Windows Phone 8.1: Worthy update

wp_ss_20140422_0002Windows Phone 8 was already a pretty decent mobile operating system, but the 8.1 update makes it more complete.  While no modern mobile OS is as good as webOS was, Windows Phone 8.1 comes awfully close and some nagging issues it had are gone.

After having used webOS for two years, I got really used to its nice way of managing running applications.  Bring up the card view, swipe left or right then swipe away the app you want closed. Easy. Apple ‘borrowed’ the notion for iOS 7 and made it work.  Microsoft, as is often their way, half assed it: they allowed you to swipe left and right to SEE the open apps, but you had to actually go back in the app and shut it down. Not hard, but not simple and not elegant. Well, they fixed it with a simple, if in-elegant way: hold down the back button, swipe left or right to the app and tap the big X in the circle. Effective, if ugly.

Fortunately, other things are much nicer.

Speed, for one.  The over experience seems a bit snappier, but it could also be that ‘new OS install’ factor. We will see, in a couple of months, if it persists.

The Start page is a bit more customizable. You can now have more tiles across the screen. The number will depend on size of the tiles and the screen. You can now use a custom background as well. Be careful here, some of the live tiles may become unreadable if the background contains the same color as the live tile text.

Storage Sense is a nice new feature that not only lets you know about much of your phone’s storage is being used, but it also allows for the installation of apps to an SD card-something that was not previously allowed.  You can also tell Windows Phone to store your downloads on the SD card as well.

Of course, the BIG new feature is Cortana. Cortana is the new personal assistant from Microsoft that is designed to act like Siri or the Google Android equivalent.  Cortana can not only answer questions, but can also do things like add a calendar entry, to do item, set up ‘quiet time’ in which it will answer email, texts, phone calls, etc. It stops the phone from making any noise and lets the calling entity know why.  I have not fully tested this, so I cannot verify it does what it claims, but, if it works as well as the rest of Cortana, then it should be fine. 

This is a worthy upgrade and one that really cleans and polishes some of Windows Phone’s dirtier corners.  It is not perfect, but none of the others are either (well, save for the aforementioned webOS. Have I mentioned how much I liked webOS?) and stills need a bit more refinement.  For example, while overall performance is better, it seems to stumble when reloading the Start page. Some times it comes right up, other times…not at all or very, very slowly.  To be fair, I am running the developer preview, which is supposed to be the shipping bit but without any carrier or phone optimization, which means there are no device specific drivers or other such things to make the overall experience optimal for the device. It also speaks volumes for the work that Microsoft has done: the developer preview will work on ANY Windows Phone 8 device. As is.  That says a lot right there.

** If you wish to take the plunge now and not wait for the official release, you can go here to get instructions on how to update your Windows Phone 8 device to 8.1. NOTE: it is a one way ticket, you cannot revert back to Windows Phone 8 and you WILL lose carrier support (not service) until the ‘official’ release is out. This means, if you upgrade to the dev release and then have a problem using your device, your carrier will not assist you.  Now, if you want to continue…click the link. (The link takes you to Paul Thurrot’s WinSupersite. The article is dated, but the instructions still work.

Advertisements

Siri alternatives: Google Now, Evi and Vlingo. Which is best?

Since I got my company issued iPhone 5, I’ve had the opportunity to play around with Siri, the voice search application that began with the iPhone 4s.  I’ve had mixed results with it and, generally, do not use it. However, that does not mean I don’t like the idea. Far from it, I do.  It’s just that the Siri implementation is, well, sorely lacking. And, for some reason, I can find out the meaning of life yet cannot get results for NASCAR.

Bias aside, I can blame some of the poor results on Apple’s algorithm. Some of the witty results are from Wolfram Alpha while some, I am sure, are from Apple itself. (Ask it who let the dogs out…go on, I dare you.)

Since my personal phone is an iPhone 4, I do not have Siri. Neither does my first gen iPad.  However, all is not lost. See, there are a few apps that do some or all of what Siri does and more.

I have tried out three alternatives and my results are below.  Each one of the apps are free but there are paid ones as well. I have not tried them.

GoogleNowGoogle Now

Google Now is the most complete of the three apps I tried. It has the power of Google search behind it and, in my opinion, is more responsive than even Siri. Google Now also works on PC’s and Macintosh. Google Now also gives you access to Google goggles and a host of Google apps. But, how useful is it?  In a word: VERY.

