Windows Phone 8.1 Review Part II: The Beauty of a different simplicity.

Post Windows PhoneApocalypse

The year is 2012. The zombies, who have up to this point fed off the last remaining strips of data which was left of Windows Mobile began to recede, transforming into iOS and Android creatures. Windows Phone 7 never became popular enough to satisfy their hunger, for it lacked basic and essential functions. Microsoft scrapped the last flesh of Windows Mobile's underlying identity to re-design Windows Phone 8, and no Windows Phone 7 device was compatible with this new system. Existing Windows Phone 7 apps could run on it, though some which accessed low-level functions had issues.

The beauty of having less customers is that such transitions are not impossible to fulfill with only minimal losses. Since very few were using the platform to begin with, rebuilding from scratch would be a true test of those who are loyal people, as well as allowing for the audience to expand and move the interface towards simpler directions. Many were upset to hear that their Windows Phone 7 devices could never run V8.0 of the OS. The noise these groups made were small enough for Microsoft to only have to release a minor "7.8" update for them, rather than backtrack on their statements. Could you imagine what would happen if Apple were to release an iPhone and not allow updates one or two years later? Perhaps this will place into perspective the small scope of Windows Phone users out in the world – surely Apple's 10-15% market share would make much more noise. Thanks to Windows Phone 8.1's appeal, this is changing to allow Microsoft to hang on as a distant #3 mobile operating system, rather than keeping them on a constant slide. In the past year though, sales of Windows Phones have remained quite flat, so there still is a lot of extra marketing to do.

The design: Be Different

Windows Phone, even in the early days of its revival, always stood out for a personality-centric approach to the entire OS. This brought us the start screen, which displays live tiles that flash with information that relate to your daily life. So called hubs would collect information from multiple sources – the people hub or app can use Facebook friends, Skype contacts, and other related apps to flash their name and information. Apps can connect into these hubs to keep information in one place. When I go to a contact card for someone who is both on Facebook and in my contact list on the phone, I can automatically see their last Facebook status alongside their contact data.

The purchase of Skype, which Microsoft finalized in late 2012, is also very deeply ingrained within the entire operating system. Video calling a person over Skype within the phone app during a call is not impossible, and there is seamless ways in contact cards to chat with someone over Skype. (Curiously, this type of integration is still not present inside the Messaging app. Is it next?)

Other personalization options exist with the system tailoring device settings to your own daily life, sometimes with a little help from you. There are two senses in Windows Phone, Data Sense and Storage Sense, along with two corners – Kids Corner and Apps Corner. You can also set up a driving mode that will limit the phone's functionality when it detects a high-moving vehicle, allowing you to perform more operations hands-free. Data Sense will allow you to share Wi-Fi network information to your contacts who might be nearby, as well as connecting to public hotspots which are free automatically for you. It will also restrict background data on a per-app flow. In short, it allows you to take charge of your data plan on a usage, case-by-case basis. Similarly, Storage Sense gives fine-grained control of not only installed apps, but also other data categories. As a writer who has used all three platforms in the mainstream (Android, iOS, and Windows Phone now), I must say that the most personalization I see only here. Google Now arguably tries to understand your own habits and patterns, however Cortana can also do similar actions.

The setup and Out-of-box experience

Let's dive in, now that I provided a brief outlining overview of a Windows Phone. The Nokia Lumia 635 is one of the cheapest models available at the present time. While there is a 520 which is a lot older and not all carriers have pushed out the 8.1 update just yet. (O2 in the UK has the update, T-mobile in the US does not.) Although you can easily enroll your phone in the developer program (more on this later), it is a challenge if you have a disability at the present time, especially if you can't even access a screen reader in Windows Phone 8. I cannot give you specific advice as to which phones currently ship with 8.1 or indeed have updated software. I know for sure that the 630/635, the 930, and the new HTC 1 M8 with Windows phone will come with 8.1 out of the box. Out of even these three, there is a big gap – the 635 is around $130, 930 $500, and M8 $6-700. Although the 635 is decent, it still only has 512 megabytes of ram, out of which only about 100 are usable upon boot. Both the 930 and M8 at least come with 2 GB, allowing faster phone access. The performance "lag" is not at all noticeable, only when doing intensive tasks such as heavy web browsing, especially on desktop sites. The 635 also does not include a compass, light sensor (so you have to manually adjust your screen brightness), and it lacks a gyroscope which heavy gamers might need. </P>

Nokia – No Prejudice

One interesting aspect to note with Lumia devices is that the back covers are interchangeable in a peculiar way. Instead of the entire back cover popping out, the side of the phone also gets removed. This means that if you are replacing the back or inserting a sim, you need to pop off from the edge (side) of the screen rather than the back. This is a bit tricky, requiring a bit of coordination with where the "seems" of the screen and shell line up. I recommend that you begin by placing the inside of your finger (not the nail) on the top left corner by the headphone jack, and attempting to separate the edge by pealing the back away from the front of the phone. This is with the Nokia 635 at least, so keep in mind that the 930 might differ. The SIM and SD slots are located to the left of the battery on the inner wall of the phone – the sim card slot has a small notch above it to make removal of an already inserted card easier.

