My Cortana Review

Microsoft Cortana : Gaming Fantasy becomes Mobile Reality

Last weekend was an important family event, so my Aunt texted me to ask for my postcode. Feeling lazy, or perhaps having become acclimated to a new convenience, I reached for my phone, activated Cortana and said "Text Aunty XXXX and tell her {Postcode}". Less than five seconds later, the text was sent off.

That is the comfort of the New Microsoft Cortana; a digital assistant which ships in new Windows phones running Windows Phone 8.1.

Those of you who plays games should find this name familiar. Yes the name Cortana is a homage to the sidekick Cortana of Halo fame. Cortana herself will gladly tell you if you ask her. As for how the name became attached to the digital assistant, it's a funny tech story.

Cortana was actually an internal code name for the A.I and the final name hadn't been decided yet. Late 2013, it was leaked that Microsoft was testing a personal assistant named Cortana. A petition was launched on the Windows Phone user voice site to keep the name, and that tipped the scales internally.

Now many sites have actually done reviews of some kind of Cortana, this is different. I didn't set out going into review mode. Rather, I used my phone as naturally over a period of two and a half weeks, integrating Cortana where it felt best.

About Cortana

Cortana exists as an animated circle which pulses and spins in response to queries. It lives either on the Start screen, in the app list or in the search button. Pressing the Search button brings up a landing page from which one can search, view your "interests" (more on that later), holding it brings her up in listening mode.

One thing about Cortana that differentiates her for Siri and Google Now is her "notebook". This notebook is where all data about you is stored. Who your close friends and family are, where you live, work and other details. The beauty of this is that it does these rudimentary tasks automatically. When I moved to enable a feature known as quiet hours (do not disturb mode), Cortana correctly identified a number of people I'd like to be able to communicate with, even at night.

After two days, a notification popped up asking me about where I work. It had been correctly identified even though I had disabled Cortana on my phone for a while before I fully engaged with it. For those who find this convenience intrusive, Cortana's notebook allows you to let her "forget" things you'd rather her not know. Microsoft assures us that this data stays localized to your phone and is not uploaded to the cloud, to avoid any privacy issues.

Using Cortana

Once Cortana has been accessed, you can use her either by speaking or typing into the search bar. She understands my speech really well, though I talk fast and have an English accent. As for Cortana she is both in Beta and configured for the US of A. Again Microsoft assures us that it'll be released in the UK and China during the second half of the year as well as come out of beta, so that shouldn’t be much of a downside. Those not in the USA can simply get it by changing their phones' region to the USA, which has the negative of restricting you from purchasing apps in any currency but dollars.

My first voice command to Cortana was "I'm hungry". Impulsive, spur of the moment and true, it was up to Cortana to respond to this primal human desire. And respond she did, she surfaced a list of restaurants in the area . A follow up command was understood really well. Not a robotic command or anything pre-programmed, but natural speech like "which one stays open", "what's the latest time I can get there" and "which one's the best". Of course, the difference between "I want a sandwich" and "I want to eat a sandwich" is the difference between a list of sandwich shops and a web search on the term "I want a sandwich".

On the more hilarious side of things, my request around the term babysitter was transcribed as face-sitter. I'd never closed a search page that fast in my life.

The question I wanted to know of course, was whether Cortana was better than Siri or not. Since Cortana confirmed to me that she helps save the world in a few hundred years, I concluded that a superhero digital assistant was better than one tied to fruits (not really).

When the Amazing Spiderman 2 came out that week, like every other geek, I decided to see it. When asking Cortana about it, I was queried whether I would like that to be included in my interests. that is, a list of things I'd like to be updated on. I'm almost certain Siri lacks this functionalty and Google's own Google Now would just assume that I want to receive updates about it forever. Being asked places control in the hands of the user, and being updated about your favorite interests at the push of a button is a convenience you don't miss till you have it.

Another utility which I made use of during my two weeks of testing was it's reminder feature. You see, while Cortana was able to remind people when to leave home and when to head back to work, I never stick to a planned schedule. Though Cortana does have enough grasp on my schedule to know when I should be going to work and back, so that when I'm late automatic directions appear on Cortana's landing page, it has never been sent me an alert at a specific time to get going. In addition, this instability in my movements ends up making reminders based on time practically useless to me. Luckily, the inbuilt location reminders came in handy, allowing me to set reminders which activated when I entered or left a place, usually by voice. Reminding myself to buy headphones when I left school and at Holloway road was just the matter of two voice commands. However, setting the reminder for Holloway road was slightly more complicated than when leaving work ending with me manually inputting the address. This slight imperfection broke the otherwise seamless experience.

I could also use Cortana to do the general things like setting alarms, playing music, launching apps and even jumping straight into an app. For example, I was able to jump directly on a page in the app about direct realism just by using Cortana. The only problem is the apps, as far as I can see, don't all support the natural language features and a fallback to stilted, scripted commands was necessary.

Overall, before carrying out this little experiment I had already figured that Cortana would be a gimmick which I would use for a week and then drop. That hasn't been my experience at all. Despite minor flaws here and there, I have been able to integrate her into my day-to-day use of my phone successfully. Siri is unfortunately still a bolted on addition in my experience of the iPhone and the experience of people I know. I believe the test of a true digital assistant is its ability to intelligently act without your input while you still remain in complete control. Cortana passes that text and I think I'll hold onto her a little longer.

For those who still can't decide, this humorous clip from Arsenio should help you out

My brief review of Cortana- Any critiques can go below