Cortana: Microsoft's Digital Personal Assistant - dummies

Cortana: Microsoft’s Digital Personal Assistant

By Kacey Kroh, Abshier House, Abshier House

While other digital assistants like Siri or Google Now have spent their fair share of time in the spotlight, Cortana is starting to gain publicity. With feature rich capabilities and the use of universal APIs (Application Program Interface), Cortana will give other personal assistants a run for their money.

[Credit: ©]
Credit: ©

What is Cortana?

Cortana is Microsoft’s answer to providing a digital personal assistant (DPA) to its Windows 8.1 RT (non-Intel tablet) and Windows Phone 8.1 devices. The digital personal assistant is a lot like its competitors offering voice-activated services for things like messages and phone calls but also packed with extras that make this DPA stand out from the rest.

How to use Cortana

To use Microsoft’s DPA simply hold down the search button, and a voice will then ask you “How may I help you?” You can also access Cortana’s features by turning on the active listening function within the system settings of the device, and all you need after that is to simply just say the DPA’s name. Or you can tap the Cortana live tile on the home screen.

Cortana can be customized, too. You can add your name to its settings, and instead of saying “How may I help you?” the DPA will instead say “What can I do for you, name?” or “What’s up, name?”

Cortana also integrates your interests into an all-in-one, easy-to-access area. After pushing the search button, you will be presented with “Good morning! Let’s get your day started” and things like News, Facebook feeds, emails, phone info, and text info will all be presented within Cortana’s main screen.

This info can be customized within in the phones system settings. Simply go to Settings → Applications → Cortana. Here you can change what Cortana calls you, customize search options, and even change the voice from female to male.

Features of Cortana

The standard features are the same as other DPAs, offering such services as dictating messages, placing phone calls, and playing media like music or videos, but what Cortana offers that others do not is the use of universal APIs.

Microsoft’s choice for programing Cortana with these APIs means that as more application providers come on board with the use of Cortana, “She” will be able to perform more actions within the applications as well as contextual listening, and hands-free safety (driving mode.)

Examples of requests Cortana can perform:

  • Read websites, messages, and content within applications

  • Add content to personal queues

  • Make and receive phone calls

  • View/play media content such as movies, music, and photos

  • Write or dictate e-mail, messages, and notes

  • Perform location-based reminders (For example, Cortana will remind you to buy milk if you are located near the store you specified; simply say: “Cortana, remind me to buy milk next time I am near Wal-Mart.”)

  • Perform time/date-based reminders (For instance, “Cortana, remind me to take my pills at 5 pm.”)

  • Perform web searches

  • Offer hands-free safety options

  • Provides quirky remarks to odd-ball questions (DPA’s personality)

In-app Cortana requests

Microsoft’s DPA can perform in-app requests unlike many of its competitors. Simply launch Cortana by either speaking her name or by holding down the Home/Windows button on the device and tell the DPA to open Facebook or Hulu+.

When the application is open, this is where Siri and Google Now make the user then take control of the device. . . Not Cortana — instead Microsoft’s DPA is capable of continuing to listen to perform in-app requests like adding videos to the Hulu+ queue or posting to your Facebook timeline and viewing/reading Facebook newsfeeds.

In this instance the conversation with your device would go as follows:


How may I help you?

“Open Hulu+.” or “Launch Facebook.”

Opening Hulu+. or Launching Facebook.

While the device is actively running Hulu+, you then can ask:

“Add Absolutely Fabulous to my queue.” (Where Absolutely Fabulous can be replaced by any video title available on Hulu+ at that time.)

Adding Absolutely Fabulous to your queue. (Cortana then will add your requested item to your Hulu+ queue.)

Within Facebook you can continue using Cortana by asking:

“Post to my timeline.” or “Read from my newsfeed.”

What would you like to post? (Cortana then dictates what you tell the DPA to post to your timeline.)

Reading newsfeeds. (After your request Cortana will start reading the newsfeeds from Facebook starting with the most recent first.)

Cortana’s contextual listening

Another great feature built into Cortana’s user interface is the ability to contextually listen to requests making the task of asking this DPA a specific string of questions less intensive. For instance:


“Where was the movie E.T. filmed?”

“Who are the stars?”

“How much did it make in the box office?”

While some of the other DPAs need to be asked very specifically to return the desired results.


“Where was the movie E.T. filmed?

“Who are the stars who played rolls in the film E.T.?”

“How much profit did E.T. yield at the box office?”

Since Cortana is actively listening and remembering what was last asked of her; the way you would string questions together feels more natural/conversational.

Hands-free with Cortana

Cortana also provides superb hands-free options for when you are traveling. When first setting up your phone, you can turn on driving mode; this mode will remain inactive until the phone senses it is moving at a speed more than 25 mph and then will turn on. You also can set this feature to turn on if the phone connects to your car’s Bluetooth.

To add this function to your phone you can either set it up when first turning on a new phone, or if you skipped this step upon initial setup, you can also add this feature by going to Settings→Driving Mode. The driving mode feature can perform in two different manners.

  1. It can be set where you can decline all calls and texts, and the phone will give a message to the person calling or texting explaining you are traveling and not able to answer the phone right now.

    The standard message can also be customized if you want Cortana to be more specific. Such as, “I’m driving to California and will call/text you when I am able.” Or “Be home in 5 minutes and will contact you then.” Any message you can think of can be added!

  2. Hands-free also can be used by connecting to your car’s Bluetooth.

    When set to declining incoming calls and texts or accepting the incoming data, instead of letting you use the phone, the screen locks up and the car stereo will ask for your input instead.

While Cortana’s hands-free features are helpful and keep human safety in mind, if in driving mode and the phone is set to accept incoming texts, the text function performance is far from desirable. When an incoming text is presented the phone or car’s Bluetooth will ask as follows:

“Incoming text message from. . .”

You can say: “Read it” or “ignore.”

If you choose read it — the phone/stereo will read aloud the message and then ask if you want to reply. The trouble with this part of the feature is that the phone/stereo has trouble deciding whether or not you actually said, “read it” due to background noises caused by music and traffic.

If the phone doesn’t hear you, it will ask over and over and over again if you want to “read it” or “ignore it.” However, this could be a microphone issue with a particular model of phone and this bug/quirk is rarely reported.

While Siri and Google Now have been around longer, Cortana already seems to be more feature rich and packed full of personality.