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.
Windows 8.1 Update
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.
Windows Phone 8.1
But there's more to Windows Phone 8.1 than just Cortana. The OS update, which will hit existing devices in the coming months, brings a number of new features, including a drop-down Action Center for notifications that looks suspiciously like the one in Android. Windows Phone users also get a customizable lock screen and a Windows Store that makes it easier to find featured apps -- two improvements we first saw on Windows 8.1 for the desktop. Additionally, Windows Phone 8.1 ushers in a Wi-Fi Sense feature that automatically accepts the terms of service for networks, and securely shares your router's password with contacts in Facebook, Outlook.com and Skype. Thus, you can give them guest access to your internet, but not your full network. Finally, there's a new weekly view in the calendar, and you can use "Shape Writing" to draw letters on the keyboard, à la Swype.
New Lumia phones
What would a Windows Phone update be without some new hardware to go with it? Once Microsoft finished its three-hour opening-day keynote, Nokia held a party of its own, where we had a chance to play with the newly announced Lumia 930, 630 and 635. Though the 930 is clearly the flagship, it's also incredibly familiar. In fact, it's basically the Lumia Icon we reviewed two months ago, just with support for global LTE (the Icon is exclusive to Verizon in the US). But, for those of you outside the States who have been ignoring the Icon for just that reason, here's a quick refresher: The phone has a 5-inch, 1080p screen, a 20-megapixel PureView camera and a quad-core Snapdragon 800 processor. The main difference, aside from those foreign LTE bands? The color options. Yes indeed, while the US model comes in just black and white, the 930 will also be available in orange and neon green.
Moving on down the line, the 630 and 635 are more or less identical to each other -- at least on the outside. Both have a 4.5-inch screen with an 854 x 480 display, 5-megapixel camera, Snapdragon 400 processor and a modest 512MB of RAM. The main difference is that the 630 is 3G-only with a choice of a single- or dual-SIM setup. The 635, meanwhile, runs on LTE and uses just one SIM. The Lumia 630 will cost $159/$169 off-contract, depending on whether you get the single- or dual-SIM version. The 635, meanwhile, will cost $189.
Get ready to see even more Windows apps on even more devices. As part of its opening-day keynote, Microsoft told a crowd of developers that it will now be possible to write a Windows app for one platform --- say, Windows Phone -- and then port it over to the tablet or desktop, all with minimal work on the developer's end. From there, developers will have the option of offering their apps in such a way that consumers only have to pay for it once, though they'd still be able to download it multiple times across different kinds of devices (tablets, PCs, et cetera). In theory, devs will also be able to write universal Windows apps for the Xbox too, though Microsoft will still curate the selection, as well as decide which apps require an Xbox Live Gold subscription.
Additionally -- and this is big news -- Microsoft announced that Windows would be free for phones, tablets smaller than nine inches, and miscellaneous gadgets that fall into the "Internet of Things" category. That gives manufacturers a bigger incentive to build Windows devices, which can only mean more options for you, the consumer. Finally, Microsoft also said it intends to bring Windows to robots and a "new class of small devices," which we can only assume means wearables.
A look at Office for Windows tablets
It was just last week that Microsoft came out with Office for iPad, and now we're seeing a glimpse of what touch-based versions of Word, Excel and PowerPoint would look like on Microsoft's own Windows OS. After teasing a touch-friendly "Metro" version of Office last year, the company is now ready to give us a slightly deeper look. The company used its day-one keynote to show us a few screenshots of the app-in-progress, which sports the familiar Ribbon UI and makes good use of gestures like pinch-to-zoom, and finger-highlighting. No word yet on how feature-rich it will be, but we can only hope it will be just as functional as the new iPad suite.