Setting up: Easy as one, two, Bing

Windows Phone's setup process is quite straight forward. If you have low vision or are completely blind, you can press the volume up key and hit the windows logo button located at the bottom of the screen, which will turn on Narrator out of the box. Low vision users can then set up the phone and disable narrator and enable zoom if needed. I still think the ease of access settings should be accessible during setup, however narrator is the only toggleable choice for now. Finding the Windows key is super easy – from left to right, the keys are arranged as search, Windows, back. Holding down volume up and tapping near the bottom center of the phone will enable the screen reader.

The screens here are similar to setting up a Windows 8 computer, down to the option of choosing express or custom settings. (Express will enable feedback, location, automatic app and OS updates, and will only ask you to sign in to your Microsoft account.)

Microsoft does offer a more comprehensive back-up solution when compared to Android, but a bit less compared to iOS. It will back up texts, app data, and app downloads for you automatically. Whether this uses One Drive storage remains to be seen, but backups are not individually manageable by the user, and your ability to customize which apps get backed up is more limited. There is a "Find My Phone" option, and the nice aspect to it is an option which will send your phone's current location if the battery is getting to low. Before it shuts off completely, that last "distress call" will at least alert you online to the location of your phone.

The final stage of setup is a Nokia license agreement, at least on the Nokia-based devices. Narrator users should take note: This screen is very inaccessible, only showing a "window" with no content inside. For now, the workaround is to simply hold down the power key until the phone reboots itself, after which you should be placed on the start screen.

A note to blind users

Let me get this out of the way first, before we begin looking at apps and the general system. There are certain limitations and bugs which exist when using Narrator in its current stage of beta status. Here are the ones I know of so far.

  • No access to action center. This means that you cannot view a pull-down of your notifications. You can turn off narrator and pull the action center down, however none of the notifications are labeled and clearing them is impossible.
  • No double tap and hold gesture. This is a huge problem because right now, you cannot move apps around on the quick launch screen (more on this below), or pass a command through to your application. Having this would save Narrator from having to be turned off each time an inaccessible control is on screen.
  • No control of Narrator volume over ring-tone volume. If you want to place your phone on vibrate, you have to mute Narrator and speech entirely, as it is tied to the ringer volume. When playing music, controlling the music's volume independent of Narrator is possible though, which is nice.
  • When scrolling, be sure to place your finger in the list first before you scroll.
  • Touch typing is only available on Windows Phone 8.1 update 1. This will require development previews to be enabled.
  • Reading from top to bottom of the screen is possible with a three-finger flick down. However this is limited to text boxes only (or controls which show lines of text), so a list or just the general screen cannot be read out loud.
  • When exploring the screen, the app bar is never in the swipe order. You have to do a lot more exploring and a lot less swiping on Windows phone because of this, and always monitor what is on screen. This is not as bad as on Android, as lists do auto scroll seamlessly like on iOS, however there are certain UI elements you just cannot get to by swiping alone.

All of this might sound overwhelming, but it does provide for a screen reader which gives us a nice hybrid between iOS and Android. Web Views are more accessible than even on Firefox for Android, allowing for a desktop-class experience when browsing the web with granularity control using the flick-down gesture. If you are familiar with the touch commands on desktop Narrator, these will be similar to that as well, with the same earcons. This makes Narrator just as good as iOS when it comes to useful sounds which convey information.

Diving Deeper into the OS

Let us talk about a few other elements which exist in Windows Phone.

  • The app bar: This is a dynamic bar located at the bottom of MOST apps, which include context-sensitive changes depending on the app itself. For example, the messaging app might include new and select buttons on the app bar whilst browsing the list of threads, but a send, attach, and speak button when composing the message. Visually, you can swipe up to expand this bar and show more options — for example, in our message list example, it will include a settings item when expanded. The app bar is usually in every app you will see, and when filling out forms, or changing settings, look for a done button on the app bar before hitting the back button first.
  • The Quick Launch VS Apps view: Once you have set up your phone, you are placed in the start screen. This is not a list of all of your apps, but rather a live view of everything you have configured. You can tap an app and drag to resize it or remove its icon with an unpin option. To access your entire app list, scroll to the bottom of the screen and press the bottom right icon for the list. Here, they are listed in alphabetical order. Tap an app to bring up on a menu which will also allow you to pin it to your main quick launch. Your quick launch can hold many tiles, though keep in mind that you should only add apps which are essential to you. Again, this is YOUR phone, not Microsoft's.
  • Pop-ups: When a new SD card is inserted or there is an important message, these will appear as pop-ups. Generally these are simple overlays which partially hide the app you are in.
  • The Action center: New to Windows Phone 8.1, this shows your list of notifications in one common place. Useful if you cannot glance at all of your app tiles, notifications are grouped together by app. Replying to a text or an e-mail is not possible from this location, unlike on iOS or Android.

