Integrates with Cortana on the PC and Android. Location- and contact-based reminders. Package and flight tracking. 3D Touch support.
No voice wake-up capability. Not available at the push of a (Home) button.
- Bottom Line
The Cortana app delivers highly personalized info, reminders, and general information, tying in well with Windows 10 PCs. She lacks some of Siri's hardware integration but sometimes gives better answers and provides a daily glance.
I enjoy using Cortana on my Windows 10 PC, especially for simple things like opening an app or yelling across the room to hear the time or weather. But she can also pop up reminders, track packages, look up information, and let me know my team's scores. With the free Cortana iPhone app, I can get Cortana's help from my Apple handset. I also like using Siri, but Apple's assistant doesn't integrate with my PC, and I've found that Cortana more often interprets what I'm saying correctly. The Cortana iPhone app does have some limitations not shared by Siri, but it also adds unique capabilities of its own.
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To make the most of the the app after downloading it from the App Store, you have to grant some privacy permissions (access to location, microphone, notifications, contacts, calendar, and so on) and sign into a Microsoft account. You already have one if you have a Hotmail or Outlook.com account, and if not, the latter is easily obtainable. I installed the app on my iPhone 6s; it's a reasonable 27MB download and requires iOS 9.0 or later. After you've logged in and entered a name you'd like to be called, you see Cortana's simple circle logo, now purple instead of the original blue, along with the text "Hi! What's up?" You can change the color to taste from a selection of 8 colors. There's a microphone icon at the bottom-right corner, with a text entry box to its left.
If you don't type or speak a query on Cortana's start page after a few seconds, you see information relevant to you, such as local news, weather, and sports. How does Cortana know what to show you here?
It's in her Notebook, which you fill in with your interests, including sports, food, news, and the like. When designing Cortana, Microsoft studied human personal assistants and found a common trait was to keep a notebook on the client's interests and personal data. Hence the Notebook. This idea, along with the Halo character's name and her sense of humor, was part of Microsoft's strategy to give Cortana a strong personality, as opposed to simply making an impersonal service.
This also brings up a key way that Cortana on the iPhone is differs from Siri and Google Assistant (which is now a text bot that lives inside the search company's Allo messaging app): It presents you with a daily glance, showing your reminders, appointments, and updates about your interests. Neither Siri nor Allo offer this, though the AOL Alto app does something similar. Meanwhile, Amazon has announced that its Alexa digital assistant will be included in its iPhone shopping app, but I haven't received the update yet. Alexa also isn't proactive, however, and doesn't handle reminders or provide a daily glance.
To access your Notebook, Settings, and Feedback, you tap your user icon at top right. The list of Notebook interests has grown significantly longer since the early days of Cortana on Windows. There are now 19 categories, ranging from Academic to Eat & Drink to Sports to Travel. Like Google Now, Cortana uses cards to notify you of pertinent events and info. You can have Cortana notify you when your daily commute may take longer because of traffic. Events still just offers two options—performing arts and sports. More categories are warranted. If you're interested in punk rock, you don't want to be notified about a symphony concert, and vice versa.
Cortana is the most useful if you set her up on both your Windows 10 PC and your iPhone. This way, she can scan your email for package shipping IDs to let you know their status, as well as to let you know about flight changes for reservations you've been emailed about. Anything you tell Cortana on the PC to remind you about will prompt a notification on the phone. One of the most impressive Cortana feats to me is how she shows my flight status—along with gate information and a route map—when I'm at the airport ready to travel.
Once you've set up interests, including things like stocks you follow and particular sports teams, not only will you see updates in the app, but also on any Windows 10 PC you've signed into, and on Bing.com in any browser. At any time, you can clear your personal data from the Manage My Profile link.
Since Cortana knows my home and work addresses, I've told her to keep me up to date on my commuting situation. She can handle driving, walking, and public transportation commutes. I'm impressed that the commuting times come from NYC Transit data, though the Google app can do this, too. I'm also impressed that you can ask "How long will it take me to get home," and receive a spoken answer.
Unfortunately, since there's no macOS version of Cortana, Mac users don't get the same level of synergy. If you sign in to Bing.com, however, you can see your custom news and sports interests. And if you really want the full Cortana experience on a Mac, you could install Parallels and configure a Windows 10 virtual machine.
