The process of installing the developer preview involves registering with Microsoft as a developer, downloading the Windows Phone SDK to a PC, performing a developer unlock of the phone, installing an app on the now-unlocked phone, and them simply choosing to run an over-the-air update on the phone.
There are some risks involved – the developer preview is, after all, a beta product, installing it may void any warranty you have, and once the update is installed it’s not possible to roll back to the previous version of the OS – and the update does not contain any device-specific updates provided by the handset manufacturer that are typically included with the MS update once the update is officially released by your mobile carrier. In the case of the manufacturer of mine phone – Nokia – those device-specific updates are often rather substantial, with bug fixes and new features.
While there were definite shortcomings, overall I was pleased with the experience, finding the user interface to be rather compelling, with more visual appeal – to me – than the iOS and Android options. The dynamic Live Tiles, which bounced around on the Start screen, frequently changing to give at-a-glance updates on the people and things I was interested in struck me as much more useful than the comparatively static icons found elsewhere, and, again, I though the flat “modern” design of what was then known as the Metro design language, seemed much more fresh and appealing than the dated glossy icon look.
The “app gap” wasn’t – and still isn’t – really an issue for me, particularly given the “hub” approach that MS took, which allowed me to centrally manage multiple accounts and services. For example, the “Me” tile, which contained information about me, allowed me to post a status update to Facebook and see any and all notifications from connected services, while the “People” hub created detailed contact cards for collating all of my contacts’ information from various services into one spot, allowing me to easily follow their social media activity, and even keep track of my recent interactions with them.
However, with WP 8.1, that option is now available on Windows Phone, and I have to say that the implementation is rather clever.
Essentially, if a background image is a selected, the non-text areas of the Live Tiles – assuming that the app developer allows for it - become transparent, revealing the image behind them, but also maintaining the background color in the gutters between tiles, which makes the background image look rather like a jigsaw puzzle, albeit one with very simple rectangular shapes. It’s a nice look in and of itself, but MS went even further and created a parallax effect, whereby the background image scrolls at a much different rate than the tiles above it. The tiles, as they scroll, reveal a different part of the image.
It just plain looks cool.
|The Start screen with a background image.|
|The parallax effect; note how the background image hasn't |
moved as much as the tiles have. Also? Run Pee is one of
the greatest, most useful apps ever.
There have been a lot of apps put out by various developers to replace the default Calendar app, which since WP7 has had only minimal options. With 8.1, the Calendar is much improved, adding a Week view, which was one of the most requested features. Beyond simply listing your appointments for each day of the week, the Calendar also displays weather information for your current location, which is a nice touch.
As far as I’ve read and seen, there haven’t been any changes made to the Office apps.
Additionally, you can pin individual sites to your Start screen, and, presumably through looking at RSS data (or through some other mechanism), that pinned site will become a pseudo-Live Tile, changing to show updated information from the site. For example, if you were to pin Threshold to the Start screen, it might (I haven’t tried, so I don’t know) alternate between showing the titles of the most recent posts.
This function has always been a component of the Live Tiles – as well as the Lock Screen – but this system wasn’t fully centralized, nor did it always provide a lot of detail.
With 8.1, Windows Phone introduces its own virtual personal assistant in the form of Cortana.
Beyond the gimmicky aspects, however, Cortana serves many useful purposes, with several unique – so far as I know – tricks of her own when compared to the other virtual personal assistants available.
Instead, I’ll just focus on my own experiences with her and say that I have, in fact, found her to be helpful, and have been amazed at how well she responds to natural language queries and commands.
So far, I think that 8.1 is a substantial improvement to a platform that I was already well-pleased with, despite its shortcomings, many of which have been addressed with this update. I definitely look forward to getting the final, fully-baked, Nokia-specific update, probably sometime late this summer or early in the fall, but in the meantime, the developer preview has been a worthwhile update.