Lumia Denim: Windows Phone 8.1.1 + Firmware Updates

Lumia_Camera

Among many other announcements at IFA 2014 on September 4, Microsoft announced the latest update to the Windows Phone OS. As is usually the case with Nokia’s Lumia updates, this update, called Lumia Denim, is essentially a combination of updates delivered via Windows Phone 8.1 Update (let’s just call it Windows Phone 8.1.1, shall we?) and firmware updates. These firmware updates add some new features and functionality and also improve the overall performance of Lumia devices and pre-loaded apps.

To start with, the newly announced Lumia 730, Lumia 735 and Lumia 830 will come pre-loaded with Lumia Denim. The other Windows Phone 8 Lumia devices will receive this update over the air in Q4 2014 after appropriate partner and carrier testing.

We have provided a brief overview of what’s delivered in the core OS update, but here are the features delivered via the firmware update include in Lumia Denim:

Moment Capture

4K-quality video recording at 24FPS now available on Lumia devices. You can invoke this by long pressing the camera button. Since each frame is 8.3 megapixels, each individual frame can be shared as a still image too.

Rich Capture

Auto-HDR and Dynamic Flash are now included in the images taken. This way, it will be possible to take a picture and then adjust the camera settings later, to get the perfection in the shot.

“Hey Cortana”

Cortana, the impressive personal digital assistant included first with Windows Phone 8.1, can now be invoked by just saying “Hey Cortana”. Similar to Google Now’s “OK Google”, this feature enables even quicker access to Cortana. As a side, this is enabled by the SensorCore technology, so it won’t be available on Lumia devices which do not have SensorCore.

Glance screen

Glance screen (on eligible devices) can now show additional information from Bing Health & Fitness and Bing Weather in addition to notifications, time and date, and application data.

Lumia Camera

Lumia Camera is the updated name of the application formerly known as Nokia Camera. Updates to this app make it faster and more intuitive.

Speed and improved image processing

It is now even faster to invoke the camera, and there have been speed improvements made in going from shot to shot. In addition, new image processing algorithms make lowlight images even better than before.

These non-core OS updates show again why Lumia devices are still the best bet if you want to own a Windows Phone. Unless and until we see such innovation come from HTC, Samsung and the others, it is hard to see why you would think of using a non-Lumia Windows Phone device.

Cortana Adds NFL Predictions

Cortana, Microsoft’s personal digital assistant introduced in Windows Phone 8.1, has had the ability to predict outcomes of some events. Most recently, she did a near-perfect job of predicting World Cup results.

In an announcement on September 3, Microsoft says they have added NFL to the list of events that Cortana can predict. The American football season starts on September 4, so it is timely. In order to use this feature, just ask Cortana: “Who will win, team A or team B?”

Cortana’s prediction feature is based on Bing’s prediction engine. Bing on the desktop has enabled such predictions for reality shows on TV like the singing competition The Voice before.

Microsoft has earlier explained how Bing Predicts works, and how it is able to predict with a high level of accuracy. It is natural that they use all the signals and the data they have, to take it to one of the most popular sporting events in the American calendar.

For NFL predictions, Walter Sun from the Bing Predicts team says:

For pro football, we model the respective strengths of the teams by examining outcomes from previous seasons including wins, losses, and the very rare tie outcome (two games since 2009), factoring in margin of victories, location of contest, playing surface and roof cover (or lack thereof), weather and temperature conditions, scoring by quarters, and multiple offensive and defensive statistics.  In addition to this prior model, we identify fans on Web and Social sites and track their sentiment to understand the aggregate wisdom of this expressive crowd.  This introduces data which statistics alone cannot capture, providing real-time adjustments which surprisingly can capture injury news and other substantive factors in win probabilities.

I understand these things are more fun than useful, and I am not sure anyone who gambles will rely on this to make any bets, but it is good to see Microsoft showing off their machine learning prowess through normal use cases like predictions of NFL games.

NFL Predictions in Cortana
NFL Predictions in Cortana

If you are on Windows Phone 8.1, you can start asking right away. The beauty of most of Cortana’s features is that they are all web services-enabled, which means it does not require any client or app updates. Once Microsoft turns that feature on from the server side, it is available for everyone to use.

