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Earlier this month, Joe Belfiore and the crew at Microsoft took the stage and officially unveiled Windows Phone 8.1. It's been a long time coming, but considering how much Microsoft has packed into the update itself, many believe it was worth the wait. The software upgrade may only come with a .1 delineation, but that doesn't mean it's not big or noteworthy.

A couple of days ago, Microsoft released Windows Phone 8.1 into the wild, but not as a consumer-friendly update. Instead, much like we've seen from other companies, they let developers get their hands on it early, so they can get to testing out there in the real world. In reality, Windows Phone 8.1's SDK has been available for quite some time now, so many individuals out there have been testing out the new features and options in Microsoft's update several weeks before the official software was released for devices.

This is better than an SDK, though. This is the real deal. More than that, though, it finally means I get to play with the newest piece of software.

This isn't a review of Windows Phone 8.1, for two big reasons. The first, is that this isn't final software, but just a developer preview. I imagine things aren't going to work 100-percent of the time (and so far, they haven't), and this isn't meant for consumers, anyway. And second, this developer preview was released on Monday. Just in general, I'd like more time with the new software -- even if, technically speaking, there might not be that many upgrades to inspect.

At face value, you'd probably never know that Windows Phone 8.1 is Windows Phone 8.1, and not Windows Phone 8. That is, until you get into the Settings and turn on Background Images. It's a subtle change in and of itself, but the result is something that makes Windows Phone really stand out all over again. We've had Live Tiles long enough now, with their stark color contrasts to the black (or white) background, that if they started to lose their appeal to some folks, it wouldn't be that big of a shock. Adding these Background Images, which plants a picture behind the Live Tiles but doesn't remove their effectiveness to deliver information (and also keeps the black or white background), seems like a small thing but it's honestly one of my favorite new features.

It makes the Start Screen pop all over again.

Action Center is well implemented. It's simple to look at, but that's the way it should be for Windows Phone. There are a few quick setting options you can change at a the top of the drop-down shade, like turning on/off Wi-Fi or adjusting the brightness. Below that, there's the notifications themselves. You can swipe them away if you want to dismiss them, and the response time is quick. Unfortunately, though, swiping away on a single email notification will remove all of the email notifications, which is something I hope changes for the final release.

And then there's Cortana. This is probably just as important as Action Center, to bring Windows Phone up as a real competitor. People love their digital assistants, after all. The troubling thing, for me, is that I didn't get a chance to use Cortana. Not by the time of this writing, anyway. Even as I type this, I continue to try to set up the new feature, but it just won't work -- as you can see from the image above. Plenty of restarts in between efforts, but Cortana just doesn't want to work for me.

So, hopefully, at a later date I'll be able to really work with the new feature, and give some thoughts on it.

(Good thing this isn't a review of a finalized piece of software.)

There's a laundry list of new features in Windows Phone 8.1, some of them are big while many of the others are things that some folks may never pay attention to again. That's the way it is for every app, but the one question I had to answer when I started looking at Windows Phone 8.1, is whether or not these bigger changes are worthwhile. Can they make it all worth it?

The answer to that is yes. Microsoft isn't taking a big leap forward compared to the other mobile platforms out there -- they're making the leap for themselves, and that just so happens to bring them right in-line with the others. This isn't a bad thing, though. As far as I'm concerned, Windows Phone has never been so "level" with the other mobile operating systems out there. Microsoft really has offered up an amazing update to their platform of choice.

Windows Phone is still just as smooth as it's always been, in terms of responsiveness and transitions. It's still a pleasure to use and interact with. And now that the feature set has been filled out, it's really up to the developers out there to really start supporting Microsoft's mobile OS. And we need some new devices, too. 2014 is looking really promising all over again.


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