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How Cortana will change the way you use Windows 10


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How Cortana will change the way you use Windows 10

Introduction and practical magic

Search has never been more important. As the information age progresses, and we're buried under more data, finding what you need quickly is essential. Microsoft knows all about this and has its own search engine, Bing, which has been working through many generations of Windows to improve and enhance desktop search capabilities.

With Windows 10, the company has gone one better. Not only is desktop search faster, but it's enhanced by Cortana – technology that has made the transition from the Windows Phone 8 platform. Cortana is a digital personal assistant, named after – and inspired by – the virtual helper from Microsoft's Halo games. Cortana understands natural language, accepts voice commands, and can do so much more than finding a file or web page, as you'll soon discover.

But first, where to find it? Cortana is integrated into Windows 10's search facility; by default, you'll find a search box on the left-hand side of your taskbar, next to the Start button. If it's not there, you can reactivate it from your taskbar's properties window. Also make sure you have a microphone plugged in, or that you've configured your laptop's mic, as Cortana comes into its own when you say what you want rather than typing it.

You don't have to start your enquiries with

Practical magic

The first time you click Windows 10's search box, you'll be given a little guide to Cortana's features – scroll through it if you like, then click 'I'm in' to get started. This does mean giving Cortana access to a lot of information – contacts, emails, search history and the like.

There's not an awful lot you can do about this aspect, but think of Cortana in terms of it being your personal secretary; if you had a secretary in business, they'd be pretty useless without the appropriate access. Click 'I agree' to finalise your decision to use Cortana – you can switch it off later, and if you don't wish to give up your information you can always use the search box to find your stuff in the traditional way.

Next you'll be given the option to leave Cortana listening for the key phrase 'Hey Cortana' at all times. It's up to you if you want to switch this feature on or not; it's smart, but it makes some people a bit nervous. You can still activate Cortana by clicking the microphone icon, or typing in the search box. Tell Cortana your name or nickname – you could be puerile here, but bear in mind that Cortana will repeat it back to you – and click 'Use that'. If you haven't signed in with a Microsoft account, you'll need to do so now.

The basics and more features

Get digging

So let's start with the basics. Type a file name, a snippet of text, whatever might help you find the thing you're after in the search box, and you'll be presented with a list of options. The topmost option will be what Windows reckons is most likely to be the thing you're looking for. If you're after multiple things, you can type (for instance) *.jpg and hit [Return] to open an Explorer window containing that search.

Cortana weather

Cortana can do slightly more impressive things than that, though. If you're looking for a spreadsheet, for example, try asking: say "Hey Cortana" then "Find my spreadsheets", and Cortana will dig up all the .xls files it knows about. The same is true for broader file types; ask Cortana to find your photos and it will filter out what it thinks are likely to be photo files from the other images on your computer.

Cortana's scope also extends to anything you might have stored on Microsoft's OneDrive cloud service, which is especially useful. If you have your PC set up to mirror, for example, the contents of your Dropbox or Google Drive, that will appear in the searches (we'd certainly recommend doing this unless you have a critically small hard drive).

But enough straightforward searching. A personal assistant is wasted if all they do is spend time digging through your files, particularly as that's not an especially new or innovative job. Cortana's strengths lie in its ability to bring you the information you need quickly and, ideally, without even touching your mouse.

Try asking Cortana what the weather will be like tomorrow; the phrasing isn't particularly important, as the software is clever enough to interpret most questions in a natural manner. You'll be shown the upcoming weather in a neat, digestible format within the Cortana bar, with no need to launch a web browser, and Cortana will also speak the information, meaning you don't need to look at your screen at all. Try something similar: ask Cortana what the time is in, say, "Sydney, Australia", and you'll be shown and told.

You can also use Cortana to automate common tasks; if you have the right software and address books set up, you could say "email Fred Bloggs" to open a compose window with your addressee already filled in. Asking Cortana to "search for Bristol Rovers" will pop up an Edge browser window with a Bing search to your information. Sadly there's no existing way to change the target browser or search engine – Microsoft obviously promotes its own stuff – but you can bet that enterprising hackers will find a way to use Cortana with alternate browsers and search engines before too long.

Cortana settings


As you use Cortana, if you make frequent requests for specific information, or if you've given it access to your social and email accounts, it'll learn a little about you and the sort of thing you often need to know at a glance. Click the search bar without typing anything and you'll be given a look at the info Cortana thinks is relevant to you, so if you're always asking what the time is in Italy and you're obsessive about the weather, this will be available at a glance.