Let us know how you like the feature in the comments below!

HTC One (M8) for Windows Announced

HTC-One-M8-for-Windows_2_blog

After weeks of seeing leaked images and specifications of the device, we now have confirmation that HTC is releasing their flagship Android device, the HTC One M8 in a Windows Phone variant. The HTC One (M8) for Windows was announced on August 19 as a Verizon wireless exclusive.

Even though Samsung’s Ativ SE was similar to their Android devices, the HTC One for Windows is the first true “clone” of an Android device running Windows Phone. Recently, Microsoft made it possible for OEMs to build Windows Phone hardware on their Android device chassis by relaxing the guidelines and minimum specifications in their reference design. One of the key changes made were relaxing the requirement to have three physical buttons on the front (Back, Start, Search) and to have a physical button for the camera. With those restrictions lifted, and adding support for accessories like cases to interact with the phone, as well as widespread support for Bluetooth LE and the like, the road was cleared for OEMs to re-purpose their devices for Windows Phone with minimal changes. An additional key barrier removed was the license fee for Windows Phone which went to zero dollars.

The impact of these relaxed guidelines was the signing of a dozen-odd new OEMs, primarily in the Asia-Pacific and India regions. These current low-cost Android device makers would now be able to put Windows Phone on those low-cost Android devices. These device makers are of course playing in the high volume markets where a large population of feature phone users are moving to their first smartphone. It is therefore crucial for Microsoft to have a significant presence in the region or risk being completely cut out of the next big platform play.

Back to the HTC One for Windows, it comes with all the goodness we have seen in the Android variant like HTC BlinkFeed, HTC BoomSound, Duo Camera with UltraPixel technology, a 5MP wide-angle front-facing camera and support for the HTC Dot View case. Additionally, the Windows Phone 8.1.1 OS adds Cortana, the personal digital assistant and a host of other features as I detailed in an earlier post.

Key specifications for HTC One (M8) for Windows

SIZE: 146.36 x 70.6 x 9.35 mm
WEIGHT: 160 grams
DISPLAY: 5.0 inch, Full HD 1080p

CPU: Qualcomm® Snapdragon™ 801, 2.3GHz quad-core CPU

STORAGE/MEMORY

  • Total storage: 32GB
  • RAM: 2GB
  • Expansion card slot supports microSD™ memory card for up to 128GB additional storage

CONNECTIVITY

  • 3.5 mm stereo audio jack
  • NFC
  • Bluetooth® 4.0 with aptX™ enabled
  • Wi-Fi®: IEEE 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac (2.4 & 5 GHz)
  • DLNA® for wirelessly streaming media from the phone to a compatible TV or computer,
  • micro-USB 2.0
  • Microsoft Project My Screen
  • Miracast
  • Support consumer infrared remote control

CAMERA
Duo camera

  • Primary camera: HTC UltraPixel™ camera, BSI sensor, pixel size 2.0 um, sensor size 1/3”, f/2.0, 28mm lens
    HTC ImageChip 2
    1080p Full HD video recording with HDR video
    Secondary camera: capture depth information

Front camera

  • 5MP, f/2.0, BSI sensor, wide angle lens. with HDR capability, 1080p Full HD video recording
  • Gallery with UFocus™, Dimension Plus™, Foregrounder

HTC’s previous stab at Windows Phone, the HTC 8X/8S, was a well-designed phone which got no love at all after being released. Let’s hope, for the sake of Windows Phone, that this iteration gets some marketing push as well as support in terms of future updates.

Are you going to get this device? Let me know in the comments.

Windows Phone 8.1 Update 1 Developer Preview Is Here: Internet Explorer Even Better Now

Cortana Windows Phone 8.1 Update

As communicated by Microsoft’s Joe Belfiore on Windows Blogs on July 30, the first update to Windows Phone 8.1 is now rolling out to devices with the preview program. The update, simply called Windows Phone 8.1 Update (although it has been referred to as Update 1 too), brings Cortana to more markets in beta and alpha form, adds a Live Folders feature, adds a Live Tile to the Store icon, allows multiple SMS merge/delete operations, brings new Xbox Music app, adds a new feature called App Corner and increases privacy and security by enabling consumer-level VPN when connected to wifi hotspots.

