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Windows Phone 8.1 officially announced at Microsoft Build Conference

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Windows Phone 8.1

Microsoft has finally officially announced the Windows Phone 8.1 mobile OS update, complete with voice assistant Cortana and Action Centre notifications.

Microsoft's Joe Belfiore claims it is an "experience that is inspired by people" and is an OS that is "more about you".Windows Phone 8.1 aims to make you more efficient and give you quicker access to settings.

It will be available to roll out to consumers "in a few months", and will be installed on new phones from the end of April/beginning of May.

Action Centre is the brand new notifications centre for Windows Phone 8.1, accessible by swiping down from the top of your display.

You get access to four customisable quick setting buttons and below that all of your notifications from apps and other phone software.

In Windows Phone 8.1 you can personalise your lock screen with a brand new interactive experience, but the feature will not be available at launch. This will enable you to customise your lock screen with interactive themes, presenting notifications, the time and date in varying ways according to your own preferences.

The Start Screen has been modified a bit too. You can now choose a background for your start screen, which is laid underneath your Windows Live tiles - further emphasising Microsoft's focus on "personalisation".

For Windows Phone 8.1, there's also a new version of Skype that takes advantage of the brand new Cortana voice assistant.

Microsoft has updated the Calendar app with new views, the ability to swipe between days to see what's going on in your week.

Wi-Fi Sense is another new feature of Windows Phone 8.1, which lets you take advantage of Wi-Fi networks and connect to free Wi-Fi hotspots when in range. It'll automatically accept the terms and conditions of a portal, and you can even provide an email and personal details Wi-Fi Sense can input for you to cut down on those laborious menus.

The Phone menu has also been updated with Cortana features, like People Reminders (outlined below), and offering access to other communication methods like Skype, making it easier to transition.

Microsoft has also transformed the Word Flow keyboard to introduce swipe typing similar to the way you can with Android.

Cortana Voice Assistant

What's most interesting about Windows Phone 8.1 though is the introduction of Cortana, Microsoft's first mobile personal voice assistant.

Represented by an animated dual circle icon, Cortana's name has been taken from the Halo game series.

It is powered by Bing, so Microsoft claims Cortana pretty much knows everything. She has her very own live tile, which animated directly on the Start Screen.

Cortana fully replaces the search function on your Windows Phone device, and therefore can be accessed by pressing the search button.

The Windows Phone 8.1 voice assistant can perform functions like organising your calendar, sending message and taking notes as standard, but she also has some very advanced features as well. Cortana can be extended via third-party apps, including Hulu and Facebook.

Using a single voice command you can go to a specific apps and carry out functions without having to go through several laborious steps or having to touch the screen.

Microsoft has kitted out Cortana with her very own notebook, which helps her learn all about your interests, habits and favourite people and things. The more you use it, the more she'll know about you and become a more responsive personal assistant.

You can help her by defining which people are in your inner circle. This works with the new Quiet Hours feature, which lets you control who is able to call you during your down time.

Cortana can be given permission to read through your emails and track calendar events, flights and travel plans and present them to you in the Cortana app.

Of course, Cortana can be communicated with via voice commands, just like the iOS Siri and Google Now, but it is also capable of understanding complex written commands.

One special feature of Cortana is "People Reminders". You can ask Cortana to remind you to mention something when you next speak to someone, whether that be by text, voice call or any other communication form.

It's important to remember that Cortana is initially being launched in beta, just so Microsoft can work out the bugs and glitches. It sounds like the voice assistant will only be available in the US to begin with, but the UK will receive it soon.

Read more: Windows Phone 8 tips and tricks

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