Windows Phone 8.1 Review: Gloriously Good Enough

Windows 8.1's recent update was a subtle but effective boost. Windows Phone's 8.1 power up follows the same cues. It's not mind-blowing, it's not world-changing, it's nothing to jump around and scream about, but it turns Windows Phone into something it's never quite been before: an OS that's totally good enough.

What Is It?

It's Live Tiles: The Mobile Operating System. The brains behind the smallest screen in Microsoft's unified computing dream. The newest version of the perpetually scrappy up-and-comer that hasn't quite up-and-come. A third pass at making Windows Phone great. Or at least perfectly adequate.

Why Does It Matter?

While Android and iOS duke it out for dominance, Windows Phone has been huffing and puffing as it trots up from the back of the pack. It's far from a lost cause, though; WP has always been refreshingly unique in its design and style, a necessary innovator in a world of mobile operating systems that feel similar, even stagnant. It's been the software brains behind some really interesting hardware. The one thing it's never been is cohesive.

Windows Phone 8.1 is Microsoft's chance to do for mobile what Windows 8.1 (and furthermore the Windows 8.1 Update) did for the desktop: to make an operating system that feels not just competent but complete. And frankly, it may not have many more goes before it gets left behind entirely.

Design

At first glance, Windows Phone 8.1 is pretty much identical to Windows Phone 8. That's great! Windows Phone's signature style has always been a strong suit. Its visual identity is and always has been way more consistent and appealing than the competition.

Giant, no-caps headings are still a terrific alternative to the tired and needlessly skeuomorphic concept of "tabs." Windows Phone's almost complete lack of borders in favor of cleverly utilized bands of negative space still makes it one of the best looking interfaces around. Live tiles are still colorful, and striking, and a somehow weirdly fun take on icons, even if an army of widget-squares maybe isn't quite as nice as having a proper notification hub.

But wait! Windows Phone 8.1 has a notification center now! And that's the perfect place to start.

Windows Phone 8.1 Review: Gloriously Good Enough

If it looks relatively familiar and unassuming that's because it is. It's very reminiscent of the notification centers you'll find on Android and iOS, especially Android. It shows you stuff that happened and also has a few (customizable) toggles. There's not much special to the design but that's its biggest strength: it just works, and in a way that you're probably familiar with.

In its own right it looks nice, though it doesn't quite fit with the Windows Phone aesthetic. It's trying, with colors that match your theme, and that same stark squares-on-black look. But it's one of the few (the only?) place where lines of plain text and colored squares mingle, and that looks a little weird. Not to mention the toggle buttons up top don't seem to adhere to live tile proportions, which can make you twitch a little when you notice it.

In addition to the notification center, Windows Phone 8.1 offers some new options for how to pretty up your lockscreen, though that will come in the form of non-native-but-still-Microsoft apps we haven't had the chance to test out yet. Their arrival date is still a big question mark, as is what exactly they'll be able to do. That said, the images we've seen so far look sliiiiiick.

Windows Phone 8.1 Review: Gloriously Good Enough

And of course there's Cortana, the new digital personal assistant (read: Siri/Google Now analog) that pops up from the search button. Cortana's design is simple and straightforward—as it should be—again borrowing smartly from competitors. Like Siri, her landing screen is spare, but like Google now, she'll offer info on the weather where you are and some top headlines from popular news sites you might be (but probably aren't) interested in when you scroll down.

When you open the app you're greeted by her wonderfully minimalist avatar, which fits perfectly into the stark, Windows Phone aesthetic. Her loading animation in particular is wonderful.

Windows Phone 8.1 Review: Gloriously Good Enough

All in all WP 8.1 one still has that Windows Phone style you know and love, but with subtle tweaks and additions that offer new users who are coming from another OS something a little more familiar. The real changes are under the surface, and finally solve WP's more systemic problems.

Using It

The flashiest feature of Windows Phone 8.1 by far is Cortana. She's futuristic, she's fancy, she's a Halo nerd's dream come true. Whatever. She's not Windows Phone 8.1's best new feature. Not by a long shot. Let's talk notification centers. Awwwwwww yeaaaaaaaaah.

Notification Center

Oh come on, you're thinking. Notification centers are boring. Yup. Windows Phone 8.1's notification center is nothing special, and that's exactly what makes it great. Whether the absence of a notification center until now was a design choice or just a symptom of time constraints, its nonexistence was glaring. It was Windows Phone's most gaping hole.

