On my Nokia Lumia Icon test unit, supplied by Microsoft, Windows Phone 8.1 allows three columns of large Live Tiles. If there's any criticism to be made here, it's that the opacity of the tiles themselves is arbitrary--I couldn't find a way to enable or customize them.
The lock screen is also customizable to some degree. You can set any number of apps to display on the lock screen, along with the time, date, your next appointment, and the number of unread emails from multiple accounts. Eventually, Microsoft will publish a lock-screen customization app (announced at its recent Build conference), allowing Windows Phone users to create the sort of radically different launcher experiences that Android users can download. But it's not quite ready, a Microsoft spokeswoman said.
Cortana: Microsoft's first digital assistant
Cortana, Microsoft's first digital assistant, is the most dramatic innovation of the Windows Phone 8.1 upgrade. Cast in the mold of Apple's Siri or Google's Google Now, and still in beta, Cortana is designed to answer questions and perform simple tasks, such as playing music, setting reminders, or providing directions.
When setting her up, you're asked to provide a list of topics she can track for you, providing ready updates. You also have the option of letting her peer into your email inbox and other aspects of your digital life, to improve her usefulness to you.
Windows Phone 8.1 offers three ways of accessing Cortana: as a Live Tile, as an app, and by holding down the Search (magnifying-glass) button on the phone itself. The first two methods generate a Cortana screen that includes some brief snippets of headlines. The third takes you directly to a voice-driven interface, where Siri asks and answers questions in a somewhat robotic, female voice.
How good is Cortana so far? That's one question we answered for ourselves, pitting Cortana against Google Now and Siri. For a beta, Cortana's already looking good, and she should only get better.
Word Flow: It works even for sloppy writers
Windows Phone 8.1 also includes Word Flow, essentially Microsoft's version of Swype (which was bought by Nuance in 2011). Like Swype, you can, well, swipe across the keyboard instead of trying to find the keys.
Quite frankly, I'm horrible at type-by-swipe. My individual fingers know the keys, but when my index finger begins wandering around the screen, it inexplicably loses track of which key is where, and I end up trying to peer around my moving index finger like an idiot. Fortunately, Word Flow was designed with my incompetence in mind. It works. Surprisingly well, in fact. I can use Android's own type-by-swipe keyboard reasonably well, but I noticed a small improvement while using the Windows keyboard.
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