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Review: Microsoft's Windows Phone 8.1

Intro UI Basics Apps Cortana Wrap-Up Comments  6  

Cortana is Microsoft's answer to Apple's Siri and Google's Google Now. Microsoft claims Cortana is smarter and more personal than either of its competitors. Gamers will know that Cortana comes from HALO. Microsoft has evolved Cortana for Windows Phone, and used the same actress' voice for many of the responses available to Windows Phone devices.

Cortana has seven core powers, which are Interests, Notebook, Quiet Hours, Scheduling, Suggestions, Reminders, and Typing.

As with Siri and Google Now, the more you use Cortana the better she gets. Microsoft says Cortana is in beta, and needs time to really ramp up to reach her full potential. While several thousand people are using Cortana right now, the system needs several hundred thousand to really get the system to learn peoples' varied input, utterances, and requests. I mention this because, as far as I am concerned, Cortana's beta tag is well earned. I had mixed results at best over the course of using Cortana for a week.

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First, Cortana collects data on your interests. When you first set Cortana up and start the initial training phase, Cortana asks a bunch of get-to-know-you questions, such as what you like to do for fun, what foods you like, how you spend your evenings, what news you care to hear, and so on. This initial list is rather short, but it is enough to get Cortana going. These interests are stored in Cortana's Notebook. You see, just like a real personal assistant (Microsoft interviewed many of them), Cortana takes notes on the things for which you search, on the questions you ask, how you refer to people/things, which people you contact most often, and so on. These little details, which are learned over time, help Cortana begin to anticipate your needs over time. How did they work for me? Let's just say that a week isn't quite enough time for the details to sink in. My guess is a month of consistent use is what Cortana really needs. Presumably, once the Developer Preview of Windows Phone 8.1 is released and tens of thousands of Windows developers begin using Cortana, her usefulness will expand exponentially.

Cortana can be added to the Start screen in a Live Tile, but she is also present in the Bing search app. When you open Cortana, you'll see a list of Suggestions. These are perhaps some news headlines, the day's weather, and even items pulled from your calendar. If you want to talk to Cortana, you have to press the little microphone icon at the bottom of the screen or type in your query. Cortana is supposed to be able to learn to arrange the suggested content bits in your preferred order, but for me Cortana showed business headlines at the top when what I wanted to see was the weather and my next calendar appointment. Oh well. Speaking of which….

Cortana can be used to set reminders, schedule calendar appointments, and manage Quiet Hours. Reminders are curious. You can request that Cortana "Remind me to compliment So-and-So's new car next time I see them." Cortana will set that reminder and, if you have a calendar appointment scheduled with that person, Cortana will add the reminder to the calendar appointment. It's really easy to use Cortana to schedule calendar appointments. You can dictate actual dates, or say "This Saturday" and Cortana is smart enough to know which day you mean.

Tags are essential if you want Cortana to respond to more to more colloquial requests. For example, if you want to be able to say, "Cortana, call my brother's cell phone," you have to tag your brother as your brother in the contact database. This is not hard to do, but you do have to take the time to do it. Basically, your contact cards support "notes" and you have to fill in the blanks in order to help Cortana. Cortana will give you a head start by automatically generating an "inner circle" based on your last name, for example, or based on the frequency you contact certain people. With the tags in place, requesting that Cortana "Call Mom's cell" or "Remind me to wish Aunt Mary Happy Birthday on March 25" will work.

Quiet Hours are the same as Android and iOS's Do Not Disturb modes. They are select times during which notifications don't light up your phone or make noisy alerts. You can set them for pretty much any time you want, as well as set exceptions so certain people can get through to you in the event of an emergency. Cortana is smart enough to know that people in your inner circle should be allowed to breakthrough during Quiet Hours, especially if they call back repeatedly.

Cortana's other function is of course to translate your speech into text. After a week's use, I can barely give Cortana a passing grade. I'd estimate Cortana mistranslated about 40% of my requests and/or speech. I made sure to enunciate clearly, so I know it wasn't my fault. The generic speech recognition engine was better at dictating text messages and/or email messages than Cortana was at accurately understanding my questions. As you'd expect, this directly affects Cortana's usefulness. Many times, Cortana mis-heard a word and performed a web search instead of set a reminder; or opened a new message instead of reading an existing one; and so on.

Today, months before Cortana goes live with a significant number of users, she is not as accurate as Siri or Google Now at translating text. Siri isn't that great, either. For my money, Google Now wins speech translation hands down. Google Now doesn't have a personality, though, and Siri is perhaps a bit too stiff. Cortana has a better sense of humor, and is slightly more personable (such that a disembodied, computerized female voice coming through your phone can be.) I fully expect Cortana to ramp up quickly, though. We'll be able to provide an update to Cortana's usefulness later this summer when new devices with Windows Phone 8.1 reach consumers.


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