Windows Phone 8 had notifications, just no place to go look at them after they disappeared, which made you feel like you were missing something if you didn't catch every word on any given pop-up. Yeah sure you've got your constantly updated live tiles, but a mail icon with a "4" on it just isn't as convenient or informative as a drop-down list of more in-depth info. Better to have both, which Windows Phone 8.1 now does.

Moreover, the notification center just works. It's boringly but conveniently familiar, complete with customizable toggles and a link to go to the settings menu. It's a lot less original than Windows Phone's previous "look at your live tiles!" approach, but there was no need to reinvent the wheel here. Besides, it's not like your live tiles have disappeared.

But for as much as a notification center does to make Windows Phone more usable and convenient than ever before, it still has its issues. Where Android notifications will compress themselves depending on how many other notifications are around or how many notifications there are from the same app, Windows Phone 8.1 will not.

The result is that one particularly heated Twitter conversation will devour your entire notification space and shove everything else off-screen. A minor inconvenience but one you'll probably notice.

Windows Phone 8.1 Review: Gloriously Good Enough

During workdays, I found that the constant deluge of pitch emails was enough to bury most other apps with more interesting and relevant update virtually all of the time. Yes, you can clear all of an app's notifications with a swipe, but the fact that you have to is a slight but noticeable annoyance. Instead of minimizing updates from apps that are blowing up, the WP 8.1 notification center sometimes feels like it's featuring them. Yes, phone, I am aware of my 999+ emails, but it's my single Facebook notification that's interesting.

Cortana

And then there's Cortana.

Windows Phone 8.1 Review: Gloriously Good Enough

Cortana, like the notification center, addresses a basic need without breaking new ground. It, too, is basically a mash-up of other existing—and proven!—features from Android and iOS. She has a personality and likes to talk, much like Siri does, but she also tries her hand and giving you information before you need it, like Google Now.

She's not quite as prescient as Google Now is (especially if you're steeped in the Google ecosystem, using Chrome and desktop search as you likely are) but she's not bad either. When you first set up Cortana, she'll walk you through a series of questions to gauge your interest in certain topics. and while that's not quite enough info for her to suss out what kind of "entertainment" stories you're into, it's enough to keep sports scores out of your feed if that's not your bag. And when it comes to voice-controlled anything, Cortana is a serviceable analog to either Google Now or Siri. When we ran some tests we found all three to be very much on par. That's especially impressive given that Cortana hasn't had as much time to marinate as its more established competition.

That's not to say Cortana doesn't have any tricks of her own. In fact, she's got some good ones. Cortana's notebook feature offers some much needed privacy to paranoids and/or anyone else who is just a little uncomfortable uploading every single aspect of their lives to a company that likes to use that data to target ads by letting you specific what apps and what contacts Cortana is allowed to snoop on. maybe it's OK for her to read your work email, but not personal emails to your wife. She also lets you set up person-specific reminders that pop up depending on whom you're talking to. "Remind me to bring up the blood-pact next time I talk to Steve" will give you a handy notification the next time you call him or open up one of his texts.

And aside from those bonuses, Cortana works just fine if you try to use her exactly like Siri or Google Now, which for the most part you will.

Apps

The idea that the Windows Phone Store is a wasteland is definitely outdated, but there's still some truth to it. It used to be that Windows Phone's app selection was like a plain hamburger sitting on a paper plate, offering the barest necessities but not much more. Now with apps like Vine and Instagram and Pocket, Windows Phone has filled out the fries and soda and condiments, and offers a totally acceptable meal.

What's still missing though is dessert. The real zeitgiest-y fluff like Flappy Bird or Candy Crush. You don't need that, of course, but its an absence that can still make Windows Phone feel a little off-brand, especially after Android gets its delayed-but-inevitable port of whatever iOS app-de-jour.

But you can find some really amusingly heinous rip-offs of Threes.

Windows Phone 8.1 Review: Gloriously Good Enough

Everything else

If you are into Microsoft services, Windows Phone 8.1 will treat you right. Just like Windows 8, OneDrive makes sharing data from your phone to your computer or vice versa a breeze. Far easier than iCloud or Google Drive. If your Outlook account happens to be where you hoard your contacts, you'll automatically be able to share your home Wi-Fi with all your contacts. And if you like Skype, you can make Skype calls directly from Cortana. At least in theory. I couldn't quite get it to work because none of my contacts had what Cortana considered a "VOIP number" and I couldn't figure out how to add one.

Speaking of number types, Windows Phone 8.1 is maddeningly literal. One night I found myself struggling to figure out how the hell to text my girlfriend for roughly 5 minutes. Her number was listed as part of her contact information, but there was no option to send a text. Likewise typing her name into messaging app brought up no options either. I wound up typing in her number directly, like a peon.

