Some notes up front:
- if you're an old-time AAWP reader and you have a Windows Phone 8.1 device, signed into services, stocked up with applications that you like, then don't factory reset it under any circumstances. You'll have (potentially) dozens of third party applications installed, plus relatively recent updates of some of Microsoft's properties (OneDrive, OneNote, etc.), most of which still work. If you reset the phone completely then you won't get any of these back.
And good luck to you if you're already stocked up and set up, you may be able to get through 2021 and beyond with things still syncing and generally working, and even beyond.
- if you pick up a Lumia 735, 830, 930 or 1520 (to name but four), each of which started on Windows Phone 8.1 but which were deemed worthy of the Windows 10 Mobile upgrade, then I'd suggest you consider forgetting everytihng below and using Microsoft's OTC Updater tool to take these right 'up to date'. or as up to date as W10M got, i.e. January 2020! You'll gain more online access and a working app store.
But for the purposes of this feature I wanted to explore what happened with a factory reset (or newly acquired) Windows Phone 8.1 device. After all, you might see (in 2020) a classic Lumia 920 or 1020 for £30 on Gumtree or eBay and think 'I used to love this, I'll grab it to have a play'. And then you realise that Microsoft's support and Store timetables have left the phones with little way to bootstrap their way into 2021.
But not completely. Here's how I got on with a 'factory fresh' Lumia 1020:
'Out of the box', there's an update waiting - it's 8.1 Lumia Cyan from 2014, downloading and installing! Reported on here, with the changelog over 8.0.
Update complete, the usual action is to head to the Store and update all the built in applications, but wait... the Store has disappeared on Microsoft's servers, plus you can't sign in to your Microsoft account in any capacity under Windows Phone 8.1. Gulp. No applications means that you can't install your favourites - though note that there's a whole side-loading culture now, and I'll investigate that in a totally separate article!
As you might expect, all the basics of a phone work just fine still. Data will be at full 4G speeds (yes, this came in just before the 8.x generation of Lumias), plus calling and messaging are as you'd expect. And tested here.
Twitter is an addiction of mine, but this isn't even useable in the old Internet Explorer here. "Twitter says no", etc. Thankfully, third party web access tools like Dabr can help. Dabr runs in even basic browsers and interfaces with Twitter's API to provide an alternative web view:
All very basic (note the 140 character limit still), but it works in Internet Explorer and most Twitter rudimentals are here. Well, you can browse your timeline and tweet or interact with replies, at least.
There's no support for DMs though - Twitter fundamentally changed how these work a couple of years ago. Sorry. (right) Having got Twitter working (sort of), you can pin the Dabr site to your Start menu. No pretty icon or tile, just a small screenshot of the timeline. But it'll do.
Happily, and somewhat ironically, though Microsoft's servers aren't responding to WP8.1 nowadays, Google's servers are slightly more amenable. So it's possible to add a Google account and then that's email, contacts and calendar all sorted, tying into the 8.1 default applications. Note that even this is temperamental - I got everything working on my 1020 but not my 920! Your mileage wil not only vary, it will change with time, I predict, as servers are updated.
To get going setting up your Google account, try to add it via the 'Google' suggestion and then after the error screen, select 'Internet email' and 'Advanced'. Fill in the server settings as per imap.gmail.com and smtp.gmail.com and your own details. Good luck!
HERE Maps (and Drive+, below) are included in Windows Phone 8.1 and they still work very well, eight years later! Here there are new offline maps available, with 2021 street data. HERE is very much a going concern and all of their old products seem to have access to the same data. Result!
HERE Drive+ about to start full voice-guided navigation on a Lumia 1020 in 2021...! (right) However, before you set up your old Lumia as an in-car satnav, note that the live traffic feed HAS broken over the years. Either you'll get an error message, as above-right, or you'll get "0 mins delay" even through densest traffic which is just as bad. So your guidance won't be able to route around jams and closed roads. Oh well.
Google Drive can be brought up in Internet Explorer, but don't be fooled - although you can browse around and see thumbnails, and even bring up a document view, I couldn't find a way under IE to actually download a file (you can only save the thumbnail as an image!), let alone upload something. So Cloud storage isn't really part of what Windows Phone 8.1 can cope with in 2021!
Microsoft News doesn't work anymore (it needed an app download from the Store), but Internet Explorer brings up the usual news sources (e.g. the BBC here) just fine.
There's a full Facebook client in WP8.1 but... it doesn't work anymore, to no one's surprise. The APIs have changed so much in six years; (right) WP8.1 also includes a standalone Microsoft Maps application (i.e. nothing to do with HERE Maps in terms of code), but this does use the same offline maps that HERE Maps brings along, and this app does have working traffic indicators in 2021, even if they're not actually used when routing.
Office applications work standalone as well as they always did, for example creating an Excel sheet and emailing it off to someone. Just be aware that because of the lack of Microsoft account support there's no OneDrive access. Still, Word and Excel are always handy to have in full editing form.
'Music' (previously Xbox Music, oddly!) works superbly. Load up some albums into the phone's internal 32GB storage and you're away. And with a 3.5mm audio jack (and decent built-in DAC/amplifier) to listen with wired headphones!
Of course, for much of Windows Phone's lifetime, OneDrive was a source of music, i.e. streaming your own collection, but I just couldn't get into OneDrive under WP 8.1 anymore. No files for me. Or documents. Or backups! Still, local music is also good and means not having to worry about bandwidth; (right) remember also that Windows Phone 8.1 had a built-in FM radio client, working with electronics in the phone hardware and your wired headphones as an aerial, and this will work as long as there's FM radio in the world... so decades still!
(Xbox) Video still works - you can browse the Microsoft libraries, with films and TV shows. Though note that I found play options for an old TV series I had bought now greyed out. So your mileage may vary. Plus, of course, you can play your own MP4s, just side load them with drag and drop from Windows, or similar.
YouTube still works well via the browser, here signed in, playing a video and browsing through my (test account's) YouTube playlist library... Again, just pin the YouTube site to your Start screen and you're done.
So... phone, SMS, Gmail, Camera (of course), Office, sat-nav, music, movies, YouTube, FM radio... That's still significant functionality for what might be your secondary phone/mobile device in 2021.
Comments welcome though - have you any old 8.1 devices that might be tuned up in this way?