Meet Cortana: The ultimate guide to Windows 10's helpful digital assistant

Windows 10's Cortana digital assistant is pretty darn easy to use, but she becomes even more powerful with some tinkering.

cortana button return key
Rob Schultz

Today's Best Tech Deals

Picked by PCWorld's Editors

Top Deals On Great Products

Picked by Techconnect's Editors

So long, search. Windows 10’s file-scouring functions have been assumed by Cortana, Microsoft’s smart, sassy digital assistant, which debuted with roaring success on Windows Phone 8.1.

But Cortana does a lot more than simply poke through your local documents. This virtual assistant lives up to its title: setting reminders, tracking your schedule, surfacing news she thinks will appeal to you, personally, and a whole lot more, powered by Bing and Microsoft’s machine learning in the cloud. Cortana’s no search slouch either, responding to your voice and understanding natural language commands like “Find my pictures from June.”

And if you try to get clever, Cortana isn’t afraid to joke right back.

Cortana’s pretty easy to use in Windows 10 after a quick initial setup, but her bag of tricks runs deeper if you dive into the digital assistant’s more advanced features. Here’s everything you need to know about Windows 10’s Cortana digital assistant, from basic training to tips and tricks.

Don't miss: PCWorld's comprehensive Windows 10 review

Training Cortana

To get the most out of Cortana, you need to tell her about your interests. (Jump to page 2 if you’re just interested in seeing what Cortana can do once the assistant’s set up properly.)

windows 10 cortana needs location

Cortana asking for permission to access your location. Click on any image in this article to enlarge it.

The first time you click the search area in the Windows 10 taskbar, Cortana will pop up and ask for a few basic permissions—voice and digital inking recognition, access to your location data, et cetera—as well as the name you’d like her to call you. Answer each as you see fit, though be warned: Cortana’s at her best when you give Microsoft more of your information, much in the same way Google Now is most useful when you’re tapping into Google’s full range of services.

The basic setup shouldn’t even take a minute. After that, you can fine-tune Cortana’s knowledge of you—or slap blinders over Microsoft’s eyes—via Cortana’s Notebook.

windows 10 cortana notebook

Cortana’s settings “Notebook” in Windows 10.

Open Cortana, click the “hamburger” menu icon (three stacked horizontal lines) in the lefthand column, and select Notebook. From there, you’ll see a slew of submenus.

Inside About me you’ll find options to change what Cortana calls you, as well as set specific “favorite” locations. When you create a new favorite location, you search for the address, then give it a nickname and optionally identify it as Home or Work. Afterward, Cortana associates that address with that nickname/identifier when you’re asking for directions, setting reminders, etc.

windows 10 cortana reminders

The “About me” section of Cortana’s Notebook.

Connected accounts lets you tie Cortana into third-party services—currently just Office 365.

Settings is where you control how Cortana behaves. Here, you can disable Cortana completely, enable/disable Bing Safe Search filtering, allow her to listen for you to say “Hey Cortana” to hop into action, decide whether to allow her to look for tracking information (for flights, packages, hotel reservations, etc.) in the other Microsoft services you use, and manage the data Cortana and Microsoft store about you in the cloud.

Eat & drink lets you tweak whether Cortana pops cards with restaurant recommendations, complete with options for notification frequency, restaurant atmosphere, cuisine, price, travel distance, and more.

Events has Cortana pop up suggestions for local events occurring nearby. Be sure to add event categories so Cortana knows what types of outings you’re interested in!

windows 10 cortana eventsThe Events settings in Cortana’s Notebook.

Finance tells Cortana to track specific stocks of your choosing.

The crucial Getting around fine-tunes Cortana’s traffic handling and reminders. By default, notifications for calendar events and traffic conditions around your favorite locations are enabled, but Cortana won’t tell you when it’s time to split for work (or home, from work) unless you opt into it. 

windows 10 cortana getting around settings

Cortana’s Getting Around settings also include public transit options.

Movies & TV has Cortana pop up cards predicting the winners of big award shows, show times for local movie theaters, and trailers for new movies. You can choose whether you want to see each type of card.

Music allows Cortana to toss up cards with music recommendations for popular music from the top of the Billboard charts. I already have Spotify for that, so I personally disable this entire category.

News lets you tweak the news articles Cortana surfaces when you open her interface. The settings cover whether you want to see cards for local, headline, and popular news—but it’s most important to manually add news topics and categories you want to track, to tell Cortana to surface information about those interests specifically. Something especially cool (and kind of creepy): Even if you don’t manually fill those out, Cortana can intelligently learn your preferred news interests over time.

windows 10 cortana news topics

I never told Cortana to follow news about Microsoft—she learned to do so herself by paying attention to my interests.

Sports tells Cortana whether to surface score updates and highlights. You can manually identify your favorite teams to tailor the notifications to your specific interests. (Go Bucs!)

Travel handles how you see details about planned trips, such as up-to-date flight status, notifications for the best time to head out to the airport, whether where you’re heading, et cetera.

Weather provides weather details and alerts for your home, cities of your choosing, or nearby your current location.

Continue to the next page for more details on what Cortana is capable of doing, along with some fun tricks.

1 2 Page 1
Page 1 of 2
Shop Tech Products at Amazon