Windows Phone 8.1 finally catches up with its rivals

At this point in smartphone development, a good interface, intuitive navigation, useful notifications, a good keyboard, speed and attractive design are table stakes for a mobile operating system.

Windows Phone 8.1 is a very good mobile operating system.

Now what?
Good or not good, most people have already chosen something else — either an iPhone or some variety of Android smartphone. Neither platform is perfect, but they are familiar. How do you persuade people to get out of the comfortable bed they've already made and move to another one?

I spent the last week or so with the recently released Windows Phone 8.1, and let me put it this way: I wouldn't give up my iPhone for Windows Phone, but I might give up my Android.

Windows Phone is now — to use what may sound like faint praise — good enough. It's good enough to replace Android, especially since the operating system is a lot more upfront about how it's going to use my information, where and when it's gathering it, and why.

It's good enough to tempt people who are tired of the same old thing (an oddly rebellious position for Microsoft), and also those who have Windows PCs, Office at work, Xboxes at home and little investment in iTunes or Google Play apps and music. That is to say, it's good enough for quite a lot of people.

At this point in smartphone development, a good interface, intuitive navigation, useful notifications, a good keyboard, speed and attractive design are table stakes for a mobile operating system. Microsoft mostly delivers here. 

The phone's animations slow down the interface more than I'd like, but the customisable layout, searchable app list, excellent keyboard swipe and auto-complete, and full-featured notification list meet the bill. I tried the new version of the operating system on the Nokia Lumia Icon, which is nicely designed and shows off the software well.

Fans of personalising their phones will love Windows Phone. You can add or remove home screen tiles to suit your own style (three rows across mixing big and small or one simple list, for example), and change colours, background images and styles for days. The animated live tiles are, as they have always been, appealing if not overly useful.

The interface takes getting used to if you're coming from Android or iOS, but both operating systems also have plenty of features that would be stupendously unintuitive to new users.

The big headline on Windows Phone is the "personal assistant" called Cortana. (If you're a "Halo" fan like me, you're delighted by the name, which refers to the artificial intelligence that guides the games' hero; if you're not, don't worry about it.) 

Cortana combines simple voice- or text-controlled instructions like search, web search, weather information, traffic and navigation requests with contextual and predictive features like Google Now.

It's not quite as personal as similar services like Apple's Siri and not quite as predictive as Google Now, but the combination has a lot of promise. 

It helps to fill in what's called "Cortana's Notebook." In other words, settings. Here, you establish home and work addresses, key contacts, favorite sports teams, flight itinerary monitoring (accomplished by scanning your email for new itineraries) and other preferences.

Then, when you ask, "How's the traffic on the way home?" Cortana responds specifically with things like: "Traffic is crawling. It'll take you about 45 minutes to get home." Thanks, Cortana. Google Now will navigate to a specific address called home or work and show traffic information without comment, while Siri will respond with, "Here's the traffic around Molly Wood, home" and then show the distance. Point to Cortana.

Google Now, Siri
And the assistant has neat person- and place-based capabilities, like setting a reminder that will go off when you get to a particular location or when a certain person contacts you. Google Now and Siri can do location-based reminders, but neither can serve up a reminder when someone calls or texts you.

But there are some misses. Microsoft suggested asking about "a good Thai restaurant" near a certain location. Cortana gave me a long list of highly rated restaurants but didn't sort by location or rating, while Siri sorts by rating and says so.

Cortana is still in beta, so I expect improvements with updates and further use. Siri is still smoother, but let's face it; she's a little older and has more experience. Cortana could yet catch up.

Apps have long been Windows Phone's Achilles' heel, but the situation wasn't as bad as I expected.

If you plan to use more than the standard complement of apps like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Yelp and the like, you have to be willing to put in some work to find alternatives, weed out bad fakes and occasionally just do without. 

But the apps I use the most, like Facebook, Twitter, Spotify and Instagram, I found on Windows Phone, and I even found a few happy surprises like my parking app, ParkMobile. 

In several cases, however, these apps simply aren't as good as their counterparts on iOS or Android. This is the fault of the publishers, not Windows Phone, but it's frustrating nonetheless. 

Spotify, for example, can't create radio stations on the Windows Phone app. Netflix can't switch between profiles in the app. There is a Flickr app, but Yahoo isn't updating it.

Some apps are just plain missing, like the app from the brokerage firm Schwab, Expedia's travel booking app and a few more arcane apps I like to use. The biggest and most unforgivable app omission was "Candy Crush."

There are third-party replacements for many apps, like Dropbox, Starbucks card payments, TiVo remote scheduling and even the Dark Sky weather app that I adore on iOS. But you must decide if you trust them with login credentials, and you should read reviews carefully.

Obviously, Windows Phone 8.1 has many more features than I can touch in this limited space, including Microsoft's 7 free gigabytes of OneDrive storage, Skype integration with the phone dialer, better calendars, better music, video and podcast apps and so on.

My major criticism of the platform is that, as with so many things Microsoft, it tries to do too much. I'll probably never customize my Windows Phone as much as I could, and I'll probably never fill in all the things that would make Cortana a truly personal personal assistant.

But that's fine. I can successfully and contentedly use the phone the way I use any other phone in my life, with some, but not too many, compromises. That's already a victory for Microsoft; the next step is up to it.


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Reader Comments

Windows phone is superior to android in many ways. Windows phone is secure, stable and great performance.

Thats a very fair analasys. Ive used Windows Phone since Lumia 920. Ive watched it grow so fast in a year and a half at a scary fast pace... My main annoyance is that Facebook (THE BIGGEST APP OF THEM ALL!!) Is actually a Microsoft App.. Its not a Facebook App. Its very slow and I use the mobile site 90% of the time. And tbh, all the great advertising remains on Youtube. The adverts that make TV are boring and mediocre. Its quite damaging really! If they want a cool factor and to make a noise in the Mobile world they got to acknowledge presentation is everything.

hahaha, I see through this guy... Apple lover attempting an indirect blow to Android, lame.