As Windows Phone gets closer to the PC- and tablet-based Windows OSes, we're starting to see some neat integration bits. Key among those are the new settings sync features in Windows Phone 8.1, which let you sync key settings between your handset and your Windows 8.1-based PCs and tablets.
Settings sync has been available on the PC/tablet side since Windows 8, but Microsoft greatly enhanced this feature in Windows 8.1. Cross-platform settings sync is new to Windows Phone 8.1, but since it works between device types for the first time, it's not just new, it's also quite useful.
Note: To be clear, this article only describes features that sync between Windows Phone 8.1 and Windows 8.1. Both of these systems provide many other items that sync from device to device, but not from OS to OS.
The following features can be synced between Windows Phone 8.1 and Windows 8.1 devices:
This somewhat misnamed settings is set to Off by default on Windows Phone 8.1, and probably for a good reason: It's a bit jarring to change this setting on your phone and have it propagated to what could be for many people multiple PCs and tablets.
Perhaps more problematic, what constitutes a theme varies somewhat between Windows and Phone. In Windows 8.1, a theme has three components: A Start screen "tattoo" (essentially a background, often just a background image), a background color and an accent color. In Windows Phone 8.1, a theme is likewise comprised of three items: a background color (which can only be two colors, black or white, and not any color as in Windows 8.1), an accent color (which can be one of 20 or so colors, depending on the handset, and not any color as in Windows 8.1) and an optional Start background, which can be an image but not an animated tattoo, as is possible in Windows 8.1. Furthermore, a Windows 8.1 tattoo appears "around" the live tiles, whereas the Windows Phone 8.1 Start background appears "through" the live tiles, but only those tiles that are transparent.
Got it? :)
It gets more confusing. Only one theme item is synced and it's not the same thing on both platforms. On Windows Phone 8.1, the accent color is synced. But it's synced to the—wait for it—background color on Windows 8.1. And since Windows Phone 8.1 doesn't support the full range of colors you get in Windows 8.1, the color you get is often approximated if you change it in Windows.
Here are a few examples.
Note: If you want the screens to be more consistently colored, change the accent color in your Windows Phone, not in Windows.
Right now, it's unclear which apps in Windows Phone 8.1 support this functionality, but I do know that any app developer can use common APIs between Windows 8.1 and Windows Phone 8.1 and write apps whose settings sync between the two platforms. I'll guess and suggest that the Bing content apps—Finance, Food & Drink, Health & Fitness, News, Sports, Travel, Weather—as well as Bing Maps are most likely among the first to offer this capability. (Only Bing Maps is technically built into Windows Phone 8.1.)
If you do know of any built-in apps that already support this, let me know.
With IE 11 settings sync, you can now view any tabs that are open on your other PCs, tablets and phones, plus sync your Favorites list, history, and browser settings.
If you're not seeing your full Favorites list on the phone, go into Favorites and tap the Folders app bar button. By default, your phone-based Favorites are in a folder called Phone in Favorites, and that's the default view in Windows Phone. But you can view and access the full list if you prefer.
This setting appears to be related solely to Internet Explorer (i.e. web-based) and Wi-Fi network password sync only. But it's possible that universal apps could also take advantage of this feature. The documentation is, as it often is, vague.
Setting it up
If you're familiar with how settings syncs works in Windows 8.1, you won't be hugely surprised by how this works on Windows Phone 8.1. You can configure settings sync through the Sync My Settings interface in Settings.
As with Windows 8.1, the individual syncable settings are not particularly granular. As this system improves, I expect to see both more settings that can be synced and at least the option of a more granular settings. (For example, you may wish to sync IE-based Favorites but not open tabs. Or whatever.)