THE BLOG
10/28/2014 01:09 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Windows Phone 8.1 -- It's Not Just for Insulting Anymore

Hi, my name is Robert, and I have a Windows Phone.

Actually, rather than feel like I should be a member of Cell Phones Anonymous, I quite like the phone, a Nokia Lumia 928. It has flaws, but I think most phone operating systems have flaws. The most obvious in this case is that it lags iOS and Android in apps. ("Lag" being the polite term.) But there are still 300,000, and most of the major ones -- and my experience is that most people may have downloaded several dozens of apps, but have about six apps they especially love and use the bulk of the time. The thing is, too, with Windows Phones you can pin a website to your home screen, which in essence creates an otherwise missing app. (For instance, there's no app for the Dropbox cloud service, so instead I went to Dropbox.com and simply pinned the site to my home screen -- an instant Dropbox app was created. It's not remotely as elegant as an app created specifically for the phone, but a good, working substitute.)

What I mainly like about the Windows phone though has nothing to do with the things that interest most people -- like apps, email, text messaging, games and taking selfies. (And of course, er, making phone calls.) For me, what important is how wonderfully the Windows Phone platform integrates with my desktop Windows 8.1, and so I largely have access to all my important documents in perfect sync with my home computer -- Word files, OneNote notebooks, Office files, photos, Outlook email and such. It's like having my home computer in my pocket.

There are definitely some limitations, which basically occur from dealing with the first version of a new operating system. But this isn't about the Windows Phone 8 operating system. Instead, it gets us to the point here.

Microsoft announced an update to the O.S. a few months back, version 8.1. I've been waiting for Verizon to make it available -- and have waited and waited and...

My techno whiz friend Ed Bott, who writes a quite-remarkable column for ZDNet, began pushing me to download the "Developer's Preview" of the update, which is available to anyone for free. I was wary of installing what's a "beta" version of an operating system, but Ed insisted it was absolutely stable and almost identical to the final version. And so he kept pushing and pushing. And when Ed Bott says "this is stable and almost identical," you listen -- he's written about 25 books with Microsoft on how to use their software. So...he really, seriously knows his stuff.

And so I installed the update.

And it's wonderful. It took a very nice, solid, first version of an operating system, and made it a mature O.S. that holds its own now with the competition. Definitely not as good in many areas, just as good in most, and actually better in some. (I say this from my personal experience, but also reviews I've read that can do better "dig deep under the hood" comparisons than I'm able -- though I've tested all operating systems and have a tablet with Android, and even an iPod touch with iOS, so I can make fair comparisons.)

I want to be clear: none of this is to convince anyone to switch phone operating systems, or praise it above all others. I understand fully the impressive strengths of iOS and Android (and the weaknesses that exist). It's not even intended as a substantive look at the Windows Phone operating system. (For instance, I haven't even written about such existing features in the original O.S. as "Live Tiles," Microsoft's name for apps that provide active, constantly-changing information displayed directly on an icon, like news headlines, sports scores, temperature, and calendar appointments.) It's just meant to explain what the new update has for those who do use a Windows Phone - yet also present a more informative description of the operating system for others who've only heard it dismissed as so sparse it's not worthy of consideration, and in distant third place.

Windows Phone still, clearly, lags in the market. And its viability to overcome that remains to be seen. (Though it's actually quite popular in Europe.) But most especially with this new 8.1 update, anyone who thinks that Windows Phones are meager, paltry efforts...well, they aren't looking. Again, this is now a mature mobile operating system that competes seriously on a level playing field, even if it stands behind.

(And while it does stand behind more long-developed operating systems, if your interests are to use a phone for substantive matters beyond games, videos, texting, social media, and music, like as an adjunct for work, it arguably might even be a few steps ahead.)

Some of the improvements just bring Windows Phones up to what other devices have had for years -- but though that's nothing special, it eliminates the previously-existing gaps in those areas. And some of the improvements really are extremely nice and leaps forward. Nothing jumps out as a "killer app" phenomenon -- but nothing has to. A lot of little advances is plenty enough, bringing it up into the game.

For me personally, the two most usable features in the update are the Action Center and folders. And it was important that they be finally added. Both of these have existed in iOS and Android for a while, but they were critical lapses in Windows Phone. It's now great to be able -- finally -- to have a convenient drop-down list of mail and text notifications, and some Quick Links to launch regularly-used apps. And I've been yammering since Day One to have folders where you can put similar-themed apps in one location. Old news to other devices, absolutely, but oh-so welcome here at last.

