Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Time’s Windows Phone 8.1 Review

Windows Phone 8.1 has sort of been released. It’s only available to developers right now, but it appears to be the gold master version that will be installed on new phones starting later this month. The reviews have been rolling in this morning; I liked Harry McCracken’s, for Time. On Cortana, the new virtual assistant:

Cortana understands some complex requests beyond the ken of Siri and Google Now, such as ”Schedule the Reno trip for Monday through Thursday.” It’s also particularly adept at reminders. For instance you can tell it to remind you to buy key lime frozen yogurt the next time you’re at Safeway—either a specific Safeway, or any Safeway. Or to nudge you to ask your boss for a raise the next time you talk to him on the phone.

Also nice for people who think talking to a fake person inside their phone is a bit weird, like me: you can type anything you want to say to Cortana. It sounds like an exciting mashup of Google Now and Siri, bettering both in some ways, and not matching either in other, bafflingly obvious, ways.

The biggest issue with all of these virtual assistants, though, is their unpredictability:

Of course, all three of these assistants are capable of being eerily helpful one moment, and hopeless the next: For instance, none of them gave me a direct answer when I asked “What time is Mad Men on tonight?”

There are commands and queries which feel completely natural for the software to interpret, yet they fail in a strange black hole sort of way.

This update looks huge, and very exciting. Would I switch from my iPhone? Well, not yet. Windows Phone now matches its competition in features you’d expect, but its ecosystem is still pretty weak. It’s an unfortunate Catch 22: users won’t buy Windows Phones because their favourite apps aren’t on it because users won’t buy Windows Phones because…

I’d love to take one of these phones for an extended spin, however. Spending a month with a Lumia would be very interesting.