Changing the ringer and media volumes

When pressing the power button, Windows Phone will display a shut-down pop up which you simply tap to turn off the phone. This is in contrast to Android, which does show a menu allowing you to turn on airplane mode and choose other ringer options. To change these on Windows Phone, simply press the volume keys. A pop-up will appear on screen, briefly flashing across the status bar. Here you must act quickly, or else it will disappear. You can change volumes for media, ringtones, or the notification sounds by pressing an advanced button.

Tip: Press and hold the volume key to keep the bar on screen as long as you wish. This will allow you to press the "next track" button when playing music for example, provided you can't do so quick enough before the bar's disappearance. Of course, the downside to this trick is that if you are playing music, it will raise the volume all the way to 100% as well.

The settings app in depth

While I cannot provide an entire run-down of every setting, here's a general list of the ones which I find important to clarify or mention.

Configuring E-mail and other accounts

One interesting quirk of Windows Phone is that there is no "e-mail" application. Instead, all of your inboxes are grouped into their own app. If you go into settings and click E-mail + accounts, you can add additional providers to sync contacts and data with. Once it is set up, a tile will be placed both on your quick launch with the account's type. The "Google Mail" tile displays my most recent unread e-mails, however there is no unified inbox here which shows all accounts in one place.

Kids and App corners

These are very cool ways to lock your phone off, allowing anyone who is not you to use certain features and functions. Kids corner allows you to choose which apps and data your child can access, after which you set up a passcode. Swiping left from the lock screen will bring up an entirely different start screen with just those apps installed. Kids cannot access your data, and you can even choose certain videos and music to let them access. It is roped from the rest of the operating system, almost as though it were a new user account.

Apps Corner is only present in Update 1 of Windows Phone. It allows you to restrict the phone in a specific app, or only allow access to certain apps on the start screen. In a way it is more "strict" than Kids Corner, and can be used by both enterprise users and phones which are being used as demo units. It still allows you to create a customized start screen with specific apps.

Driving Mode

This is quite a nifty feature. It requires a Bluetooth headset or car connection, as Driving Mode will allow you to automatically hear your texts and reply to them as you drive. You can silence phone calls and other notifications as well to minimize distraction. In short, I think every phone should have this feature – especially because the user has more fine-grain control over what app or notification they wish to see.

Internet Tethering: Only Bluetooth and Wi-Fi?

Sadly, internet tethering does not allow you to use a USB connection. You can configure the password and Wi-Fi network name through the app bar, and the default values are very secure.

A general rundown of apps

I also want to provide a few pointers and tips for the most commonly used applications on Windows Phone. There are several of these which can present issues, however most are simple and easy to understand. My other goal is to place underlying OS differences in a greater context, allowing you to see how Microsoft has distanced itself from the competition.

The Windows Store

The one-stop shop for all things app-related, here you can buy games or apps. The main user interface provides a list of popular apps in an assortment of categories, as well as commonly downloaded games. It is interesting to note that app ratings are presented not through a "*-rating" system, but rather sliders which show up on screen next to each app. These bars show a percent-based value for how well each app is rated. When rating an app, you of course still do so through stars.

A "my apps" tab in the expanded app bar will show you a history of every app you have searched through the store for and downloaded. Curiously this does not include apps which you have installed through your PC (, but it does allow for quick redownloading of things you might have purchased. The downloads tab is where updates and a "history" section exist to show you past updates.

Cortana: Identify music, tell jokes, have the world at your fingertips.

No Windows Phone review is complete without a mention of Cortana and how well she works. In my week-long use of this phone, I have found her functions very useful, and in some ways she surpasses Siri. After installing the Facebook app, I can now ask her to post a status update, for example. If the Uber app were accessible with Narrator, Cortana could also schedule a Uber ride for me and open the app to my location. Developers have specific control over which commands they wish to integrate with the assistant, which makes it expandable and very fluid.

Once you open Cortana, she will ask you to configure her notebook. These include your interests, and you can add a new one through the app bar. News, weather, travel destinations, nearby location, package and flight information, as well as specific categories you enjoy reading about can be configured.

While the assistant part is useful, I found search results and place searches more efficient than on any other platform. It is all powered by Yelp (as so are her other rivals), and clicking on search results will bring up Internet Explorer with that location's page. Very fast and fluid, I could even narrow my results down to which places were open at the time, including specific food categories. General questions such as "Should I wear an umbrella?" also work quite well and give you the expected answers.

