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Cortana is not only a good-looking artificial intelligence character from the Halo game series, it has also become the official voice-operated digital assistant from Microsoft. And because it is also available on Android, it competes directly with Google Now.

Which one is superior? That is a topic for another day. What we do know is the Search Giant’s solution is not for everyone, so we thought we would show you a bit about how Cortana actually works. The application officially came out of beta about a couple months ago, so it’s time to get playing with it, right?

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See also:

Microsoft officially launches Cortana on Android

December 9, 2015

What is Cortana?

Cortana is Microsoft’s response to services like Google Now and Siri. In a nutshell, it is a digital assistant application that will help you better organize your life through voice commands, quick options and proactive information. You can easily set alarms, organize your calendar, get details on the latest popular sports games, contact people and even joke around (Cortana has a great sense of humor!).

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Home

Most of the magic will happen here. The Home section is where you can either type your inquiry or start a voice action. These commands are right at the bottom of the page. Simply type or use voice to perform any commands. One can easily ask Cortana to search for content, set reminders/alarms, place phone calls, send messages, show the weather and more. Just tap the text or microphone section to jump into action.

Look a bit higher and you will see a crowd information, though. Microsoft has decided to put its cards front and center. Much like Google Now, Cortana presents you with card-style blocks that offer a quick look at relevant information. This will include content like weather, local events, news, sports, travel info, finance updates, food within your vicinity and more. It can all be controlled from the Notebook section, which we will touch on next.

Microsoft really has checked all the right boxes here. The welcoming page is simple, full of helpful information (which can be customized) and has all the input methods you need. It certainly feels cozy.

Notebook

The whole point about services like Google Now and Cortana is that they are personalized. This is a digital assistant, and like a human assistant it has to know you very well. What kind of cards would you like to see in Cortana?

You can now customize your experience to help Cortana provide better information, proactively. Simply hit the 3-line menu button on the top-left corner and tap on “Notebook”. You will be presented with a bevy of options to customize the experience. Start by changing your name to a nickname (it can be whatever you want) under About Me. You can also make a list of your favorite places from the same spot.

Move down the list and you will find a long list of cards to opt in and out of. I would just go through the whole list and customize my experience as much as possible. We know it takes time, but it will really help Cortana get things started. It is pretty thorough, something I happen to like.

We suppose the main difference between Cortana and Google Now is that the latter is a bit more… knowledgeable, at least at first. Google can pull information from all your emails, calendar and other sources. It seems Cortana is a bit more limited in this sense, which is why you need to do things manually.

Reminders

For some reason Microsoft decided to dedicate a whole section of the Cortana app to reminders. I mean sure, reminders are cool, but I don’t know why these couldn’t be tucked away as a secondary menu.

See also:

Listen to this: Microsoft drops “Hey Cortana” hotword from Android app

December 21, 2015

Settings

Cortana is simple… and that’s how it should be. A digital assistant should take a load off your shoulders, not add more chores and preparations to your daily routine. This is something one can clearly see when tapping that Settings option.

For starters, about a third of what we find here consists of legal literature. You know, service agreements and such. We will ignore these for now (as you do).

The settings we actually care about will be mostly on the top part of the Settings page. One cool option is the ability to choose whether or not you want other Cortana-powered devices to get missed call notifications when you… miss a call on your phone. It can be handy if you forgot to take your phone off silent, or you left it charging in a soundproof room somewhere else in the house (it happens!).

One can also opt to put a Cortana Voice shortcut in your home screen. This looks like another app and works seamlessly. Simply tap it: a small window will hover over the UI and Cortana will start listening, allowing you to use voice actions for whatever Cortana can do.

Managing your profile, Bing SafeSearch settings and language are also possible from the Settings.

Putting Cortana front and center

Google Now is built right into your phone’s operating system, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be replaced in every important way. Even something as native as the search function that comes up when you drag your finger up from the home button can be modified to be powered by Cortana.

Once Cortana is installed, Google Now will stop being the default service for this action (in a similar fashion to launchers, in relation to the home button). Simply perform the swipe up from your home button and you will be asked which service you would rather use – Google Now or Cortana (or whatever else you may have). Make your selection and select “Always” (or don’t).

Helpful Cortana commands:

  • Call ____.
  • Call ____ on speakerphone.
  • Redial.
  • Press ____ (number).
  • Text ___: (say the message).
  • Send a message to ____: (say the message).
  • Show me messages from ____.
  • Create a meeting with ____ on ____ at ____.
  • Add ____ to my meeting with ____.
  • Cancel meeting with ____ tomorrow.
  • When is my next appointment?
  • Where is my next appointment?
  • What’s on my calendar for ____?
  • Take note: (say a list of things to do, factors, descriptions, etc.).
  • Navigate home.
  • How is traffic on my way home?
  • Navigate to ____.
  • Where am I?
  • Are there any ____ restaurants near me?
  • What is the status on flght ____?
  • Play ____ (artist, song, album, genre, playlist).
  • Pause the music.
  • Resume the music.
  • Play the next track.
  • How tall is Barack Obama?
  • Who is the president of the United States?
  • What is 5 x 341234?
  • Open camera.
  • Turn WiFi on/off.
  • Show me the top headlines.
  • Convert $100 USD to Mexican pesos.
  • Will you marry me?

There is an infinity of commands you can use, these are only the ones we see as most helpful; especially the last one.

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Wrapping up

So there you have it, guys. This has been your in-depth look at Microsoft’s mobile digital assistant. Now it’s time to decide whether you will use it over Google Now. What do you think? Which one are you opting for?

I happen to prefer Google Now, as it integrates with other Google services, which most of us already use. But if it wasn’t for that, I would be totally down to use Cortana. I have never had any issues with it, and my testing went smooth as butter. It will never have the same integration Google Now has with Android, but that’s to be expected, and it definitely does enough. It also looks sleek, works great and manages to be very helpful. Plus… it’s freaking Cortana!

Edgar Cervantes
Edgar Cervantes has over 5 years of experience in tech journalism. Exploring the latest gadgets and constantly studying the industry are part of is daily drive. Regardless of what he is working on, you can be sure he is always trying his best to bring you the best content. He will be dead honest and will bend to nothing.
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