Among the several unnamed changes and fixes are “hundreds of fixes” made to mobile Internet Explorer 11 to make it more compatible with the mobile web. The irony here is that on the desktop web developers had to code specifically for Internet Explorer 4 or 5 because it had several non-standard features. Now, Internet Explorer (both on the desktop and mobile) is promoting coding to web standards whereas web developers have catered their site for Webkit and specifically for iOS. This unfortunate reality made the Internet Explorer team re-think their strategy, and for their customers’ benefit, they made some tweaks to mobile IE that make it appear as an iOS browser to websites. Therefore, many sites which have browser sniffing enabled, will now provide the iPhone version of their site to mobile IE visitors as well.

As the blog post on Internet Explorer blog depicts, websites render very differently before and after this update:

 

Twitter on IE11 before update
Twitter on IE11 before update
Twitter on IE11 after update
Twitter on IE11 after update
Twitter on iPhone
Twitter on iPhone
Hawaiian Airlines before IE11 update
Hawaiian Airlines before IE11 update
Hawaiian Airlines after IE11 update
Hawaiian Airlines after IE11 update
Hawaiian Airlines iPhone
Hawaiian Airlines iPhone

 

After reading that blog post, I was very curious to see how Google’s websites render after this update. Another irony here is that Google, the company that beats the standards drums, has most of their properties coded for Webkit and/or detects mobile IE as a feature phone browser. The result is that GMail, Google News, etc. render very poorly.

I am happy to say that these changes in mobile IE11 do make the experience better, at least at first glance. See the comparisons below:

 

GMail before IE11 update
GMail before IE11 update
GMail after IE11 update
GMail after IE11 update
Google News before IE11 update
Google News before IE11 update
Google News after IE11 update
Google News after IE11 update
Google Calendar after IE11 update
Google Calendar after IE11 update
Google App Drawer after IE11 updateGoogle App Drawer after IE11 update
Google App Drawer after IE11 update

Apps Corner is much like Kids Corner where one can set one or a few apps to be available in a “corner” so when it is activated, no other apps are visible or accessible. This has good uses in the enterprise setting but it is clearly not only targeted to enterprises.

Windows Phone 8.1 Update Apps Corner Setup
Windows Phone 8.1 Update Apps Corner Setup
Windows Phone 8.1 Update Apps Corner
Windows Phone 8.1 Update Apps Corner
Windows Phone 8.1 Update Apps Corner Exit
Windows Phone 8.1 Update Apps Corner Exit

Live Folders is an interesting take on folders. Live Tiles have been a distinguishing feature of Windows Phone since it launched as Windows Phone 7. Instead of creating “dumb” folders which just hold the icons included in the folder, Live Folders presumably show the live tile contents of all the tiles included in the folders. This is neat because now you can reclaim some of the real estate on the Start Screen but not have to give up on one of the key features of the platform. It is also good to see that the icons included in the folders retain their tile size inside the folders, and the folder tile itself can be set to any size.

 

Windows Phone icons without Live Folders
Windows Phone icons without Live Folders
Windows Phone 8.1 Update Live Folders
Windows Phone 8.1 Update Live Folders
Windows Phone 8.1 Update Live Folders expanded
Windows Phone 8.1 Update Live Folders expanded

 

I don’t see how I can enable the consumer VPN feature, but that sure sounds extremely useful if I understand it correctly, which is, when connected to wifi hotspots, one would be connected to a VPN server right away. I may have misunderstood the feature so I will wait on reserving judgement until I actually find out more, or experience it myself when I connect to a public hotspot.

Have you downloaded the update? What are your thoughts?

Official Rollout of Windows Phone 8.1 Begins. Lumia Cyan Also Released.

 windows-phones

Microsoft announced on July 15 over on the Nokia Conversations Blog that Windows Phone 8.1 is beginning to roll out to general public starting today. In addition, for Lumia devices, Nokia is also making their firmware named Cyan available in tandem.