Turns out her number was listed as a "Home" number instead of a "Mobile" number over on her Google contact info I pulled in, so Windows Phone wouldn't let me try to text it because it is theoretically a landline. I get that that is ostensibly a feature, but it brought back flashbacks of being similarly frustrated at earlier versions of Windows Phone. Also, it might be OK if you were whipping up a new contact library from scratch, but considering you're probably working with an ages-old Gmail disaster like I am, it's not great.

Elsewhere Windows Phone 8.1 doesn't quite pay enough attention to detail. Its built-in Maps app never actually steered me wrong, and worked great with voice commands through Cortana. But it STILL doesn't show the actual letters for New York City train lines if you're going by public transit. And if the directions take you to a station with more a half-dozen lines and you are in a hurry, that can be a big problem.

Like

It bears repeating that the mere presence of a notification center works wonders to make Windows Phone 8.1 a more palatable alternative to anyone who has grown up on a different mobile operating system (i.e. pretty much everyone). Just like Windows 8.1 (and its ensuing update) throws a much needed—if also very late—bone to loyal Windows 7 users who just hate change, Windows Phone 8.1 throws a bone to Android and iOS users who have rightly become accustomed to certain features. Microsoft has finally shown up to the table with the ante.

Likewise, Cortana is by no means revelatory, but she is a totally workable analogue to both Siri and Google Now, at least to the extent that you can ask her for things with your voice and she will provide.

In addition to just "getting up to speed with the competition" Windows Phone 8.1 has some fantastic small features all its own. Many offer passive benefits, or just aren't the kind of thing you would use every day, but they add up.

  • Cortana's ability to remind you to ask someone something the next time you talk to them (a feature which offers up notifications during calls and texts) is not an everyday necessity, but comes in super handy if you remember to use it.
  • Wi-Fi Sense auto-login is wonderful if you routinely login to the same public Wi-Fi networks and don't want to agree to the same inane Terms of Service each time. And Wi-Fi Sense's sharing feature—which lets you extend your home Wi-Fi to Facebook friends and Outlook contacts without sharing the password—could be great for the frequent entertainer. If a lot of your friends have Windows Phone anyway.
  • The new lockscreen apps—which unfortunately have no review builds—look great.
  • Cortana's "Quiet time" mode complete with a list of exempt "inner circle" contacts. It matches up neatly with iOS's "do not disturb" mode, and makes Android seem behind by not having an equivalent.
  • Cortana's ability to accept natural language as an analogue for more stilted commands can be amazing; "do I need a coat today" as a substitute for "show me the weather" comes off as a little gimmicky, but being able to say "yeah, whatever, close enough" instead of "yes" when she asks you to confirm a reminder with strange words that she didn't hear quite right is strangely wonderful.

All in all, Windows Phone 8.1 is just so much more welcoming than any iteration before it. Because our 8.1 review phone took a Verizon nano SIM and I rock a T-Mobile micro SIM, I had to keep both phones in reach just to stay in touch. And when both chirped from the same notification, I found myself reaching for the Windows Phone not because ugh I guess I should use the review phone, but because I actually wanted to use it.

I've never felt that way about a Windows Phone before.

No Like

Windows 8.1 still has a lot of little fit and finish issues. Between the notification center's tendency to get flooded and 8.1's madding adherence to classifying different phone numbers by type, there are plenty of areas of improvement for Windows Phone still, even if now they're more along the lines of "fix this pet peeve of mine" instead of "add this feature everyone else has had for years."

8.1 has brought Windows Phone to the point where switching to it from Android or iOS is more a lateral move than a step down. Typically mere adequacy isn't much to celebrate, but Windows Phone got off the starting line so long after the race already started that catching up is a serious accomplishment.

Still, in and of itself, Windows Phone 8.1 doesn't offer much that would make you want to switch. Fine is great, but when you're spending your hard-earned money on a phone you shouldn't grade on a curve.

Should You Buy It

There's not much in Windows 8.1 to make it appealing over other options, and if you're a true fanboy on either side of the iOS/Android divide, Windows Phone 8.1 offers little reason to switch.

But! If you are OS-curious and Windows Phone hardware calls to you—specifically the 1020's camera magic—8.1 finally makes that a fling worth having. The inclusion of a notification center and voice assistant finally makes the entire operating system feel natural and full in a way it never did before. The update to 8.1 makes Windows Phone not only average, but inclusive to people who "grew up" with other operating systems in a way that's really promising for the future of Windows Phone, and the future of the mobile OS power-balance on the whole.