Meet Cortana, the digital assistant of the future
Possibly the most significant addition to Windows 10 is Cortana, the digital assistant that first debuted in Windows Phone. The first thing you should do is tap the “Ask me anything” search field in the lower left and set up Cortana. Yes, Cortana noses into all aspects of your digital life—your calendar, location, interests, email, and more—but it’s worth it.
On Windows 10’s lock screen, you can set up several apps to display minimal or detailed information. But tapping Cortana at the beginning of each day provides a terrific summary of what you need to know: the weather, relevant news, local interests. Just make sure you manually connect to your Office 365 account, if you can, to surface relevant work-related information.
Oddly enough, my HP Spectre x360 lacked a microphone of sufficient quality (in Windows 10’s view) to enable the “Hey Cortana” feature, which actively listens for that keyphrase as a summons. That didn’t stop it from working, although Cortana still had a disconcerting tendency to trigger multiple devices within earshot.
Voice commands take some getting used to. But there’s something so handy about telling Cortana to remind you to pick up eggs and milk at the store. Of course, you can also do this with your Windows Phone, which brings location into the equation—you can either remind yourself to buy eggs at the store, or, when you’re at the store, your phone can remind you to buy eggs. Unfortunately, once a reminder is set, it’s set—you can’t adjust the time. I also had no luck trying to set a reminder with my Windows Phone 8.1 phone and having it talk to Windows 10 Cortana behind the scenes.
Cortana even takes dictation—such as an email to your boss, for example, while you’re working on another screen.
One issue I do have with Cortana is that, like the early days of search engines, she sometimes requires specific phrasing. Saying “what can you do?” to Cortana helps establish her limitations. But commands that seem natural – “Play some Rolling Stones” – just aren’t recognized. (“Play my music” seems a little vague.) In the email example above, I had to “Send an email to Melissa,” then pick the correct “Melissa,” then dictate the email, and so on. Microsoft touts Cortana’s natural language capabilities, but there’s significant room for improvement.
Cortana’s reminders and other updates pop up as notifications that “fly in” from the lower right. I particularly like the way Microsoft handles these. A reminder will plop itself into my peripheral vision and squat there until I deal with it. But email appears only briefly, sliding in with the sender’s name, subject, and first lines, then vanishing—tucked away in Outlook or Mail for later.
If you miss a notification, though, don’t worry. You’ll find them all archived in the Action Center notifications tab, accessed by the speech balloon icon in the lower right.
I suspect Cortana will be one of Windows 10’s more polarizing features. Home users won’t mind yelling at Cortana for the answer to a question, but workers in a busy office will probably think twice about asking Cortana to email their doctor about that strange rash.
Next: Exploring the new frontier of virtual desktops
Microsoft Windows 10
Windows 10 drives the PC platform forward with its mix of powerful, productive features. Only a few bugs and design issues mar its shine.
- Free upgrade for Windows 7, Windows 8.1 PC owners
- Cortana digital assistant is potentially powerful
- Start menu takes best of Windows 7, Windows 8
- Still some obvious bugs at time of review
- Thematically, some apps are just plain dull
- Microsoft Edge browser underperforms competition