Cortana may even spend a little time asking you direct personal questions – this was certainly the way it went about things on the Windows 8.1 platform – to ascertain your likes. Alright, they're personal, but not 'What shape is the birthmark on your inner thigh?' personal; more the sort of thing that narrows down your news preferences, your favourite places to eat, your schedule. In the future, if you ask Cortana what's in the news, it should push the stories that mean the most to you to the top.

Most of these things can be directly altered by checking out Cortana's notebook, which is where the program sketches the information it knows about you. You'll find it in the left-hand menu of the search bar after you've clicked the three-lined hamburger icon. Use the notebook to refine your profile; other users will have their own notebook, so don't worry about being bombarded with your kids' updates. If you share, you can tell Cortana that you're not interested in Pokémon here.

Cortana notebook

More features

Cortana's pedigree is actually rather strong. Although the software originated on Windows Phone 8.1, which has a dismal market share hovering somewhere around 3% of the global smartphone market, Cortana is respected as one of the best virtual digital assistants, with many analysts putting it above Siri and Google Now. The mobile version is packed with features so useful that it transcends the self-conscious shame of talking to your phone in public.

Windows 10's version of Cortana is based on the same technology, and while it lacks a few of the core features that the phone version relies upon – dialling numbers and sending texts, for obvious reasons – there's plenty of useful corollaries; you can, for example, use it to open a program. Say "Hey, Cortana – open Edge" and it'll open the Edge browser. This might take a bit of fiddling to get right; if it doesn't know the name of the program you're after, it may open a Bing search instead.

The functionality extends to closing programs, minimising, maximising and more. You can even, if you're careful, dictate emails to Cortana. Just say "email", followed by the target email address, the subject, and the body of the message.

Future developments and potential

The future

There are still niggles with the system. But given that many laptop manufacturers will be introducing keyboards with a dedicated Cortana key in future ranges (those of us without a dedicated key can just hit [Windows]+[C] instead), it's obvious Microsoft has big plans for the assistant's integration.

The key is to try it. Think of something you'd want Cortana to do, and ask for it. It may not work; if it doesn't, try rephrasing your request. Try making your language less natural. It may seem counterintuitive given that Cortana is supposed to recognise everyday speech, but until it is finely tuned by its developers, you're going to have to work with what you've got.

Cortana reminder

Users on desktop PCs will likely have a different experience to users of laptops, too. We've already mentioned the dedicated key on certain brands, but there's more: Cortana can look after your battery and accept questions about it, which won't apply to desktops. The Windows Phone version revels in location-based information, which will come into its own if you're carrying a laptop or tablet around with you.

We'd expect Cortana to improve with every build of Windows 10, particularly as Microsoft puts more weight behind it. It could well be a big advertising point of the new OS; it was in its mobile form. By autumn 2015, Cortana should be realising its full potential, and we may even see brand-new features.

Under the skin

Even though Cortana is an AI, it's still open to a little fun. You can bombard it with irreverent questions; granted, many will open an Edge window to a Bing search, but you could see some fun results.

You can ask Cortana how it is. Ask what it's doing. Ask it the meaning of life, the universe and everything. And then you can ask the questions again to see more responses. Ask it to sing you a song; if you're lucky enough to be using the US English version, you'll hear a snippet recorded by Cortana's voice actress Jen Taylor – the same lady that voiced Halo's Cortana AI. There are tons of interactions like this to find, which is great if you need a little distraction. Try also references to other famous AIs such as HAL or the Star Trek computer...


Finding facts

Cortana will also help you dig up facts and figures. Ask it how old an actor is, how tall they are, what their latest film is called, and it will find answers. You can also ask reasonably complex questions, such as "What was the date of the first Monday in 1982?"

Set it mathematical challenges – ask it your basic mental arithmetic questions, or say "Hey, Cortana, what's one divided by zero?" to scramble its brains. You can check out the stock markets, find out the price of individual shares, or convert currency or measurements at a glance.

And, of course, things have to come back to work eventually with Cortana's scheduling features. You can ask it to organise your life a little, setting reminders, calendar entries, adjusting meeting times, and asking it to recall information it already has stored about your upcoming movements. Basically, think of Cortana as a real-life assistant and treat it as such.


Cortana's gimmicks are fun, and its range of organisational tools and quick-access facts are useful. But here's the truth: you're unlikely to use it much at first. The digital assistant features jar with our usual Windows experience, and the version we've been able to use in testing this article still needs a few tweaks to its brain.

But eventually its benefits will shine. You'll shout to your PC from across the room and the right things will happen. You'll search faster than before. And a stronger, more prominent, more sensible search facility (one that will follow from your desktop to your browser if Edge continues to be as brilliant as its early versions are) will mean the way you use Windows in the future will evolve. Hey, Cortana: "Hurry up and realise your potential…"




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