Tip o’ the Week #262 – Windows Phone 8.1 Update

clip_image002Well, it’s been an exciting week. We might not have laser beams but we will get “HoloLens(though we’re not quite at the “Help me, Obi-Wan…” level of holo-projection). Augmented Reality may be about to get really powerful and mainstream, though one departed great was adding to reality at the height of Reaganomics, almost 30 years ago

Windows Phone as a name is reportedly going away, to be replaced with just “Windows 10”, but there’s still some innovation to come before the availability of the new phone version, later this year (preview here, maybe?).

The upgrade known as “Windows Phone 8.1 Update” is making its way in the world; some new phones already have it installed, while others are getting it as we speak. Lumia users will see a new package of updates that includes Windows Phone 8.1 Update, known as “Lumia Denim”: see here for an overview or look here for detailed rollout information.

Some highlights

clip_image006There are a few particularly cool additions; like the ability to group icons on your home screen into folders, where a tap on the group will expand it out into a sclip_image004ection with larger tiles so you can start the apps quickly. It’s one extra tap on the home screen but it means you can get quicker access to key apps without needing to scroll around on the usual list of apps.

There’s also a nice feature called Apps Corner, which lets you pick a few (like Maps, or a good Stopwatch) and allow them to be launched by anyone, without needing you to unlock the phone. It’s a bit like Kids Corner but for everyone else, and you do need to specifically activate it (either by navigating through the settings menu to enable it, or pinning a shortcut to the start screen) before handing the phone over.

clip_image008action center

Everyone who’s on Windows Phone 8.1 will no doubt like the action center, with its quick glance at battery life remaining, the easy jump straight to the phone’s settings or the 4 big tiles that take you to common settings like WiFi and Bluetooth… but did you know you can customise it? Go into settings > notifications + actions and you can replace the 4 default tiles with choices of your own.

Windows Phone 8.1 Update adds the ability to show mobile data on this list – so if you’re travelling and want quick access to be able to switch roaming data on and off, there’s no easier way.

Finally, internet sharing on the Update gets a tweak – you can set your phone as before to be a WiFi hotspot and share out its own data connection to other devices, but you can also now do internet sharing over Bluetooth.

For a full list of what’s new in the update, and for the OS version numbers, see here.

Tip o’ the Week #253 – Using Cortana in the Car

clip_image001There are many cool things that Cortana can do, which make using Windows Phone 8.1 a pleasure. Try asking the following, if you have Cortana enabled:

  • “Find the best nearby restaurants”, then
  • “Which are open now?” …
  • “Traffic to the 3rd one” …
  • “Drive there”

After each command, following commands will work in context with the results from the previous one – though it might take a bit of practice to figure out what you can say, and what is going to reliably be interpreted by Cortana. If you say something she doesn’t understand (maybe she’ll start playing some music or call some random number instead, mishearing “Drive” for “Play” or “Call”) then you’ll lose context and will need to start from the beginning.

One smart function, though, is when you want to use Cortana in your car. The specific UI will vary greatly depending on what car you have, but the important thing is that it may possible to use the car’s own functionality to get at Cortana’s smarts (which will be better than whatever is installed in the car, almost certainly).

Assuming you have Bluetooth handsfree functionality installed, you may have the option of pressing a steering-wheel button to interact with the phone – generally relying on the car systems to recognise names as you read them out, and searching a list of contacts either manually-entered or possibly sync’ed from your phone. Be careful not to faff about with your handset whilst driving – you may be breaking the law. Even in (some) parts of the US.

clip_image003If your car has the ability to see your phone’s directory or phone book, then you should see a contact show up in the list (when viewed in the car – it doesn’t actually appear as a contact on the phone itself), called Cortana.

You may be able to set favourites on your car so that when you press a button, it will dial a particular contact or number – or maybe your car’s Bluetooth setup has enough capability that it will be able to recognise a “call Cortana” voice command.

Even if the car has a less advanced system, it’s generally possible to have a short dial or some other kind of saved contact that’s manually added. If you create a contact in your car’s directory with the number 555-555-9876 and try to call it using the car’s UI, then you’ll see Cortana spring to life – in other words, the phone won’t actually dial that number, it will activate Cortana and will use the Bluetooth functionality in the car to be the mic and speakers for the phone. Don’t worry that it looks like a US phone number – it works on international handsets too.

