One of Windows Phone 8.1's best new features is Cortana, Microsoft's powerful inbuilt voice assistant. We've been finding out what makes her tick...

cortana

In 2014 it’s not enough to be able to swipe, pinch and tap our phones – we also need to be able to talk to them. To that end, one of the features coming to Nokia Lumia phones soon is Cortana – Microsoft’s own voice assistant for Windows Phone 8.1.

 

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To understand just how smart Cortana is, we’ve been talking to Microsoft’s James Guion. So what makes Cortana different from its rivals? A dash of personality, a sprinkling of Bing, and a whole lot of context…

Getting to know you

“The clever things about Cortana is that it’s defaulted on the search button,” says James. “So even if my phone is locked I can hold down the search button and it’ll ping me into Cortana.”

“It can start to learn more about you, and that means that Cortana can start to serve you up more relevant information.”

At its most basic, Cortana is a handy way to search the web via Bing. But the more you get to know it, the more you realise that that’s just the tip of the iceberg: “If you’re using any of the Bing applications like News, Sport, Weather and Finance, the phone will start to populate your interests into Cortana. It can start to learn more about you, and that means that Cortana can start to serve you up more relevant information. So when you’re in the Cortana screen, you just scroll the page up form the bottom and it’ll show you today’s headlines.”

 

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As with its rivals, Cortana can also help you text or call friends and family with just one button press:

“If I say to Cortana, text my wife ‘I will be home late’, it will know who I’m talking about and send the text,” says James. That’s a fairly standard feature, but for every job you’d expect a mobile voice assistant to manage, Cortana has an extra trick that takes it one step further:

“You can also set Cortana to remind you to do certain things in different circumstances,” James says. “So the other thing you can do is say things like ‘next time I speak to my wife remind me to ask how her day went’. Cortana is integrated really deeply into the phone,” he explains, “and that’s one of the big advantages. It’s not just looking at the web – it’s looking at your calendar, your contacts, your location and your personal interests, and learning from them all the time.”

 

 

“Another thing you can do is ask Cortana to remind you to do something based on a location, like ‘remind me to buy a toothbrush next time I go to Sainsbury’s’.”

James says this, and Cortana quickly brings up a list of the nearest Sainsbury’s supermarkets, along with the promise to remind him next time he walks into one.

“Cortana also remembers places,” he adds. “So it’ll ask if certain places are home or work addresses, and what it’ll then do is tell you in the morning that it’s time to leave to get to work on time, based on traffic and public transport information. That’s all on top of the simple commands like setting alarms or asking about your next meeting.

“You can even ask Cortana to tell you a joke.”

Joking around

cortana blue

Cortana will tell jokes, answer silly questions with silly answers and even predict football scores, all of which helps to give it a palpable personality. That characterisation is something that’s evident in the voice assistant offerings from all the major players in the mobile space, and we were keen to ask James why keeping things light is so important.

“I think because humans like personality,” he tells us. “If technology is too dry and clinical, then not everyone is going to warm to it. Everyone can relate to things like jokes, and those are the things that make Cortana fun to show off to friends.”

“The key thing with Cortana is that we’re creating a personality around the phone.”

“It’s all about making the technology very human,” James adds. “The key thing with Cortana is that we’re creating a personality around the phone. It picks up your speech really well and works brilliantly as a straight utility, but it’s better to be able to give a bit of personality back to you as well.

“When you deeply integrate that personality into your phone and your information (in a way that doesn’t broadcast your private details), it gives you a better experience. It’s the best of the internet and what’s out there, and what’s relevant to you. And obviously, if you don’t ever want to speak to Cortana, you don’t have to, but it’s there when you need it.

“Cortana will come to the UK later this year,” James adds, “so if you buy a Lumia 930 now we’ll update it by the end of the year with Cortana.”

If all that sounds tempting, the Lumia 930 is now available at vodafone.co.uk or in stores. For all the information on that, click here.

Putting Nokia phones through their paces… Nokia phones are famed for their durability, but how does the company make sure that reputation is still deserved in 2014? You can find out by reading our piece on the extreme tests that every Lumia has to go through.