft in the smartphone market, right?

Not so fast. For all of the super new and feature-rich improvements found here, there’s still the question of developer support and third-party applications. Let’s face it: The basic features of a phone are “table stakes” in this game and beyond that are the apps that people want to use.

I think the future here is a bit brighter than it was, mainly because of Microsoft’s Universal Windows Apps strategy that Windows Phone 8.1 supports. Essentially, Microsoft has made it easier for programmers to make an app that works on phones, tablets and computers powered by Windows. That brings huge potential for more great apps on Windows Phone devices but for now, it’s simply that: potential.

Windows consistency
Photo by Kevin Tofel/Gigaom

It’s going to take time for developers to take advantage of the new universal app approach. Until then, I think people will be very impressed by what Microsoft has brought to the table with Windows Phone 8.1. There’s much to like here and after a few years of trying to close the gap with its competitors, Microsoft has done just that in a considerable way with the new software.