When Microsoft released a beta for its Cortana personal assistant this past spring, it came with a major caveat: Only US users could partake. With its just-released Windows Phone 8.1 Update 1, however, the company is now offering use of the feature to those in the UK and China as a beta like the US release, and as an alpha in Canada, India, and Australia.
Microsoft notes that while Cortana is going to be the same as we've seen her up to this point in most of these betas, the Chinese release is a bit special. Here, Cortana has an entirely different form (seen below), and in addition, there are new animations and sounds. As you'd expect, this version supports Mandarin speech - voice recognition, text, and speech. Beyond that, it's tuned a bit for the audience that will be using it; as an example, Cortana can tell her users about air quality levels, information about driving restrictions, and local celebrity goings-on.
Cortana in Chinese
That all being said, the UK version of the app has also been tweaked for its target audience, with fine-tuned sports information, enhanced London Stock Exchange information, and so forth. In this version, Cortana has taken on an accent more appropriate for her UK audience.
US users: Don't fret, there are updates for you, as well. These include natural language scenarios, reminder snoozes, and additions to her personality responses. Microsoft dares you to ask Cortana to do an impersonation, and then see what happens. You're also able to now invoke Cortana while driving hands-free. All you have to utter is, "Call Cortana".
Improved Phone 8.1 home screen
Outside of Cortana, Windows Phone 8.1 Update 1 will introduce live folders, allowing you to organize apps on the home screen with folders (an overdue feature, I'd think), an improved Xbox Music app, the ability to select multiple SMS messages at once for deletion or forwarding, and Apps Corner, a sandboxing solution that will come in handy for when you hand your phone over to someone else.
Developers with access to future OS updates, Update 1 will be rolling-out next week. For regular consumers, it'll drop in a couple of months - a bit of a bummer since it looks quite good.