I am not a huge fan of Google, in fact, I use Bing as my primary search engine but Microsoft does not have something like Google Now (it did, way back in the Windows Mobile 5 days with Live Search. That was pretty good, for 2006.) That said, I think Google not only did a good job with Now, I find it better than Siri in so many ways. It returns better search results, does not give as many smart assed answers (though some of them that Siri gives are funny) and it knows about NASCAR.

eviEvi

Admittedly, I did not try this one as extensively as the others. In a word, it’s confusing. However, it did come closest to Siri, even using Siri’s voice(!). However, it failed to discern Erie, Pennsylvania from Gary or Yearly when I asked for the distance between that location and Mechanicsville, Virginia. Some results it spoke, most it just returned a web page. This was my least favorite of the three. It had far too many options as well and was the worst of the three in picking up my voice.  To be fair, however, I tried it on the iPhone 5 and Siri seems to misunderstand quite a lot as well, so maybe it is either the microphone on the 5 or neither like my voice. Evi also seems to be iPhone ready as it fills the screen completely.

VlingoVlingo

Vlingo is interesting in that it has hooks into email, sms, maps and your social nets as well as search. It really does create an email with the to, subject and body all filled in. It really does create an SMS message and will post to Twitter or Facebook. The problem, though, is that you have to use specific words (which makes sense) and it must understand what you want. Here’s where it seemed to have problems. For me, it mostly understood me, it just did not do what I wanted. And, when it did, you still have finish the task by tapping an onscreen button.  Why can’t you just say ‘Vlingo, send’ or ‘Vlingo, done’? I like what they are trying to do, they just need to go a wee bit further. Oh, one additional gripe: you must tap the screen when you are done speaking. It was the only app to require this. I suppose it is so the apps knows when you are dictating, but it makes little sense.

Of the three (and Siri,) I prefer Google Now. Vlingo, when the bugs are worked out, will be a strong contender, but, for now, Google wins.

All three apps are in the App Store, work on iPhone 4 and up and are free.

EDIT: I neglected to mention that Google Now and Evi are also available on Android and gives Android users a Siri like experience. Evi is currently in Beta. Vlingo is also availble on Blackberry and Windows Mobile (no mention of Windows Phone, though.)

iPhone 5: Are you Siri-us?

iPhone_5_34Hi_Stagger_FrontBack_Black_PRINTYes, I know Siri came out before the 4S. But, it was the 4S that made Siri more common. With the release of the iPhone 5, however, Siri is probably the most well known and used non-existent assistant ever.  And, for good reason.

First, let’s talk iPhone 5.  The phone is nice looking, thin and light-almost too thin.  It is a tad taller than the 4 and 4s, which means it has more screen.  That’s nice, but not a huge selling point since it is the same width.  Apple, if you want to make the screen taller, make it wider as well or just don’t bother.

Size difference aside, iPhone 5 is an iPhone 4 or 4s with a faster (much faster) processor.  So, I’m not going to indulge in another iPhone 5 review. Suffice it to say, it’s a decent smartphone with a really good eco-system.

Now, what really makes it shine, however, is Siri.  I have to admit to being a tad (ok, a LOT) skeptical that Siri was nothing more than Apple induced hype.  Well, some of it is just that, hype. But, there is a real utility to Siri and that is enough to make it worthwhile to upgrade to iPhone 4s or 5. 

Siri, put simply, is a combination of on phone software and a robust back end. Siri, at its core, is a glorified search engine. It searches both your phone and the internet for answers to questions that you ask, verbally.  Any question is fair game, unless you ask Siri about NASCAR, at which point Siri is totally useless. More on that in a moment.

You can ask very serious questions, like what’s the current temp or what’s on my schedule for today. Or, if you are like my kids, ask it stupid things, like ‘Who let the dogs out?’ (which, by the way, she will answer. Go ahead, try it. I won’t spoil it for you.)  My 15 year old carried on a conversation with her for about ten minutes. It was quite entertaining.

Apple is using Google, Yahoo! sports and Wolfram Alpha. With the latest iOS 6 update, you can also purchase movie tickets via Fandango. So, there is lots of useful things you can use Siri for, except, as stated earlier, questions regarding NASCAR. For whatever reason, Apple chose to exclude the nation’s number one spectator sport.  You can ask her about the current year stats in baseball and football (other ‘sports’ are, I’m sure, there as well) but not about NASCAR.  So, why are they prejudiced about the country’s most popular spectator sport? It isn’t Yahoo! Sports, I know. They cover the sport nicely. No, it has to be someone in Apple.  Someone who still thinks it is not a sport or it’s a southern thing.  Whatever. You can’t fix stupid, I suppose.

Sport elitism aside, Siri is, dare I say, pretty cool. Makes me wish I had it on my iPhone 4 that I use everyday. But, I am not going to fret too much. In another year and a half, I can upgrade my 4 to a 5.  If, that is, Sprint still does not have a decent Windows 8 Phone.

Enhanced by Zemanta