Out of all the updates that Microsoft made to Windows Phone 8.1, Cortana has to be the one that makes most of an impact. For some time now the phone platform has been struggling to keep up with its rivals but with the addition of a personal assistant, hopefully it can start to keep a better pace. Much like Siri and Google Voice, Cortana is personable (well, as person-like as a phone can be anyway!) and even brings a couple of unique small features that its counterparts don’t have. It’s important to remember that Cortana is still in Beta and therefore still needs further development but so far it’s looking good. Let’s see how the features stack up against Siri and Google Voice.

The Basics

Cortana pulls its information from personal usage patterns and a database of users. Over time, as more people use it, its ability to understand natural language and accents will improve. To access it you just press and hold the search button from the home screen. It can follow commands to launch calls, emails and texts and can even understand more complex instructions like “Call dad on speakerphone”. Siri too can carry out these more involved directions but Google Voice cannot.

Cortana

Where Cortana does fall down is understanding punctuation. So if you are dictating a text message to a  personal assistant, it may go like this: “Hi [comma] how are you [question mark]” – this will result in a text that reads “Hi, how are you?”. Unfortunately Cortana takes the punctuation literally and will type the words comma or question mark into the text. This definitely needs to be sorted if Cortana is to be in the same league as the more experienced personal assistants.

The Notebook is a handy feature of Cortana; it not only keeps track of your personal preferences but when it is opened it will also give you information like the weather forecast and traffic reports. Even in an idle state, you can check the latest news reports. From here you can also set “quiet hours”, a period of time where you receive no notifications for messages etc., if you want some peace and quiet.

Alarms and Reminders

As far as setting alarms goes, it is easy. You can either ask it to “set alarm for 6.30am” or even “wake me up in 30 minutes”. Cortana and Siri will both cancel alarms for you too but Google Voice will not. All three will schedule calendar events for you but only Siri will cancel them – Cortana and Google Voice require you to remove them manually.

If you want to set a reminder using Cortana, it will expect you to give it a specific time. However, a unique feature allows you link reminders to your contacts. So for instance you can request “The next time I speak to John, remind me to ask him the train times”. When one of you next calls or texts, a reminder will pop up, allowing you to either complete the reminder or postpone it.

Staying on the subject of relationships, Siri and Google Voice both allow you to link names with relationships, so you can tell them “Stephanie is my sister”. With Cortana you have to manually set relationships via the Inner Circle area within Cortana’s Notebook menu. It could be that Microsoft will eventually change this.

Summary

Overall Cortana is looking good. It certainly has plenty of features that enable it to compete with the likes of Siri and Google Voice. If only Microsoft could make some changes to the way it recognizes punctuation and make it easier to set relationships within your contacts, it could be that Cortana becomes the superior personal assistant.

[Image via FileHippo]