Windows Phone 8.1: Action Center
Windows Phone 8.1: Action Center

 

As you know, Windows Phone 8.1 is a major update to Windows Phone 8 (despite the .1 name, which is mostly to be in line with Windows 8.1) which includes many features that bring it up to par with iOS and Android, and in some cases, catapult it ahead of those two. For example, Windows Phone finally gets a notification center in the form of Action Center to bring it up to par with iOS and Android. There are many other new and updated features, including:

Cortana

A digital personal assistant with a personality of her own. Many think  of it as a good blend of Siri from iPhone and Google Now. It takes the personal nature of Siri and combines it with the ambient and context-aware nature of Google Now, and throws in a privacy-focused “notebook” which stores all the information that one would want the assistant to track. I have used Cortana quite a lot since the developer preview was released and am really happy with how she works, including the recent sports predictions.

Third column of tiles

Previously this feature was only available on the larger, 1080P screen devices but now it is a setting on all Windows Phones. The added density of tiles makes it possible to see even more information on the go, and thereby makes it possible to have more wide tiles which surface more information on the live tiles.

WiFi Sense

 

Windows Phone 8.1: More tiles
Windows Phone 8.1: More tiles

This feature allows one to automatically log in to wireless hotspots, including optionally filling out browser-based login screens which are common at many wifi hotspots. The settings are saved so that the information does not have to be entered over and over again. WiFi Sense also allows one to optionally share wifi username and password with connected contacts (who obviously should be using Windows Phone), so there is no awkward password sharing involved when friends and family visit each other.

Word Flow goes to the next level

The Windows Phone keyboard is one of the best among its competition, especially given the accuracy of its predictions of the next word, but with Windows Phone 8.1, Microsoft added a gesture-based keyboard. This keyboard is similar to the ones found on Android (and coming soon to iOS 8) but combine that gestures with the predictions and you get a fast, fantastic typing experience.

Windows Phone 8.1: Wordflow with gestures
Windows Phone 8.1: Wordflow with gestures

 

Internet Explorer 11

Besides an updated browser engine, Internet Explorer now lets you share favorites, open tabs and most importantly, passwords among Windows devices (as long as they are Windows 8 and above :-)).

New Calendar view

Not only is the Calendar app now a standalone app (as evidenced by updates to the app delivered recently to those who are on the developer preview of Windows Phone 8.1), but it also adds a much-requested week view. The view is very smartly designed because when you tap on the date icon in the app bar below, it keeps the weekly view but simply expands that day of the week. Similarly, if you tap on any other day of the week, it simply expands that day. Tapping it again will switch the view to the daily view.

The Cyan firmware update is applicable to Lumia devices, and as suggested by it being firmware, the update provides lower-level improvements to the device in general. These improvements help Nokia’s great photo applications like Nokia Camera, Creative Studio and Storyteller.

Cyan also delivers a new Device Hub, which is meant to identify devices near you which you can connect to, as well as suggest apps which will be able to take advantage of the connection to the said devices. For example, if it finds a Windows 8 PC nearby, it may suggest Remote Desktop as an app, if it detects a media streaming device like a DirecTV receiver, it may suggest a media streaming app.

For the low-end Lumias like Lumia 520, 525, etc., the HERE Drive app gets bumped up to HERE Drive+. For the high-end Lumias like Lumia 1520 and Lumia Icon, Cyan enables Rich Recording and Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 sound. The high-end Lumias also get improvements in photos with improved colors and even better low-light photos along with RAW images and a new Living Images feature which adds a tiny bit of animation before the shot is taken, to add “life” to the image.

Now, for the not-so-great news. Windows Phone 8.1 and Cyan are available but they have only been delivered to the carriers. The update rolls out based on the carriers’ testing. The good thing is that Nokia is documenting the updates on their page as usual. The page is here.

I have been running the developer preview and I feel it is now up to the developers to bring their apps to the performance level that Windows Phone 8.1 provides, especially on the higher-end devices. I had almost given up on Windows Phone but Cortana and Action Center kept me interested. Along with many new apps coming to the platform, it has become a truly legitimate contender from a features perspective. The market, especially US and China, will of course speak with their wallets, but at this point Windows Phone 8.1 on a recent Lumia is not a bad choice to go for.

Here’s Nokia’s official video walking us through Windows Phone 8.1 and Cyan:

 

All images from Nokia and Windows Phone sites