There is a button to the left of the search box which allows you to look for music around you. Press it twice to have Cortana listen for the music and identify it. Then, use the buy button to open XBox music and purchase the track. To access past music results, simply access Cortana's notebook with the button on the top left corner (first button on screen) – music searches is one of the last options.

One frustration which comes with this assistant is her inability to remove calendar appointments. You cannot delete them by asking her, or even cancel an event. While she can show you your calendar, you will have to manually go in and edit it yourself to delete.

Dictation inconsistencies

Speaking of frustrations, you also cannot dictate on every screen of Windows Phone. The dictation button is usually included in the app bar, not on the keyboard itself. It works well in messaging, E-mail, and other Microsoft apps for now. When you dictate, pausing dictation will stop it entirely and insert the text you stated. This is quite nice as opposed to other systems where you have to press a "pause" or "stop" button, rather than your voice being auto detected. Punctuation marks (such as period, comma) are inserted automatically based on your voice's inflection. Actually saying the word period will insert it as the word, rather than the symbol.

The Calendar and Alarms app: Accessibility issues

Let us switch back to accessibility for a moment. Since I mentioned the Calendar app and Cortana's inability to remove appointments, it should also be pointed out that editing an appointment on your calendar is impossible with Narrator. It will simply not see it as a clickable item. You can see all of your scheduled events in either a today view or a generalized overview, all of which speak well. Deleting or editing them will not work unless you switch narrator off (hopefully you turned on Narrator quick launch in "ease of access" settings) by holding volume up and pressing Windows. Even then, this is hit or miss, so the best option I found through a friend's help is to manage the calendar online on Outlook's website.

The alarms app is another disaster. While you can turn alarms off and on, you cannot see which alarm shows what time and date. To work around this issue, simply ask Cortana to show you all of your alarms.

Messaging On Windows Phone: A clean Experience

If there is any device I enjoy texting on, it is this phone. The keyboard is much larger than virtual keyboards on any other phone I have used, as it extends in portrait mode halfway up the screen. You can record a short memo or video clip with the attach app bar button when composing, as well as use group messaging with family members. There is also an option to mute threads if they are spammy – something which can be accessed by expanding the app bar. Delivery reports and custom messaging tones are configurable through the settings app.

Internet Explorer reimagined

I cannot state with any more enthusiasm how quick and great Microsoft has made IE for Windows Phones. Pages load quickly, even on this low-end hardware. Frames and other desktop content are displayed properly, and I was even able to load up HTML5 video players and watch content through the browser. You can access IE settings in the settings app itself under the applications tab. Here you have the option to always force-load the desktop site (useful if you want more options on a place like Facebook.), as well as configure advanced tracking/history options. On complex sites, the browser will exhibit a slight slow-down, however this goes away after a minute or less of page loading.

Similar to Safari and Chrome, there does exist a reading mode for articles. This removes the address bar, placing the page in full-screen view. There is also support for tabbed browsing and moving through multiple tabs is simple.

General conclusions

I suppose this review has become one of the longest ones I have written to date, thanks to an operating system which is still rising and going towards its primetime. Windows Phone holds many promises, and I see design elements which not only make it one of the most personal operating systems in the mobile segment, but perhaps also one of the most simple. Attractive and quality phone pricing means that Android has a lot to compete with, provided companies want to move beyond the cheap-feel of budget devices. In this arena, Microsoft has much more potential to capture the "next billion" of smartphone users. Even though ram usage and resources are lower on these devices, Windows phone tends to run relatively well. Lack of bloatware or carrier preinstalled software also means that the experience is clean and very customizable. I could remove all of the built-in Nokia apps such as the radio without a need to "disable" them and worry if they are taking up space on my phone. Even Wi-Fi calling, a feature provided by T-mobile for customers can be removed. I do believe that Microsoft's "dark days" are over, and as long as there is enough of a marketing push behind their products, more consumers will jump on board to purchase them.

As far as the general accessibility and usability by those with disabilities, Windows Phone is still at an early stage. Although most of the built-in apps work properly, virtually no third-party apps can do so. (More on this a bit in Part 3) Even the built-in apps have issues, and only the most basic ones (Phone, Messaging, E-mail, People, Internet Explorer) work without any unlabeled buttons whatsoever. Others such as Calendar, the Calculator, Alarms, Podcasts, XBox Music/Video all have major workarounds which leave one desiring more to do with a smartphone. The potential is there, now the question is whether Microsoft uses it to its maximum. The fact that we have an out-of-box accessibility function is already more promising than where Android was when it first joined the game.

Tamas Geczy

September 04, 2014

Special thanks to Leonid Prazdnik and Morgan Pimentel during this review. They helped test OS features and allowed me to provide a more concise and detailed review here.

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