Cortana: Everything You Need to Know About Microsoft's Virtual Assistant

Meet Cortana, Microsoft's virtual assistant

A screenshot of a man sitting in front of three computers and using his phone
Figure 1-1: Cortana is available for almost any device. Getty Images

Cortana is Microsoft’s virtual digital assistant that's available on Windows laptops and PCs, plus Android phones and tablets. If you’ve ever used Siri on an iPhone, Google Assistant on Android, or Alexa on Amazon’s Echo, you are already acquainted with this type of technology. (If you are familiar with Hal from 2001: A Space Odyssey, you’ve also had a glimpse into their fictional darker side!)

What Cortana Can Do

Cortana has a ton of features.

However, she serves as your personal news and weather channel by default, so that’s likely the first thing you’ll notice. Just click with your mouse inside the Search window on any Cortana-enabled Windows 10 Taskbar and you’ll see the latest updates there.

Cortana can be an encyclopedia, almanac, dictionary, and thesaurus too, though.  For example, you can type or say things like “What’s another word for intelligent?” and immediately see a list of synonyms. You can ask what a particular thing is (“What is a gyroscope?)”, what date something happened (“When was the first moon landing?”, and so on.

Cortana uses the search engine Bing to answer factual questions like these. If the answer is a simple one, it will appear immediately in the Search window results list. If Cortana isn’t sure of the answer, she will open your favorite web browser with a list of results that you can examine to find the answer yourself.

Cortana can also provide personalized answers to questions like “How’s the weather?” or “How long will it take me to get to the office today?” She’ll need to know your location though, and in this example, she must also be allowed to access to where you work (which she might glean from your Contacts list, should you allow it in Cortana’s settings).

If you’ve given Cortana permission to access your location, she can start to act more like a real assistant and less like a glorified search tool. Thus, we highly suggest you do that when prompted (unless you have a really good reason not to). With your location enabled, if you ask “What movies are playing near me?”, she’ll be able locate the closest theater and start reading off movie titles. Likewise, if you ask "Where's the closest bus stop?" she'll know that too.

You can give Cortana additional permissions beyond your location to get even better performance. If you allow Cortana to access your contacts, calendar, email, and messages for instance, she can remind you of the appointments, birthdays, and other data she finds there. She’ll also be able to set appointments for you and remind you of upcoming meetings and activities if you ask her to.

You can ask Cortana to sort through your data and provide specific files as well, by making statements such as “Show me my photos from August.” or “Show me the document I was working on yesterday.” Never be afraid to experiment with what you can say. The more you work with her, the better she’ll get!

For more information about what Cortana can do, take a look at Some Everyday Uses for Cortana on Windows 10.

 

How To Communicate With Cortana

There are several ways to communicate with Cortana. You can type your query or command in the Search area of the Taskbar. Typing is an option if you’d rather not give verbal commands or if your computer doesn’t have a microphone. You’ll see the results as you type, which is quite a convenience, and makes it possible to stop typing and click any result that matches your query immediately. You might also choose this option if you’re in a noisy environment.

If you have a microphone installed and working on your PC or tablet, you can click inside the Search window on the Taskbar and click the microphone icon.

This gets Cortana’s attention, and you'll know you have it by the prompt that shows she’s listening.

When you're ready, just speak to Cortana using your natural voice and language. Her interpretation of what she hears will appear in the Search box. Depending on what you say, she might talk back, so listen carefully. As an example, if you ask her to create a calendar appointment, she’ll prompt you for details. She’ll want to know when, where, what time, and so forth.

Finally, in Settings there’s an option to let Cortana listen for the verbal cue “Hey, Cortana.” If you’ve enabled that setting all you have to do is say “Hey, Cortana” and she’ll be available. (This works the same way “Hey, Siri” works on an iPhone.) If you want to try it now, say “Hey, Cortana, what time is it?” You’ll be able to see immediately if that option is allowed or if it still needs to be enabled.

How Cortana Learns About You

Cortana learns about you initially through your connected Microsoft Account. This is the account you use to log into Windows 10, and might be something like yourname@outlook.com or yourname@hotmail.com. From that account Cortana can obtain your name and age, and any other facts you've supplied. You'll want to be logged on with a Microsoft account and not a local account to get the most from Cortana. Learn more about these account types if you want to.

Another way Cortana improves is through practice.The more you use Cortana the more she’ll learn. This is especially true if, during the setup process, you give Cortana access to parts of your computer such as your calendar, email, messages, and content data (photos, documents, music, movies, etc.) as well as your search history.

She can use what she finds to make assumptions about what you need to know, to create reminders, and to provide more relevant information when you perform searches. For instance, if you search often for information about the Dallas Mavericks basketball team and your location is Dallas, it’s highly likely that when you ask Cortana if your team won or lost, she’ll know who you’re talking about!

She’ll also get more comfortable with your voice as you give her more and more verbal commands. So, spend some time asking questions. It’ll pay off!

And Finally, How About Some Fun?

Cortana can provide a few laughs, if you give her a little encouragement. If you’ve enabled it, say into the microphone “Hey, Cortana”, followed by any of the following. Alternatively, you can click inside the Search window and click the microphone icon to get Cortana listening. And finally, you can type any of these in the Search window.

Hey, Cortana:

  • Are you human?
  • Tell me a joke.
  • Do you know Siri?
  • What’s the answer to life, the universe, and everything?
  • Sing me a tune.
  • Who is your creator?
  • Will you marry me?
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