If you type that number into your phone, then it will attempt to dial – but if you call that number using the car (either by adding a contact or just by entering the number) then you’ll see if the car wins Cortana’s favours or not

Tip o’ the Week #252 – Web browsing on WP8.1

clip_image001Many of us will be familiar with using the web browser on our phones – unkindly, one might say that it’s partly due to the fact that Windows Phone users sometimes don’t have a choice, whereas iOS and Android devices might be redirected to install some native app rather than using a browser to view the content.

The upgrade to Windows Phone 8.1 may have slipped by without you noticing every single aspect of it, one such being the fact that the mobile browser used in Windows Phone is IE11. Not, it is said, just IE for the phone that happens to be the same number as the desktop version, but a richly-featured modern browser which shares a lot of functionality with its big brother.


clip_image003Reading View is one particularly neat usability feature, which changes the way the browser displays pages (and is indicated as available by the same book icon as the Metro modern IE browser on Windows 8.1). Tap the little book and the content on the mobile browser goes full–screen and can also be set to show a particular size of font or background colour too – check the Advanced Settings (found by tapping the ellipsis on the bottom right, then settings and then the advanced settings button at the bottom).

Phone IE11 also gives you more control over privacy settings, so you can turn on the equivalent of the desktop InPrivate settings (like choosing whether sites can track you, put stuff on your device, use cookies etc etc). There’s no “new InPrivate tab” function though, it’s a setting that applies to all browser sessions. See here for more details on privacy settings.

Windows Phone 8.1 also promises to make your life easier by synchronising IE data between your phone and your PC – remembering URLs you’ve visited, usernames you’ve used and more.

However you use it, the browser in Windows Phone 8.1 is now fast, safe, really functional and is a mostly a joy to use. So not being forced to install some ghastly local app for every site you want to visit, maybe isn’t such a hardship after all.

Tip o’ the Week #248 – Sense the WiFi

clip_image002Sense the network: Use the Force.

One of the cool new features in Windows Phone 8.1 is “WiFi Sense” –  it’s enabled by default and, in a nutshell, is used to let other people access WiFi networks you already know about, without them having to type in the network password. It also lets you connect to known open networks or secured ones shared by your friends.

If you connect to a network and put in a password, and you’ve allowed WiFi Sense to do so, then your contacts of a given type (who also have WP8.1), will be able to connect to that same WiFi network without needing to know the password. The actual passcode itself is not shared with the contact directly, but it is sent to their phone in a hashed way that means it can be presented to the network for access, without their phone even knowing what the password is. If you’ve only just shared your home network, it could take a couple of days for it to percolate through the WiFi Sense system and show up on your friends’ phones, so take it easy and give it some time.

clip_image004In practice, this means that if you set a password on your home WiFi, your pals who have WP8.1 will be able to use your home network without clip_image006needing your password (or, in fact, your permission – they’re your friends, after all…). If you live in an apartment block in the city, you might want to be careful about this as you could well have neighbours you know leeching on your broadband, but if you live in a more rural location then perhaps you can trust that the only people within range of your network will be those that you invite onto your property.

The benefit of having WiFi Sense turned on is that your phone will automatically connect to known networks, and use them instead of racking up bandwidth charges on your phone bill (especially handy when travelleing).

The service not only lets you connect to networks enabled by your friends, but open networks are shared by everyone with WiFi Sense switched on (via a crowdsourcing arrangement), and are connected to automatically, accepting T&Cs, providing details like your name & phone number etc. As it happens, the phone comes with a usefully vague set of default information (check it out by going into WiFi settings / WiFi Sense / edit info).

WiFi Sense is available in most countries – for more details or to see more info on how it works, check out the WiFi Sense FAQ.

Tip o’ the Week #245 – Podcasts on Windows Phone 8.1

The topic of Podcasts was raised by a Tip reader some time ago, after Windows Phone changed the way it handled music synching onto the device (remember Zune?). Paul Thurrot suggested a workaround though it did involve using iTunes. Windows and iTunes are generally not Better Together: unless you have an Apple device to use with your Windows PC, you’re generally better seeking freedom from the clutches of AyeChoonz.

Fortunately, other Podcast apps appeared for the truly committed. With the release of Windows Phone 8.1, clip_image002however, a first-party Podcasts app is in the box.

It’s possible to stream or to download podcasts, you can use the built-in search clip_image004facility to find published episodes, or if you know the rss URL of a podcast, then you can just plonk that into the box and it will connect and (optionally) subscribe.

There’s the option of filtering audio and video podcasts, too; our own Channel 9 being one of the top video podcasts, and what better way to learn something useful while you’re on the move?

For more details on using the Podcast app, check out the guide here.