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Windows Phone Gets Smarter, Sassier in Latest Update

But is that enough?

Slowly but surely, Windows Phone is gaining some momentum, but it still has a long way to go to catch up to Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android. Microsoft is hoping that the latest update to its mobile operating system will help it attract more customers.

Rolling out to existing Windows Phone 8 devices in the coming months and shipping on new devices like the Nokia Lumia 635 this summer, Windows Phone 8.1 adds a number of new features, including a voice-guided assistant, a notifications center and tools for better managing Wi-Fi networks. None of this is groundbreaking. The iPhone and Android handsets have had similar functionality for years.

Still, after testing the new software on the Nokia Lumia Icon for about a week, I can say that Microsoft has done a nice job of integrating these features into the platform and making them robust and functional. There’s a lot to like for current Windows Phone users. But convincing iPhone and Android users to switch will still be a challenge.

One of the most noteworthy additions of Windows Phone 8.1 is Cortana, a personal digital assistant designed to rival Apple’s Siri and Google Now.

Named after a character from the popular Xbox game Halo and powered by Microsoft’s Bing search engine, Cortana can be used to launch apps, compose messages and search the Web using voice (or text) commands similar to the other two services. Unlike Apple, though, Microsoft is giving third-party developers access to Cortana, so they can build apps or rework existing ones to support the service. Cortana also gives you more control over your privacy than Google Now does.

One aspect of Cortana that I found particularly helpful was the ability to get reminders based on contextual information (person, place, time). For example, I told Cortana, “Remind me to ask my brother what he wants to do when he visits next week.” She replied that she would remind me the next time I talked to him, and, sure enough, when I went to send him a text, the reminder showed up. I also received an alert about an hour before an upcoming meeting, saying that I should leave soon based on real-time traffic conditions.

In addition to accessing your calendar, contacts, email and location, Cortana also learns things about you (your favorite sports teams, topics of interest and so on) as you use the service. She then stores that information in her “notebook” to provide you with better answers and personalized updates on a Daily Glance page.

Understandably, some of you might feel uncomfortable sharing all that data with Cortana, so — unlike Google Now — Microsoft gives you some control over what’s stored in the notebook through Cortana’s settings menu. There you can also set quiet hours (times when you don’t want to be interrupted by incoming calls or messages) and indicate which contacts can reach you during those times (called the “inner circle”).

In general, Cortana was able to understand my spoken questions and commands with no problem. You can follow up with questions or more requests and, like Siri, Cortana has a bit of a personality, too. For example, I asked her what she thought of Siri, and Cortana responded, “Hard to say. So far, our conversation has been kinda one-sided.”

But there were at least a couple of instances where Cortana wasn’t able to accurately transcribe a text message or command, so I ended up typing it out. Also, her answers may vary depending on how you ask a question. When I asked, “What was the score of the San Francisco Giants game last night?” Cortana just surfaced Web results for the Giants. But when I said, “Did the San Francisco Giants win last night?” she gave me the actual score.

Another time, I asked her to find the location of one of my favorite coffee chains (Coffee Bean), and she only returned one result for a location that was about three miles away, while Siri came up with two locations, both just a little over a mile from my current location.

Cortana is still in a testing phase, and not final, so hopefully some of those kinks will get ironed out soon. Microsoft said Cortana will also become more accurate as time goes on. Nevertheless, I was impressed with the experience.

The Action Center is another area where Microsoft is playing catch-up, but it’s definitely a welcome addition. Similar to the notification center in Android, you can now swipe down from the top of the screen for quick access to frequently used settings and to view all your notifications.

You get four quick-actions buttons, which are set by default to Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, airplane mode and rotation lock. But you can change them by going to the Settings menu, selecting “Notifications+actions” and then choosing another option, like camera or brightness. (There is a shortcut to the full Settings menu within the Action Center, so you don’t have to exit the app to do so.)

Notifications are listed beneath the shortcuts by application. Tapping on individual notifications will take you directly to that specific item. Or you can dismiss them all by swiping to the right.

Windows Phone 8.1 offers a new way to input text using the onscreen keyboard. Called Word Flow, the method is similar to the Swype and SwiftKey virtual keyboards available for Android devices, where instead of pecking at individual keys, you drag your finger letter to letter in one continuous motion.

I found that Word Flow worked well. I composed numerous messages and notes using it, and most times, it was accurate and faster than typing out the words the traditional way. It automatically adds a space after you complete a word, and capitalizes the first letter at the beginning of a sentence.

It can learn custom words and predict what you’ll write next based on context. For example, if you type “how,” Word Flow might suggest “are” as the next work and then “you.” I also liked that it automatically adds your contacts into its library, so it was able to recognize when I was entering a name, even if it had a weird spelling.

Some other minor improvements include a new weekly view in the Calendar app, and the ability to add your own photos to the Start screen background. Skype is also now integrated into the phone app.

Windows Phone 8.1 brings some much-needed features, and helps make the platform even better and more powerful. But with similar features already available on iOS and Android, Microsoft will have to hit hard with good hardware and competitive pricing to lure new customers.

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