Microsoft Cortana: What You Need To Know

Microsoft's digital assistant just wants to help out.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella introducing Cortana.
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella introducing Cortana. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Microsoft's forthcoming Windows 10 (due out July 29) includes a lot of cool upgrades, including a new browser, called Edge, and the ability to use iPhone and Android apps. One of the best of all the upgrades, though, is the inclusion of the digital assistant Cortana. Here's what you'll want to know about it.

What is Cortana? Cortana is a digital assistant, similar to iPhone's Siri or Google Now for Android devices.

Cortana first appeared on Windows Phone 8.1, the last major revision of Windows Phone.

What does Cortana look like? Cortana shows up as several animated concentric circles (usually blue), that can pulse or spin. It can take the center of your screen, then move to a corner when it's showing results.

What can Cortana do? This is the key question, of course. It can do all kinds of things, like:

  • Set a reminder for a meeting
  • Call someone
  • Tell you the weather tomorrow
  • Send a text
  • Give directions to a restaurant
  • Get listings of events
  • Look something up on the Internet
  • Play music

That's only a partial list, of course, but it gives a good overview of Cortana's capabilities. All these can be done with voice commands.

How does Cortana work? On Windows Phone 8.1, you press and hold the search button at the bottom of the phone. At that point, Cortana is listening, no matter what you're doing on your phone, or even if the phone is locked.

When Cortana is listening to you, the white circle at the center of the icon changes to blue, providing an easy visual clue.

As to whether or not it will work the same on a Windows 10 desktop or laptop, there is no hard information at present. Since those devices are laid out differently than a phone, it's a good bet that the ways to activate and use Cortana will be different, too.

However, Cortana is an app, and can be found by searching on any Windows 10 device. At that point, you may want to pin it to Start (details on that will be forthcoming when Windows 10 is released) or save it as a Live Tile (or whatever the Windows 10 equivalent will be).

(Note that on certain Lumia phones, you just have to say "Hey, Cortana," and it starts working, without pressing a button. I'm hoping that same functionality comes to Windows 10, because it would be awesome.)

What can you ask Cortana? Microsoft has a list of some things you can ask it, like: Convert 60 dollars to yen; What's the status of Alaska Airlines flight 628?; Note: left my car on level 4; Wake me up in 20 minutes; Put swimming on my calendar for tomorrow; Suggest some weight loss workouts.

Is Cortana only available on Windows Phone 8.1 and Windows 10? Not any more. Microsoft announced last month that it was making Cortana available on both iOS (the operating system behind iPhone and iPad, and Android phones and tablets).

Can Cortana do stuff that Siri and Google Now can't? That's a thornier question. It appears to do most of the same things those other digital assistants do. If it can do a lot more, I'm not aware of it.

Which also may leave you wondering if you should use Cortana on one of those other platforms. My advice: sure, why not? Download it and use it, and compare its features with the other assistants. If Cortana's better for you, keep it; if not, delete it. I doubt it will cost anything for the app.

What will Cortana cost? Nothing. It's a free app.