Monday, June 16, 2014

Windows 8.1, shape writing etc.

Last night, I wasn't sufficiently exhausted by the usual Sunday floorball match and card games so I decided to upgrade my Lumia 520 to Windows Phone 8.1 preview for developers. You register yourself as a developer and then "check for updates" offers you these beta updates, too. You can't return to 8.0 and may void some warranties. But you will be upgraded to the final version of Windows Phone 8.1 when it's out. The upgrade process was free of any glitches (you shouldn't try to interrupt the process by taking pictures etc.! Be sure that you don't run out of the battery in the middle!) but it took hours to be completed.

There are various improvements. You may see that the tiles may be transparent and show a background image behind them. You may increase the number of columns of tiles from two to three. FM radio is moved to a special application, a new file manager works, an Android-like "notification [action] center plus fast settings" is added via the top swipe. Cortana is a personal assistant, Microsoft's answer to Siri (it only works in English and Chinese so far). A battery supervisor is improved much like tons of other things. Applications and everything else may finally be saved to the removable SD card.

And so on, and so on. But there is one particular detail I wanted to check and it seems to work remarkably well: shape writing.

So far it only works for the English keyboard. But it is the fastest mobile method to type text as of today – at least a 15-year-old boy who has used shape writing is registered as the speediest mobile typist in the Guinness Book of Records. You keep your finger on the screen as you are typing a word. Leaving the screen is enough to write a space.

Of course, you could be worried that you have to stop for a while to tell the program whether you're just transferring your finger over a letter or you want to type it, you may be worried about the inaccurate positions what you're typing, you may be confused about the way how to type two identical letters after one another, how to type apostrophes, and so on. But all of these things are being forgiven in a highly optimized, fuzzy way. In some sense, the artificial intelligence behind the program must be similar to the Shazam song recognition software.

For example, you write the word "theory". So you continuously move your finger along the five lines between t-h, h-e, e-o, o-r, and r-y, but the point is that you don't have to be terrible accurate. If you move the right shape by half a letter to the left, the system will still determine that in some possible space of shapes, "theory" has the closest shape to one that you actually drew, and "theory" is typed, anyway. That's why it should allow you to type even if you're not looking at the display. You may omit apostrophes in "won't" – "wont" is good enough to type it – and many other things, too. Of course that if you want to type some words that aren't found in the appropriate dictionary, you have to realize that and type it in the old-fashioned way. But the new way is clearly faster. Maybe even 2 times faster than the normal letter-by-letter typing.

It's just one feature I decided to highlight, of course.

I recommend all Windows Phone 8 users to carefully upgrade to Windows 8.1. But if you want to be really sure that you don't damage it by somewhat risky experiments, wait for the late July or early August when Windows Phone 8.1 rolls out for most or all Lumias with Windows 8 and perhaps for other Windows Phone phones, too.

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