Cortana is Windows Phone’s new voice controlled personal assistant, but what can it actually do – and how can you say the right thing to get the right response?
Get Started: Summon Cortana
You won’t be able to use Cortana until it is installed and activated. Included as part of the Windows Phone 8.1 update (install the preview version now to activate Cortana on your phone), British users will find that Cortana needs configuring – at least until the final Windows Phone 8.1 update is rolled out later in 2014.
You have a choice of two ways to summon Cortana. The first is to tap the hardware Search button – once Cortana is activated, the old search tool is replaced (although bear in mind that Cortana still relies on Bing for voice recognition and all of the information that you might search for.
It is also worth adding a Cortana shortcut to the Start screen. This will display any information that you might have requested to be updated about (such as your favourite news topics) – it’s like the Google Now page on Android.
This screen can also be used to speak to Cortana, but unlike the Search button, it doesn’t automatically accept voice input. Instead, you’ll need to tap the microphone button.
Cortana’s First Launch
On first launch, Cortana will ask you some information that it needs to get started. You’ll have to provide your name, details about your interests or hobbies, and Cortana will use these data plus the online accounts you have set up on your phone to provide reminders and updates based on your calendar and emails.
Information is compiled into the “Notebook”, which can be edited and added to. Accessed via the three lines in the top-right corner, here you can add more interests and set reminders, specify quiet hours and add contacts to an inner circle.
These tools can be used to determine whether a particular person will be able to contact you during a particular time, or when your calendar is marked as busy. An automatic text message can also be enabled to contact anyone whose call has been ignored.
Finally, you can set favourite places and access Xbox Music via the music search tool. Places you add might be your home, place of work, regularly-visited supermarket, residences of friends and family, etc., and remember to set meaningful nicknames for each – this can prove useful when setting reminders, as they can be activated by location.
Speaking To Cortana
Despite the ability of the previous voice activated tools for Windows Phone, they were never really able to compete with Siri and Google Now. Clearly Cortana is an attempt to deal with this disparity, and it works well, even at this pre-release stage.
Phrases you can use with Cortana include:
“remind me when I get home to cook dinner for my wife.”
“How is the traffic to [PLACE]?”
“Take a note…” (this will be saved to OneNote)
“Call [CONTACT] on speakerphone”
“Find nearby bars”
“What do I have this afternoon?” (in reference to your calendar)
“What is the address of…?” (when the directions are displayed, you can ask Cortana to “Navigate there” to launch your satnav app)
“Text [CONTACT]” (you can then dictate the message)
“Show me emails from [CONTACT]”
Cortana seems to be able to handle requests with multiple instructions, which is encouraging, especially for an app in the pre-release stage, so feel free to mix and match phrases!
Cortana and Multimedia
Cortana can also help you to listen to music on your phone. Say “Play…” followed by the song, album or artist you want to listen to, for example – you can pause and resume playing tracks by uttering “pause” and “resume”, or “skip track” to move on through your library of MP3s.
Integration with apps depends in part on the app in question, but you can use Cortana to launch TV and movie streaming apps at this stage – Cortana integration will no doubt be widely available by the time Windows Phone 8.1 is officially available.
Have Some Fun With Cortana!
It isn’t just the dry, work-related stuff that Cortana can help with – she also has a sense of humour.
Try the following questions and commands:
- Tell me a joke?
- Do you have a sister?
- Are you pretty?
As you may know, Cortana is named after the AI system in the Halo series of videogames. This prompted Microsoft to have a bit of fun with the responses that are given to some of the following questions:
- Tell me about Halo 5?
- Are you really Cortana?
- Why are you blue in color?
Meanwhile, be aware that Cortana is not able to be used by minors. Anyone under 13 who attempts to instruct the digital assistant will be informed: “I’m sorry, you’ll need to be bit older before I can help you.”
Cortana Can Take Windows Phone To The Next Level
The ease with which this new feature can revolutionise the way you use your Windows Phone is considerable, and Cortana is as pleasant to use as iOS’s Siri.
With the full rollout of Windows Phone 8.1 later in 2014, if you haven’t already downloaded this developer preview (which is basically open to everyone) now is a good time to enjoy Cortana and see how Microsoft is doing with voice search.
Let us know what you think of Cortana.