Globally, Android is the current market leader, followed by iOS. Windows Phone till now has been inching ahead, but the recently released Windows Phone 8.1 update should help propel its position. Windows phones are usually criticised for having less number of apps. But the number of applications are increasing at good pace. Moreover, many everyday use apps are available on the store — Instagram, Whatsapp, Facebook, Vine, BookMyShow, ClearTrip etc while BBM and Flipboard are said to be coming. The good thing about Windows Phone is its consistency in interface — all Windows Phones look the same, which is not the case with every Android phone. Moreover, the good news for existing Windows Phone 8 owners is that most handsets will get the update to 8.1 simultaneously. Following are a couple of features that really stand out that should make this also-ran mobile OS worth a second look.
1) Cortana — the virtual assistant
Just like Siri in iOS and Google Now in Android, Windows Phone now has Cortana, a name derived from the X-Box game series ‘Halo’. You can dictate Cortana to type a message or make a call, which is also possible in other operating systems. Just as we have Do Not Disturb in iPhone, Windows has come up with Quiet Hours. During Quiet Hours, the phone would not ring but will notify if you receive a call or message from important people dubbed as inner circle in your device, therefore you can stay always connected with your loved ones. Moreover, you can set People reminders with Cortana like ‘Remind me to congratulate Sam when I talk to him next’, so these type of non-time and non-location based reminders is a unique feature. The reminder will pop-up when you get a call, SMS or email from that person. Just like Google Now, if you allow it, it can go through your content to give you preemptive information. For example, it can read your mails and messages and remind your tasks. Also, it can track a courier parcel by using the tracking ID, which might be in your mailbox. The best part is that in our experience, Cortana could understand the Indian accent really well. It may have been late to the game, but at least it works as advertised (Siri is still trying to understand what we said).
2) Data Sense, Storage Sense, Battery Sense
If you have a limited internet plan and always manage to exceed your limit, then Data Sense can be helpful. Although, Data Sense was available in the earlier versions but it has been improved in the recent update. It helps you set a Data Limit, lets you restrict Background Data (thereby save battery and data). Moreover, the new Internet Explorer also helps in saving data by compressing images and blocking advertisements. Another unique feature is that it helps to locate nearby WiFi-Hotspots, thus you can save your cellular data by using WiFi instead. You can use HERE maps to direct you to the Hotspot. There are other settings available such as restricting background data while roaming, thus you can save from being heavily charged (Background data means the data which is consumed by an application while running in the background or while not being used).
Storage Sense gives you a snapshot of how your local storage is being used and gives options to offload content automatically to the SD card (including apps). Battery Sense used to help conserve battery, but now also offers data on which apps are eating your battery.
3) Nokia Mix Radio — The Music App
High-end Lumia devices are considered to deliver a great camera experience. But apart from impressing photographers, Nokia also provides its exclusive Music app which allows you to download lakhs of songs for free. A good thing about MixRadio especially when you’re having limited storage or a slow internet connection, is that the songs are compressed because of which each song occupies about 1 MB storage (usually a 4 minutes song eats up at least 5MB). However, this app is available for free only for a few months, depending upon the handset model. It is free for 6 months on Lumia 520 and the free-subscription period is higher for more expensive phones. You can extend your subscription by paying for it. The app not only lets download songs from various genres (yes you do get Hollywood songs and music from famous artists like Eminem and Hardwell, songs in regional languages like Tamil, Punjabi etc are also available), but also allows you to listen to songs online. And, if you run out of choices, then it can even create a mix specially for you based on your preferences and if you like that mix then you can even download for free. Although Microsoft has recently partnered with other phone makers like Micromax, Gionee, Karbonn, LG, Sony etc for making Windows Phones, we expect this app to be bundled. Compared to other platforms that charge you per song, MixRadio is a good app to use free music for at least a while.
4) Homescreen — Transparent tiles interface
Windows Phone has a unique tile interface for its homescreen. They behave like widgets in Android which are of different sizes and occupy space on the home-screen to deliver real-time information. The good thing about tiles though is that they keep the look-and-feel of the homescreen consistent and elegant, unlike Android where differently designed Widgets can make your phone look pretty cluttered. The tiles are adjustable, so you can make a tile bigger or smaller depending on its importance (bigger tiles deliver more information). The new update has given these tiles a new transparent look, because of which a background wallpaper can be added which makes the screen attractive and beautiful. The wallpaper implementation in Windows Phone is certainly very unique and smart.
5) HERE Maps — now never get lost!
Although Google maps are considered to be the best, HERE maps are nowhere behind. It comes with HERE Transit feature which can direct you to your destination by combining various modes of transport like Bus, Train and even walking. Currently, this service is available in Ahmedabad, Bangalore, Chandigarh, Chennai, Hyderabad, Kolkata, Mumbai, New Delhi, Pune, Surat, Vadodara. So, if you want to use public transportation in a city unknown to you, this app should help. Like Google maps, even HERE maps offer turn by turn voice navigation. The most fantastic feature of these maps is HERE Drive, which offers offline navigation i.e without a data connection. You can’t download Google Maps of cities on Android and iOS. Moreover, if you’re using a slow internet connection, the maps may not load as fast as you need them to be. Nokia Here+ Maps allows you to download maps of entire continents! Also, if you want to know about near-by surrounding then you can use City Lens, which will tell you about nearby places such as restaurants, theatres etc. Just like Google maps, HERE maps can give you a satellite view and traffic information but this feature will need internet.
Apart from these features, the update also packs a new notification bar which is seen in all smartphones. A dedicated volume control has been installed so that you can control the volume from the screen itself. You would even find a mobile wallet which is similar to Google Wallet and help you to make payments. Burst mode has been added to the camera which will now allow you to capture multiple images in a quick succession. Kids corner, that was featured in Windows Phone 8, deserves a mention since it protects your phone from accidental messups while allowing users to only use apps that you allow them to.
Bottom line — although Windows Phone has been somewhat a laggard in the mobile OS space, the 8.1 update certainly brings the OS up to speed with the competition. Although previously it was hard to recommend a Windows Phone to anybody, we think the time has come when many customers will not find their experience limiting with a Windows Phone.