Posey's Tips & Tricks

A First Look at Cortana on Windows 10

Can the virtual assistant be useful when tethered to a desktop computer?

When Cortana was first introduced on Windows Phone, I have to confess that I didn't think that it was going to be anything useful. In my mind, Cortana was little more than a "me too" feature designed to compete with Siri and Google Now. Worse yet, I hated the idea that Cortana had hijacked my phone's Search button.

In retrospect, Cortana turned out to be a great addition to Windows Phone and I find myself using it constantly. I was initially excited when rumors began to surface that Cortana would eventually become a part of Windows 10. As I gave it more thought however, I began to wonder how well Cortana would adapt to life on a PC.

I think that the thing that really made me start wondering about how useful Cortana would be in Windows 10 is the way that I use Cortana on my phone today. I speak at dozens of IT events every year and am constantly on the go. I have found that Cortana is most useful when I am traveling. I use Cortana to remind me where I parked my car at the airport, to find restaurant recommendations when I am in an unfamiliar city, to get the weather at my destination, to monitor my flight status ... and the list goes on and on. I even use Cortana as my alarm clock because hotel wakeup calls are not always reliable.

As great as Cortana is when I am on the road, I have found that I almost never use Cortana when I am at home. As such, I began to wonder what sorts of things Cortana might be able to help me with on my desktop PC.

Microsoft still has some work to do on the Windows 10 incarnation of Cortana, but Cortana is far enough along that we can at least begin to get a feel for its capabilities. Recently, I installed the latest Windows 10 build and decided to take Cortana for a test drive. The first thing that Cortana displayed was a block of text that I am assuming is probably going to change in the final release. It says:

I'm Cortana, your Super Assistant. (No cape required)
Cortana is your helper, researcher, weather watcher, plan-aheader, and animal impersonator. She is there to help you get things done.
To do her best work, she'll need access to your store, location, calendar, contacts, browsing and app usage. Do you want to get started with Cortana?

After giving Cortana permission to access all sorts of personal information and providing my name, Cortana displayed one of the day's top headlines, my current weather forecast, health news and some dining options. This is similar to the types of information that Cortana displays on Windows Phone.

Again, I began to wonder about how Cortana could help me on my PC. I live in the country, so there aren't many dining options for Cortana to display and I work out of my house so the weather is usually irrelevant to me unless I am traveling or planning to take my boat out.  Even so, I wasn't ready to write off Cortana just yet. On a Windows Phone it takes Cortana a little while to "get to know you" and I thought that perhaps things were going to work similarly in a PC environment. As such, I opened the Settings menu to see what I could configure.

Some of the settings were related to allowing Cortana to call you by name or to let Cortana respond to voice prompts, but there was one setting in particular that caught my attention. The setting was "Detect tracking info, such as flights and packages in e-mails on my device". Now that's useful. Because I am always on the go, I tend to do almost all of my shopping online and sometimes it can be tough to keep up with deliveries. Tracking my deliveries is a really useful capability. It's also useful to know if a flight is on time before I head to the airport.

The next thing that I decided to check out was another menu option called Places. Initially I wasn't really sure what to expect, but found that Places was populated with the location of my home as well as some favorite restaurants in the cities that I travel to. The thing that was so interesting about this is that my list of favorite locations is stored in my phone within Bing Maps. So Cortana was smart enough to extract mapping data from my phone.

This feature could prove to be really useful. I couldn't tell you how many times I have been at my PC and had to get out my phone to give a friend the name of a restaurant in a recently visited city.

As I delved further into Cortana, I began to realize that it included other useful information such as my calendar and the current traffic conditions.

So far I haven't gotten to give Cortana a thorough test drive. I depend heavily on my desktop PC and can't risk installing a beta OS on it. Even so, I do plan to set up a Windows 10 VM and use it for some of my day-to-day work so that I can get a better feel for how well Cortana works in a desktop environment. My guess is that Cortana will always be more useful on a mobile device than on a desktop PC, but that Cortana will eventually become useful in a desktop environment as well.

About the Author

Brien Posey is a 22-time Microsoft MVP with decades of IT experience. As a freelance writer, Posey has written thousands of articles and contributed to several dozen books on a wide variety of IT topics. Prior to going freelance, Posey was a CIO for a national chain of hospitals and health care facilities. He has also served as a network administrator for some of the country's largest insurance companies and for the Department of Defense at Fort Knox. In addition to his continued work in IT, Posey has spent the last several years actively training as a commercial scientist-astronaut candidate in preparation to fly on a mission to study polar mesospheric clouds from space. You can follow his spaceflight training on his Web site.


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