Cortana reaching more markets, Windows Phone 8.1 Update 1 packs neat goodies

By Alexandra Burlacu | Jul 30, 2014 05:58 AM EDT

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Microsoft's Windows Phone 8.1 virtual assistant, Cortana, is finally ready to hit new markets, reaching the UK and China soon as promised.

The first builds of the latest Windows Phone 8.1 mobile operating system rolled out more than three months ago, and Microsoft is now ready to release the first update for the OS. Update 1 will become available next week as a developer preview, and Cortana is front and center because the beta program will finally expand the feature to the UK and China.

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"We have been thrilled by the excitement around Cortana in Windows Phone 8.1. And we're excited to make her available for people in China and the UK with this update as a 'beta' and in Canada, India, and Australia as an 'Alpha,'" Microsoft's Joe Belfiore announced in a new company blog post on Wednesday, July 30.

Users in the UK and China will be able to enjoy all of the goodies Cortana has to offer, plus some specially-tailored features. In China, for instance, users will be able to get info on a variety of topics, including air quality, local celebrities, commute times, and so on. Moreover, the Chinese version will also boast Mandarin support and deliver some unique animations, visual features, and sounds. For the UK, Cortana will support UK spelling and pronunciation, while Bing-powered local data will keep users informed on sports teams for the EPL, the London Stock Exchange, commute conditions, and more. Microsoft further adds that it has tweaked Cortana's personality for the UK to be "more locally relevant."

Cortana will also get some neat improvements in the U.S., such as natural language scenarios, snooze times for reminders, as well as personality enhancements (you'll be able to ask her to do an impersonation, for instance). Another ability users will most likely welcome is invoking Cortana hands-free in the car, available for phones connected to Bluetooth kits that are integrated with their contacts lists. If your car kit is integrated with your contacts, simply saying "call Cortana" will invoke the personal assistant.

The "alpha" program rolling out in Canada, India, and Australia, meanwhile, will be an opt-in early-adopter program that will allow interested users in these countries to try out Cortana using English language models from the U.S. and the UK.

Aside from Cortana, Windows Phone 8.1 Update 1 also comes with folder support, which Microsoft calls Live Folders (see image above). Users will be able to drag one Live Tile over another to create a folder, which should help keep things more organized and easier to manage. A new Live Tile, meanwhile refreshes updates and new titles on the Start Screen.

Lastly, Microsoft also added a new mode called Apps Corner, which will allow users to grant others access to specific apps only, while keeping the rest of their device private. There are also plenty of small enhancements and tweaks ready to improve the Windows Phone experience, so check out the company's announcement to learn more about it.



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