Microsoft has announced a free update for all Windows Phone 8 smartphones, adding a notification centre, a Siri-like personal assistant and new home screen options. Here’s all you need to know about Windows Phone 8.1 including release date and new features. Microsoft details the Cortana UK release date which is now available in Beta form. See also: Hands-on review of the Nokia Lumia 930

Windows Phone 8.1: Release date

First of all, it’s important to note that the update will be free and will begin rolling out in the UK on 24 June. The exact date you’ll be able to get it will depend on your smartphone manufacturer.

"The distribution of these incremental updates may be controlled by the mobile operator or the phone manufacturer from which you purchased your phone, and installation will require that your phone have any prior updates. Update availability will also vary by country, region, and hardware capabilities," warns Microsoft.

Microsoft has said the update will be available for all Windows Phone 8 devices, including the ever-popular Nokia Lumia 520. Nokia - now part of Microsoft - will offer its own additional features in the Lumia Cyan update.

The Cyan update is now rolling out (starting on 15 July) to selected Lumia smartphones. Read more about the Windows Phone 8.1 Cyan update for Lumia smartphones.

Windows Phone 8.1: New features

Make no mistake – this is a BIG update. Let’s cover the major new features first.

Cortana release date UK

Windows Phone 8.1 update Cortana assistantThe bad news for British owners is that the Microsoft has said a key feature, Cortana, won’t be coming to UK shores until “late 2014”, and timing might depend on when the assistant is promoted out of its current 'beta' phase.

However, Marcus Ash, Group Program Manager for Cortana, said on Twitter that "Making Cortana available in the UK and China will happen very soon. Weeks not months."

Ash has now tweeted (on 18 July) that "Barring an unforeseen issue, down to less than 2 weeks for the developer preview." adding that Cortana will have a British accent.

True to its word, Microsoft has now made Cortana available in Beta form. You can download the app from the store if you are a registered developer.

If you're not a developer, you can sign up for free here using the App Studio option. We have more information on how to become a developer here.

Cortana

Although playing catch-up, Microsoft would appear to have leapfrogged Apple with its new personal digital assistant, Cortana. Inspired by the Halo character, Cortana works very similarly to Siri. You can ask for things in natural language, rather than worrying about learning set phrases as you do with Siri.

Cortana can set alarms, make calls and send texts, toggle settings on and off, give directions, play music and find local restaurants. It’s context-aware so, like Siri, you can follow one request with another, such as “Find me the nearest pizza place” with “How long will it take to drive to the first place on the list”.

You can also set reminders, including when you arrive at a certain destination. For example, “remind me to pay my gas bill when I get home”. Also, Cortana understands relationships so you can say “remind me next time I speak to my brother to ask about the new car”. The reminder will then pop up when you call, text or email that person.

If you’re in a situation where you can’t talk – because it’s too noisy or quiet – you can simply type the request. Cortana won’t speak back to you, instead relaying the information on screen silently.

Windows Phone 8.1 update Cortana assistant

Cortana goes beyond Siri by keeping a detailed list of your likes and interests in a ‘notebook’ – akin to that of a human personal assistant. You can view what Cortana knows about you in the settings and edit it at any time. Some information she will know automatically, such as the times and locations of your meetings or forthcoming flights. Other information such as your family members or close friends you’ll have to program in, along with your interests.

Better still, Cortana gets Google Now-like capabilities, and can help you make sure you’re not late for a meeting due to, say, heavy traffic.

Windows Phone 8.1 update Action CenterEven better is that Cortana can work with third-party apps as well as core functions. We’ll have to wait and see which apps build in Cortana support – for now, at least, Hulu is on the list for US owners, but there's also Facebook. You can, for example, ask Cortana to show a particular friend's Facebook feed and the app will launch and display the information you requested. Core apps, including Skype, also support Cortana.

Action centre

Long overdue and much requested by users, Windows Phone finally gets a notification centre (right). Much like Android’s, you swipe down from the top of the screen (even if the screen is locked) and you’ll see notifications such as text messages, emails and notifications from apps such as Facebook.

There’s quick access to commonly used settings at the top, including Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, aeroplane mode and internet sharing - again much like Android and iOS’s Control Center.

Quiet Hours

Windows Phone 8.1 update Start ScreenThere are times when you don’t want to be disturbed and Quiet Hours is exactly like iOS’s Do Not Disturb. You set the hours between which you don’t want any noise or notifications, and your Windows Phone 8.1 smartphone won’t bother you. Unless, that is, it’s an important person calling, in which case you’ll be alerted of a call or text message.

Start screen

Last year, Windows Phones with a 5in or bigger screen received a third column of tiles on the home screen. With 8.1, that’s now available to all smartphones, regardless of screen size.

In its quest to make WP the “most personal smartphone”, you can now set a photo as a background on the Start screen. The live tiles become transparent and there’s a parallax effect as you scroll up and down. (Non-live tiles remain opaque so obscure the wallpaper.)

Word Flow keyboard

Windows Phone 8.1 update Word Flow

Another feature addition 'borrowed' from elsewhere is Word Flow. This Swype-a-like means much faster typing, once you've learned how to use it, that is.

Data Sense

Windows Phone has always been good at helping you to stay on top of how much mobile data you’re using, and Data Sense has been improved in WP8.1. You can easily see how much of your allowance you’ve used, as well as which apps have eaten the most mobile data.

As you approach your limit, mobile data will be limited and – where possible – Wi-Fi will be used instead.

Unfortunately, Data Sense requires support from mobile operators and as of yet, no UK operators do (that we’re aware of).

Along similar lines, Wi-Fi Sense – another new feature – automatically connects you to “good-quality, free” Wi-Fi hotspots. Plus, it will also allow you to connect to your Facebook, Skype and Outlook friends’ secure Wi-Fi hotspots.

Storage Sense completes the trio, making it easy to move content between the internal memory and SD card.

Finally, Battery Saver aims to improve battery life by displaying which apps are using battery power – helping you to know which ones to close when your battery is getting low. Microsoft says you can expect 24 hours’ use even when there’s 20 percent remaining.

Core apps

As well as all the new features, there are plenty of app updates. Calendar gets a new week view, and now looks more like Outlook on your PC.

Music, Video and Podcasts are split into separate apps and, in Music, you can edit playlists and manage songs stored in the cloud. In Podcasts you can subscribe to any RSS feed and also has a Bing-powered search covering every country where Windows Phone is available.

The Photos app gets an overhaul, too. There's now automatic organisation (much like iOS's Moments) where photos are grouped by time and location. There's also new support for online albums, but there may be a wait for third-party apps to add WP support to their services.

As well as an updated interface for the Camera app (and the addition of a burst mode), Nokia Lumia owners will get extra updates in what's being called the Lumia Cyan update. This includes an improved camera roll with faster access to editing tools. Usefully, Cinemagraphs and Smart Shots are now included in the camera roll as well, instead of being hived off. An update to Nokia Creative Studio means you'll have five new filters.

Perhaps best of all, if you use your Lumia for navigation, is a free update to HERE Drive, offering extra country maps (97 to be precise). In fact, this isn't just good news for Lumia owners, as HERE Drive+ will be made available to all Windows Phone 8.1 devices for free!

HERE Drive+

Follow Jim Martin and @PCAdvisor on Twitter. Add Jim Martin to your Google+ circles