The Windows Phone now has its version of a voice assistant, which is called Cortana, and though in beta it's gotten impressive reviews, some raves even. Among other things, you can set a reminder tied to a location. I tested the feature telling it, "Get milk when I'm at the grocery store," and it asked which store and brought up a list of nearby locations. The next day, I went on my morning walk, and when I got within 20 feet of the market I'd chosen, the milk reminder popped up. Cortana can also link a reminder to a person. Tell it, "The next time I talk to Chris, remind me to ask him about trains," and a reminder will pop up when either of you next call or text the other. If you have more than one "Chris" in your contacts, a list will open asking which one you mean. Also, Cortana has a Notebook area where you can set your interests, which allows it to provide better newsfeeds or other information applicable to you, include "Quiet Hours" when your phone won't ring and interrupt with texts -- but it can still be set so that your selected Inner Circle can get through, or let through a person if they call back a specific number of times within a few minutes, which suggests an emergency.

Also very useful is that the phone's Internet Explorer browser is now linked and synced with a user's Microsoft Account. That means all your Favorite Bookmarks from your desktop IE browser are available on your phone -- and further, any open tabs you were working on with your desktop browser will be open on your phone's browser, as well.

The keyboard now has a very impressive "swiping" capability, which they call Word Flow. You no longer have to peck away at single letters, but just swipe your finger across the keyboard. It does an amazing job at understanding what I'm typing, even if I've just touched the edges of letters, or even missed some on occasion. And it recognizes double letters -- you just swipe "conect" for "connect" and it gets it right. And when it's been wrong, other word options appear on a scroll bar for you to select the correct one. My typing has drastically speeded up.

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The Calendar, which I do use a lot, has significantly changed, and it seems extremely good. In fact, several reviews I've read have called it the most full-featured calendar among the different OS's. Information is more easily accessible and color-coded, so details pop out. (It even adds the upcoming temperature for the days of the coming two weeks - quite unimportant, but a nice usability touch, especially if you're going out of town.) Oddly, it seems hard-coded to have the week start on Monday. Having one's weekend bunched together is nice, but some people might want the option of starting the week on Sunday. I suspect that will be editable at some point, but not now.

If one uses Skype (which I almost never do, though it's more appealing now), it's extremely well-integrated in the update, something one should expect since Microsoft owns Skype -- and you can now switch from a regular voice call to a Skype video call by just hitting one or two buttons. Facetime is definitely easier and smoother, but it requires that the other person have Facetime. Skype is much more ubiquitous across all platforms.

There are a lot of other usability features, but (long as this is...) it isn't intended as a review, and the features would only really be of interest to people who use a Windows Phone. (Like being able to create a third column of Live Tiles, particularly good for large screen phones.)

And to be clear, as I said, this is not intended to say that Windows Phone is the Best Operating System of All. It isn't. It's likely still in third place. (It's still the new kid on the block, after all.) But the point is that with the 8.1 update, it's now an O.S. that lives very comfortably on the major league playing field.

Yet still, for me, what I most like about the update isn't the features at all especially, but rather how -- with this phone update and regular Windows 8.1 update -- my phone and home computer (and even a Windows tablet) are now all intricately intertwined, with (in many ways) almost the same operating system. And ultimately (and this is important), that's Microsoft's intention. In fact, the company is expected to begin testing a combined Windows Phone/Windows RT operating system in January, which seems the first step for basically one version of Windows on all its devices. There are rumors that, at some point soon, the company may actually drop the name Windows Phone from the operating system and just call it...Windows. (Yes, Windows Phones have rumors, too!!) For all the hits Windows 8 for PCs took initially from its change of focus, as users get more used to it (as has increasingly been the case when the hugely-improved Windows 8.1 was released), the intent to merge all these into the same, single operating system is becoming more clear.

And for me, that trumps the features -- to be able to use my phone not as an appendage or separate accessory, but as an intricately-linked extension of my home computer. Form follows function. The features will eventually follow, and to a great degree, already have.

Now, if someone can just get Verizon to make Windows 8.1 available for its customers already, you might find that this would be A Really Good Thing...

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To read more from Robert J. Elisberg about this or many other matters both large and tidbit small, see Elisberg Industries.