Tuesday, April 8, 2014
Microsoft Build Conference Offers New Features and Refinements
Windows 8.1 will be re-introducing the familiar start screen with a Metro desktop added dimension. Windows Mobile devices will soon be sporting their own Siri-like voice recognition assistant, named Cortana. And most promising, Microsoft announced that Windows Mobile for phones and tablets smaller than 9" will be repriced to $0.00. This could bring more devices and a new ecosystem to Windows users (as Windows becomes a feasible option in the new world of internet for devices).
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Here's What You Missed At Microsoft Build 2014
Excerpt: "We came, we saw, we barked orders into a phone. Though Microsoft's annual developer conference is technically called "Build Windows," we actually spent far more time at this year's event playing with handsets -- almost no PCs, come to think of it. Indeed, the star of the show was a husky-voiced lady (fembot?) named Cortana, Microsoft's new Siri-like personal assistant. Of course, Cortana wouldn't exist outside of the next version of Windows Phone (that'd be v. 8.1.), which we also got a glimpse of this week. In case you missed our three-hour liveblog -- or were too busy following our Amazon Fire TV coverage -- we've got a neat recap below. We promise we've left out all the boring bits about developer tools. Mostly, anyway.
OK, we lied: There actually was some Windows news this week. And yes, we did play with at least one full-fledged PC. Microsoft announced a fairly modest update for Windows 8.1, and almost all of the improvements are aimed at winning over mouse-and-keyboard users. For instance, you can now pin Metro-style Windows Store apps to the desktop, with the Windows Store shortcut pinned by default. Speaking of the desktop, PC makers now have the option of booting to the desktop by default, though you're really only likely to see that on traditional PCs, maybe not hybrid devices.
Other changes: When you right-click on something on the Start Screen, you'll see your options pop up right there, where your cursor is, not at the bottom of the page. Wrapping up, there are dedicated power and search buttons on the Start Screen; you can pull up the desktop Taskbar even when using Windows Store apps; and Metro-style programs now have a Title Bar up top allowing you to close out by hitting an 'X' in the upper-right corner. Really, lots of things that should have been baked into Windows 8 to begin with.
Return of the Start Menu
Oh, and speaking of things that should have always been part of Windows 8, Microsoft casually dropped some major news toward the end of its epic keynote: The company is planning to bring back the Start Menu you all know and miss. This time, though, it won't just include a list of desktop programs; there'll also be a second pane over on the right showing Live Tiles with Windows Store apps. Smart move, we say: Not only would it make Windows 8 feel more familiar to new users, but it would also drive home the point that whether it's a desktop app or a Windows Store download, it's all the same OS.
Who needs Siri when you can have an assistant named after the life-saving sidekick in Halo? Though Microsoft's new voice recognition program isn't perfect, it's at least rich in features, and does basically everything you'd expect of a modern voice-controlled personal assistant for your phone. That means you can use Cortana to help you compose emails and texts, set reminders, take notes and search the web (with lots of help from Bing, of course). Also, much like Google Now, Cortana gets smarter over time as she learns more about your various likes, interests and late-night taco addictions (not that there's anything wrong with that). Using a Notebook feature, you can input a lot of this information yourself, including Quiet Hours when you'd rather not be interrupted by phone calls (even then, select people, like your family, can still get through).
In our brief hands-on, we found that Cortana only responded when we phrased our queries in a certain way. (Pro tip: Start with verbs. As in, 'Remind me to ask Brian for a status update.') Also, you have to press an on-screen button anytime you want Cortana to start listening. Still, Cortana's only in beta and indeed, Microsoft tells us it's working on an always-listening mode similar to what you'll find on the Moto X. Better language recognition is also in the works, according to company reps, which means you might get away with saying, 'Can you find me a Thai restaurant in Palo Alto?' Lastly, Microsoft promises the final version of Cortana will have even more 'personality' -- whatever that means."