What Is Cortana and What Can “She” Do?

The New Assistant on the Block – What is Cortana

You’ve surely heard of iOS’s Siri, and maybe you’ve experimented with Google Now, but have you met Cortana? She’s the new intelligent digital assistant on Windows, big on speed and even bigger on personality. You’ll know her by the spinning halo with the flat design on all of your Windows 10 devices.

Essential Reading: Cortana vs Siri vs Google Now vs Amazon Echo

Cortana’s voice

And yes, for gamer geeks who are wondering, she’s that Cortana from Halo, complete with the same voice actor for consistency. You don’t need to be a Halo fan to use her features, but it’s a fun bit of wink-wink trivia if you’re in on the joke. And Cortana is gendered “she,” which of course brings up stereotype issues (why is the assistant always a woman?).

All of this aside, however, Cortana is pretty cool — and quite helpful.

How to Use Cortana

Cortana ready on the windows phoneInteracting with Cortana is roughly the same as interacting with any AI entity. You initiate a request with “Hey Cortana,” Microsoft’s “OK Google” equivalent, and then speak normally. You can ask questions about the weather, your schedule, or anything else and get a quick reply.

Things to ask Cortana

Want her to take dictation? She does that too — an incredibly useful feature if your typing is more like hunting and pecking. She’ll remind you of events, read your text messages, get you directions, and more.

She knows some pretty funny jokes (“A Roman soldier walks into a bar, holds up two fingers, and says, ‘Five beers, please.’”), and she’ll even sing for you on command. And yes, you can type in commands, if talking to your computer feels just too weird for you.

You can set your preferences to help Cortana learn what you want to keep track of, and she’ll learn as your relationship develops. She works across devices, too, so if you set a reminder on your laptop, she’ll sync it with your smartphone.

And as mentioned, she’s got a lot of personality, and is more sassy and snarky than Siri, perhaps in an effort to appeal to the millennial crowd.

Cortana on Android and iOS

Currently, Cortana works on Windows 10 phones and PCs. However, cross platform support has been announced! Before the end of 2015, we should see notification support and more for both Android and iOS. Obviously, she won’t be in her fully fledged digital glory on these competing operating systems, but if you’ve got a Windows 10 computer and an Android or iOS phone (which probably describes a lot of people), you’ll still be able to use Cortana across all of your devices.

Really, this is a smart move by Microsoft, especially given the current market share numbers. According to the web traffic analysis tool StatCounter, 6.3% of all computers were running Windows 10 as of a few weeks ago. That may not seem like a lot, but remember, Windows 10 has been out for just over a month, and that number is bound to go up as more users upgrade both their OS and their hardware.

Additionally, according to the International Data Corporation, during the second quarter of 2015, only 2.6% of smartphones were Windows Phones. That’s not a lot. Also, those Windows phones can’t access Cortana until they’re upgraded to Windows 10. So, it’s really in Microsoft’s best interests to create Cortana for more than their own small fraction of the market. This way, it’s available for everyone, it’s easy to incorporate into a daily routine, and it can perhaps grab a bigger market share. Whether or not that actually happens remains to be seen, but it will be interesting to watch.

Essential Reading: Cortana vs Siri vs Google Now vs Amazon Echo – Digital Assistant Face-Off

Insider Thoughts

As with any new digital tool, the tech heads with bylines have lots to say about Cortana and its potential. Here are some thoughts from around the web.

1. Cortana Review on Engadget

Living with Cortana, Windows 10’s thoughtful, flaky assistant

engadget cortana review

via Engadget

Writer Chris Velazco reveals a bit of Microsoft’s Cortana development process, explaining that all of the time spent talking to real life personal assistants to find out the secrets to their success has paid off.

She’s “thoughtful,” he writes, and the fact that she learns your likes and dislikes is incredibly helpful. The actual conversation part of the interaction needs some improvement, he thinks, especially when it comes to integrating user preferences with user queries, but on the whole, he’s very positive about Cortana’s potential.

2. Cortana Review on ZDNet

Cortana blows away Siri and Google Now, may bring me back to Windows Phone

This overwhelmingly complimentary article by Matthew Miller states, “Cortana looks to take the digital assistant way beyond what either Siri or Google Now do and could honestly be the service that helps Windows Phone attract more buyers.”

That’s high praise, but Miller backs it up, citing Cortana’s ability to learn your preferences and its overall usefulness. She “blows away,” the competition, he writes, and strongly suggests that users give her a try; Cortana is much more impressive in practice than in theory.

3. Cortana Review on ComputerWorld

Is Microsoft right — does Cortana clean Siri’s clock?

In this direct comparison to Apple’s Siri, established author Preston Gralla deems Cortana more useful, detailed, and helpful than its more well known counterpart. He applauds her ability to turn plain language questions into serious web queries, as well as her extensive capabilities in calendar scheduling and management. It’s just a preliminary test, he admits, but Gralla is definitely encouraged by what Cortana can do.

4. Cortana Review on MacWorld

Cortana vs Siri: why Siri is still the best voice assistant

Macworld cortana review

via MacWorld

Forget it, reader. It’s MacWorld. There’s no way that they’re going to praise Cortana over Siri. Writer Lou Hattersley does concede that Cortana does have “the edge in terms of being able to semantically being able to segue into your life,” but still insists that Siri is better.

And, he seems to imply, Siri was here first; Cortana is merely borrowing some of Siri’s swag. It’s about what you’d expect from MacWorld, though they are complementary enough about Cortana’s advantages, such as reminders, music recognition, and ability to get flight details.

Do You Like Cortana? I do

Clearly, Cortana is poised to make a big splash in the AI digital assistant realm. That is, as long as users can get over the utter strangeness of having a conversation with a device. The general consensus, however, seems to be that Cortana is pretty fantastic, easy to use, and extremely helpful.

The real test will be once Cortana is available for platforms other than Windows. Will Android users pass on Google Now for Cortana? Will iOS users dump Siri for the new assistant in the cloud? Only time will tell. Stay tuned.

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