Microsoft has formally unveiled Windows Phone 8.1 Update, 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.
Some reportsalso say that Microsoft's new Windows Phone update will support gargantuan seven-inch displays, with screen sizes up to 960-by-540. Belfiore didn't specifically confirm this in his blog post, however, or the reports that the update would support interactive screen covers and cases.
Likewise, Microsoft highlighted one feature designed specifically for businesses: Apps Corner, a step halfway toward encrypting your entire phone at the behest of your employer's IT department. Apps Corner provides a special sandboxed repository where you can store apps. Businesses can also use Apps Corner to boot immediately to one specific app, turning a Windows Phone into a specialized device for tasks like inventory management.
Windows Phone users may also find features like the ability to mass delete and forward SMS messages useful. (In the Windows Phone mail application, a "checkbox" icon allows you to quickly select multiple messages for forwarding and deletion.) And a Windows Store icon will cycle through the latest apps available in the Windows Store, on a six-hour rotating basis.
...And just plain fun
Finally, Microsoft added an update to the Xbox Music app, just for fun, a feature that some have hoped for over the past few months.
"From background sync of your collection, to swipe to advance, the product has been continually adding features in every two weeks for the past few months," Belfiore wrote. "And in the coming month, there will be a 'quickplay' of recent playback activities, and support for Kids Corner. Some of these features/improvements are already there in the latest Xbox Music app with the Windows Phone 8.1 release, but some (Live Tile in particular) are specific to the Windows Phone 8.1 Update."
Microsoft revealed the update at a developer conference in Beijing.
While Windows Phone 8.1 Update may not be an update that sends consumers rushing to the stores, it does look like it will add some useful features. Be sure to check back in a couple of weeks when we're able to try it for ourselves.