Microsoft has begun rolling out the Lumia Denim update for select Windows Phone 8.1 handsets, the company announced.
Among the biggest changes is how Cortana, Microsoft's answer to Apple Siri and Google Now, interacts with users. "Your virtual personal assistant's improvements include natural-language scenarios, snooze times for reminders, and the ability to chat with her in your car via car-kit integration," Microsoft blogger Rhea Borja wrote in a company blog post.
Cortana is also doing a little more globetrotting, revealed Borja. "Originally available in the U.S., Cortana will now also be available in China and the U.K. in 'beta' and in 'alpha' in Australia, Canada India, France, Italy, Germany and Spain," Borja said.
Cortana also gains hands-free operation, similar to the voice-activated implementations of Google Now on Android smartphones.
"Simply say 'Hey Cortana' while the Lumia phone is in an idle state and Cortana will be activated," instructed Borja. "No need to press the microphone button. This feature will be available for Lumia 930, Lumia Icon and Lumia 1520."
Also new are Live Folders that allow users to organize their apps into folders, freeing up space on the home screen. Taking a cue from Apple iOS, the feature enables users to group apps by dragging an app tile and merging it into another one, creating a folder that users can then label. (The process is detailed in a separate Lumia Conversations blog post.)
Microsoft has improved the camera on certain Lumia models via software tweaks, said Borja. "The owners of the Lumia Icon, Lumia 1520, Lumia 930 and Lumia 830 will also get an updated Lumia Camera, delivering images of the highest quality at the fastest speed with only milliseconds between shots. Lumia Camera also comes with great innovations, such as Moment Capture and Rich Capture."
The new Consumer VPN feature "provides enhanced safety and security for your smartphone when connected to public, unprotected WiFi networks," Borja said. Rounding out the updates are improvements to the Internet Explorer Web browser and a revised Glance Screen that displays information from the MSN Health and Fitness app.
The update arrives during a busy month for Microsoft's mobile device hardware units.
On Jan. 5, the company announced a new low-cost phone, the $29 Nokia 215 smartphone for select markets in the Middle East, Africa, Asia and Europe. "With our ultra-affordable mobile phones and digital services, we see an inspiring opportunity to connect the next billion people to the Internet for the first time," Jo Harlow, corporate vice president of Microsoft Devices Group, said in a statement.
The affordable phone, powered by the Nokia Series 30+ operating system, "is perfect for people looking for their first mobile device, or those wanting to upgrade to enjoy affordable digital and social media services, like Facebook and Messenger," she added.
Last week, the company announced two more low-priced phones, both running Windows Phone 8.1. Scheduled to ship in February, the Lumia 435 and Lumia 532 will be priced at 69 euros ($79 U.S.) and 79 euros ($90 U.S.), respectively, and are headed to Europe, the Asia-Pacific, India, the Middle East and Africa.
"With the Lumia 435 and Lumia 532, we've realized our goal of creating the most affordable Lumia devices to date, opening up the opportunity to reach those people who are buying a smartphone for the very first time," said Harlow in a Jan. 14 announcement.