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Microsoft reveals Windows Phone 8.1's first update, with welcome new features

Mark Hachman | July 31, 2014
Windows Phone 8.1 Update, formerly known as Windows Phone 8.1 GDR1, adds folders to the Start screen, the ability to sandbox apps, and other features for consumers and businesses alike.

windows phone 81 cortana main screen nokia lumia icon april 2014

Microsoft formally unveiled Windows Phone 8.1 Update early Wednesday morning, confirming features such as Start screen folders, sandboxed apps, and even a handy VPN function for surfing over public Wi-Fi connections.

Those who opted in to the Developer Preview will be able to download the update next week; otherwise, consumers with stock Windows Phone 8.1 devices will have to wait a couple of months until it can be formally tested and deployed by carriers. 

Sources had revealed previously that the update, known formerly as Windows Phone 8.1 GDR1, wouldn't be earth-shattering. But there's enough there that it should be a must-have for Windows Phone owners, as evidenced by a blog post authored by Joe Belfiore, the Microsoft vice president in charge of Windows Phone.

The flashiest feature, but not necessarily the most useful, is the ability to combine Live Tiles into folders on the Start screen by dragging one on top of another (above). On Android or iOS, this collects the icons into a neat pocket, preserving screen real estate. On Windows Phone, the folders--dubbed Live Folders--act more like a group, with the Live Tiles of the individual apps preserved within.

As you might expect, the update will give Microsoft's Cortana additional functionality, including new natural language scenarios, snooze times for reminders, and fun additions to her personality, such as requests to "do an impersonation." Microsoft also added the ability to make Cortana hands-free, by adding the ability to "call Cortana" from a car's contact list.

Cortana will also be launched in China (known there as "Xiao Na") with local information on celebrities, air quality, and other Chinese specifics. The United Kingdom, where Cortana will also debut, will lend Cortana a proper English accent, plus Premier League info and other local color. Canada, India, and Australia will also be allowed to try Cortana via an "alpha" program, Belfiore said.

New features designed for productivity...
To date, Windows Phone has prioritized productivity, with nifty little features added to Windows Phone such as the ability to automatically connect to public Wi-Fi hotspots, and to share private Wi-Fi SSIDs and passwords automatically with your trusted friends.

Windows Phone 8.1 Update takes this a step further, by allowing you to set up VPNs to securely pass information through those public hotspots, without permitting them to see what you're actually asking. At press time, it wasn't clear whether the VPN service will be Microsoft supplied, or simply a framework to connect to a Cisco or other VPN provider. Regardless, VPN support will be certainly welcomed by consumers and businesses alike.


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