Cortana: Microsoft's Virtual Assistant

Meet Cortana, Microsoft's virtual assistant

Cortana is Microsoft's virtual digital assistant and is available on Windows laptops and PCs. If you've ever used Siri on an iPhone, Google Assistant on Android, or Alexa on Amazon Echo, you are already acquainted with this type of technology.

What Can Cortana Do?

Cortana has a ton of features but serves as a news and weather channel by default. Select the Search window or Talk to Cortana on any Cortana-enabled Windows 10 Taskbar to see the latest updates there.

Cortana can serve as an encyclopedia, almanac, dictionary, and thesaurus. 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 item is ("What is a gyroscope?"), what date something happened ("When was the first moon landing?"), and so on.

How Does Cortana Work?

Cortana uses the Bing search engine to answer factual questions. If the answer is a simple one, it appears immediately in the Search window results list. If Cortana isn't sure, it opens 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?" It will need to know your location, though. In this example, it must also be allowed to access your work location, which it might gather from your Contacts list.

When you give Cortana permission to access your location, it acts more like a real assistant and less like a glorified search tool. With your location shared, ask it a question, such as, "What movies are playing near me?" It locates the closest theater and reads movie titles and showtimes. You can also ask it to find your local bus stop or a nearby gas station.

Additional Features

You can give Cortana additional permissions beyond your location to get even better performance. For example, if you allow Cortana access to your contacts, calendar, email, and messages, it can remind you of appointments, birthdays, and other data. It can also create new appointments and remind you of upcoming meetings and activities. All you have to do is ask.

You can ask Cortana to sort through your data and provide specific files 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 ask, the more Cortana learns.

For more information about what Cortana can do, check out 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 or the Talk to Cortana option 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 convenient and makes it possible to stop typing and select 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, select the Search window or the Talk to Cortana on the Taskbar and select the microphone. Doing this gets Cortana's attention, and you'll know you have it by the prompt that shows it's listening.

talk to cortana

When you're ready, speak to Cortana using your natural voice and language. Its interpretation of what it hears appears in the Search box. Depending on what you say, it might talk back, so listen carefully. For example, if you ask it to create a calendar appointment, it prompts you for details. It will 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 enabled that setting, all you do is say "Hey, Cortana," and it will 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 see immediately if that option is allowed or if it needs to be enabled.

Cortana giving the time in Windows 10.

How Cortana Learns About You

Initially, Cortana learns about you through your connected Microsoft account. From that account, Cortana can obtain your name and age and other facts you supplied. You'll want to log on with a Microsoft account to get the most out of Cortana. (Learn more about these account types if you'd like.)

Another way Cortana improves is through practice. The more you use Cortana, the more it will learn. This is especially true if, during the setup process, you give Cortana access to your calendar, email, messages, search history, or media content (such as photos, documents, music, and movies).

Cortana uses what it finds to make assumptions about what you need to know, create reminders, and provide more relevant information when you perform searches. For instance, if you often search for information about the Dallas Mavericks basketball team and you're in Dallas, it's likely that when you ask Cortana if your team won or lost, it will know which team you mean.

It will also get more comfortable with your voice as you give it more and more verbal commands.

And Finally, How About Some Fun?

Cortana can provide a few laughs if you give it a little encouragement. If you enabled it, say into the microphone, "Hey, Cortana," followed by any of the following phrases:

  • 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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