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Windows Phone 8.1 brings a new look and a Siri rival named Cortana

Windows Phone 8.1 brings a new look and a Siri rival named Cortana


Update coming in "the next few months," though new Windows Phone 8.1 phones should be on sale in April

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"I'm thrilled for you all to now meet our truly personal digital assistant for Windows Phone," says Joe Belfiore as he introduces the Bing-powered Cortana voice assistant. Belfiore is demonstrating all the new features in Windows Phone 8.1 at Microsoft's Build conference, with Cortana being the major highlight.

Cortana is very much Microsoft's answer to Apple's Siri, Samsung's S Voice, and all the other voice assists software suites out there. It lets you manage basic phone functions, set appointments, perform searches, play back music, and set so-called quiet hours when only your inner circle of contacts may reach you. Similar to Google Now, Cortana learns from the web searches you perform and the locations you frequent to try and provide contextually sensitive and timely information.

Visually, Cortana is represented by a circular icon that adopts the same color scheme as your Windows Phone theme. It also pulsates when she speaks and rotates when searching for an answer. One of its cool functions demoed by Belfiore is the ability to answer incomplete questions, such as "how about in Celsius?" following the initial query of "what's the temperature in Las Vegas?" The Halo-inspired voice assistant will launch in beta in the United States, with the UK and China being among the first countries to get it afterwards.

Besides Cortana, Windows Phone 8.1 will also introduce a new Action Center, which is essentially the notification center that users have been asking for. You'll be able to customize which apps can send notifications to Action Center and whether they're allowed to vibrate the phone. There's also a set of basic toggles at the top, such as airplane mode. Additionally, there's a more customizable lock screen, which will allow third-party apps to do "more interactive and unique" things with a set of new APIs. The Start Screen tiles have also been tweaked, with the ability to skin them with one overall image instead of just a solid color.

For business users, Microsoft is adding support for enterprise VPN and S/MIME, allowing you to encrypt and sign emails. The Windows Phone Store and the calendar app have also been updated, integrating user feedback asking for alternative views and generally aiming to delight users, in Joe Belfiore's words.

A new feature called Wi-Fi Sense will automatically connect you to free wireless hotspots nearby. Not only that, it'll also let you share your home wireless network with friends without actually giving them your password. Microsoft hasn't fully detailed how that will be done, but it certainly sounds like a handy feature. Windows Phone 8.1 will introduce a new version of Skype that can convert a regular phone call into a Skype video call. Rounding out the list of new additions is a Swype-like keyboard option that lets you draw a line through the letters you want to input instead of tapping each one out individually. Calling it "word flow," Microsoft says its swiping input has already claimed the Guinness World Record for fastest typing on a phone keyboard.

Windows Phone 8.1 will roll out as an update to consumers "in the next few months," though brand new Windows Phone 8.1 phones might be on sale sooner, with Joe Belfiore promising them for either April or early May.

Photos of Windows Phone 8.1 with Cortana voice assistant from Microsoft Build