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Cortana has improved in the reminder department. You used to have to specify a time or place, but now you can simply and more quickly create an open-ended reminder. She still asks for a time or place, but you don't enter anything, the reminder is still created, in the Whenever section. A real benefit is that you can enter a reminder on your PC and have it show up on your phone, and vice versa.
With location reminders, if you're near a pharmacy, she can remind you that you need to pick up shampoo and aspirin. If you say, "Remind me to buy wine at a liquor store," you still have to choose whether it's a time-based or location-based reminder, and choose the particular store. I successfully triggered a location-based reminder to ask a coworker something when I got to the office.
One type of reminder that's possible in Windows (phone or desktop) isn't yet available on the iPhone app. In Windows, you can tell Cortana to remind you to do something based on an interaction, for example: Remind me to say "congratulations" when dad calls. Neither Siri nor Google perform this kind of reminder, however.
Another command that works on Windows devices but not on the iPhone app is "Show me my pictures from last January." This works with Siri and Google Assistant, too, and is one case where Microsoft could do a better job integrating its services. To be clear, I sync my iPhone photos to OneDrive, where the desktop Cortana found them but her iPhone guise could not.
Looking Up Facts and Figures
Most of the digital assistants are pretty adept at answering factual queries such as which pro teams won recent championships and which buildings and rivers are the tallest and longest. They are also equally capable at answering math questions, though in my testing Siri was able to understand language like "What's a 15 percent tip on an $85 check," while Cortana needs you to say the more straightforward "What is 15 percent of 85." For this kind of basic query, you may as well stick with Siri, since you can summon it simply by holding the phone button.
I have found over months of use, however, that Siri often misinterprets a request for information, for example responding "You don't have anyone of that name in your Contacts" when I asked about a local book store.
Cortana lets you send a message by, for example, saying, "Send a message to Wendy!" But it takes more steps than it does with Siri. You can also initiate an email, but when I tried this, even if I spoke the recipient's name, I landed on a blank email with no addressee. Cortana's functionality on PCs is way ahead of what she offers in this iOS version. And Siri lets you dictate what you want to say in the message, prompting you. Google Now/Google Assistant/Google Allo doesn't offer any way to send SMS or email, however.
Fun With Cortana
Cortana used to have a monopoly on joke telling among digital personal assistants, but since iOS 9, Siri has joined the party. Alexa, too, tells bad humor, and Google Assistant finally joined the band of jokesters, too. Aside from simply saying to Cortana, "Tell me a joke," you can also say things like "What's up?" and "Sing to me!" Cortana only sings one line of a song, but like Google Assistant, not in a voice that you want to hear. Siri, thankfully demurs with "I'd rather leave that to the professionals."
Some things that Siri can do are beyond Cortana's grasp on the iPhone. The most notable is that there's no hardware button to summon Cortana, as you can with Siri by holding down the phone's sole button. The Cortana app does, however, support 3D Touch actions, meaning you're just one more tap away from voice assistance. Nor can you wake Microsoft's assistant with "Hey, Cortana" as you can on a PC, though you can set her to start listening as soon as you open the app (new in version 2.0). Like Cortana on the desktop, Siri even lets you perform actions within apps, such as "Tweet with my location" and "Post to Facebook."
Cortana has limited ability to open apps: I had to OK access to open the Netflix app, but sometimes a web search showed up instead of the app I wanted to open. Cortana could also open the iOS Photos app, but Siri can even, for example, show you your pictures from last Christmas. Google Assistant in Allo, on the other hand, only opens the search company's own photo service.
See Ya, Siri?
Cortana for iPhone's strongest suit is that she works in sync with Cortana on Windows 10 PCs, saving you from having to enter pertinent personal details and reminders separately on each device. Another strength is that Cortana can show you relevant info without your having to say anything. But the convenience of Siri, which is always accessible at the press of a button, and its ability to start and instruct apps to do specific things, are undeniable and appealing advantages on iOS devices.
Michael Muchmore is PC Magazine’s lead analyst for software and Web applications. A native New Yorker, he has at various times headed up PC Magazine’s coverage of Web development, enterprise software, and display technologies. Michael cowrote one of the first overviews of Web Services (pretty much the progenitor of Web 2.0) for a general audience. Before that he worked on PC Magazine’s Solutions section, which in those days covered programming techniques as well as tips on using popular office software. Most recently he covered Web… More »
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