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Meet Cortana: Microsoft announces sweeping Windows Phone 8.1 update

Brad Chacos | April 3, 2014
Microsoft revealed the grand Windows Phone 8.1 update at Build 2014, and don't let the ".1" fool you: It's a doozy.

ms build 2014 windows phone joe belfiore cortana

Microsoft finally revealed its long-awaited and oft-leaked Windows Phone 8.1 update at the Build 2014 conference on Wednesday. Don't let the measly ".1" fool you: Windows Phone 8.1 is a sweeping refocusing of the Windows Phone vision, adding some much-needed features to the mobile operating system—including the grand unveiling of Cortana, Microsoft's new digital assistant.

ms build 2014 windows phone background joe belfiore
Joe Belfiore shows off Windows Phone 8.1 at Build 2014.

Microsoft exec Joe Belfiore took the stage to show off the improvements, declaring that "We believe Windows Phone is the world's most personal smartphone."

Action Center
As previously leaked, Windows Phone 8.1 adds a long-awaited notification center—dubbed "Action Center"—which gathers your new messages in a central location and provides quick access to four basic phone functions, such as turning on Wi-Fi, GPS, or Airplane mode. Those quick-access tools are customizable and can be swapped around as needed. If you have a dual-sim phone, info about each is available in the Action Center.

The Action Center should be a massive improvement to Windows Phone's usability. Live Tiles are nice and all, but it's even nicer to have all your new notifications in one convenient spot, and nobody like mucking around in their phone settings any more than they absolutely have to.

Developers will also be able to create custom lock-screen experiences that users can choose to use. The Windows Phone 8.1 update also adds new Start screen personalization options, including the ability to add more tiles to the screen or use a custom image as your phone's background image.

Cortana
But the real star of the Windows Phone 8.1 show is Cortana, the virtual assistant that's Microsoft's answer to Google Now and Siri. Actually, Cortana's kind of a blend of Google Now and Siri--a bouncy, bubbly sphere UI that's powered by Bing's deep and powerful Satori knowledge engine.

Cortana has a Siri-esque personality, responding to personal questions from Belfiore with jokes. For example, when Belfiore asked what Cortana thought of her appearance, she responded "Some things I resemble: A hula hoop, a donut... and a halo." (The last is a sly reference to Cortana's origins; she's named after the Cortana A.I. central to the popular Halo video game series.)

Cortana's true strength appears to lie in context, however. 

ms build 2014 windows phone joe belfiore mariners
Cortana will be a smarter personal assistant by gathering data from third-party services to inform her responses. 

"Her" smarts are augmented by data provided by third-party services such as Yelp, which Belfiore showed off by searching for a restaurant during the demo, as well as contextual information about you-yes, you-drawn from your email, travel notifications, contacts, interests, and more. Even better, you don't have to manually tell Cortana your desires; she automatically infers information based on your actions (which you then have to confirm).

 

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