One of the most hyped features of Windows Phone 8.1 is Cortana, a digital personal assistant that’s Microsoft’s answer to Siri and Google Now. And Microsoft wants you to know that they can build it better, stronger, faster. Well, better at least. Cortana’s feature set is supposedly guided by what real flesh and blood personal assistants say they do for clients. It’s not just a digital voice that can search the web and interact with apps; Cortana really gets to know you.
I spent a week with Cortana and Siri testing the strengths of each to see how well Microsoft did out of the gate. It might not seem like a fair comparison since Siri is almost three years old now, but Cortana already does most of the things Siri can and a few she’s not capable of just yet.
Activating Siri vs Cortana
To activate Siri, you hold the Home button for a couple of seconds and she immediately begins listening for your commands. There are two ways to activate Cortana. Tap the Search button once and the app opens, but it doesn’t start listening right away. That’s because Cortana is also there to keep you up to date on your daily schedule, headlines, and the weather. To see all that, swipe up. To activate voice commands right away, tap and hold the Search button.
Calender and Reminders
Cortana and Siri make adding reminders and events to your calender with voice commands easy. Cortana is better at recognizing all of the event information at once–name, time, and location. Siri was also reluctant to add locations that were not addresses, whereas Cortana added whatever I said, including “John’s House”. Adding an event to a calendar other than the default was easier with Cortana, which can be done right from the app. To change on the iPhone I had to go into the calendar app and edit the event.
Cortana also one-ups Siri by offering predictive notifications on calendar events with addresses. She’ll alert you on the best time to leave based on drive time and traffic conditions.
Siri and Cortana both do simple reminders and location-based ones–”Remember to get milk when I leave work”–and Cortana goes one further with contact-based reminders–”Next time dad calls, yell at him for shrinking my favorite sweater.” When you get a call from that person, the reminder text shows up on the call screen.
Working with Apps and Settings
Launching apps is no big deal for either digital assistant. And they both make it possible to control some apps with voice commands, such as play music or create and send a text message. Siri, being older, has more functionality, such as the ability to check email, bring up specific emails, and respond to them. Cortana can’t interact with third-party apps yet, so she can’t create a tweet or status update directly like Siri can.
Cortana uses Microsoft OneNote to create notes, which saves both the text transcription and the audio recording of what you said be default. Siri just creates text notes.
The two are evenly matched when accessing basic settings like Bluetooth and Wi-Fi.
Navigation and Location
I put Siri and Cortana to the test multiple times searching for nearby restaurants with good reviews. Both get ratings data from Yelp, yet the results did not always match exactly. Siri more often than not brought up the restaurants I consider the best; Cortana provided a more helpful information card that included a direct link to the menu. Cortana also executed a secondary Get Directions command based on the list she showed me which Sri struggled to understand.
If I asked for transit or walking directions specifically, both Siri and Cortana were good at switching to them right away in the maps app. Otherwise, both defaulted to accurate driving directions.
Cortana will recognize your preferences and get better at knowing what you want over time. If I often ask about Mexican restaurants nearby, Cortana will float Mexican places to the top of restaurant lists even if I don’t ask for that specifically. Cortana stores this and other information about you in the Notebook, which you can access from the app.
The first time you use her, Cortana will ask a bunch of getting to know you questions and store them in this Notebook. You can always go in and change interests (news categories, sports teams, weather, etc.) and the data the system collects. This is also where you set things up like your Home and Work address, the people in your inner circle, and nicknames for contacts (Mom, Dad, Wife).
Siri offers some of this personalization, too, just not this extensively or with this kind of learning component.
Being Sassy and Celebrity Obsessed
Siri’s sassy responses to fun questions are legendary, so Microsoft would have been very remiss if they didn’t build that sort of thing into Cortana as well. Cortana has a snappy answer for all the good ones, such as “Open the pod bay door, Hal” and “What is the meaning of life?” You can tell Cortana you love her, ask what her name means, and if she has a favorite World Cup team. Cortana will also make predictions on who will win World Cup and other sports matches. Still, Siri’s age gives her an edge as she’s got many more fun answers to give to impertinent questions.
Siri’s also somewhat better at answering pop culture questions that aren’t sports related. Asking her about the reviews for Chris Evans’ latest movie brought up the Rotten Tomato reviews for Snowpiercer; asking Cortana the same just initiated a web search for Chris Evans movies. And thanks to some help from Wolfram-Alpha, Siri at least knows I was asking a question about Chris Evans’ attractiveness. When I asked Cortana her opinion she didn’t have one, but did helpfully bring up some pictures of the actor without his shirt.
Compared to Siri at launch, Cortana is much more impressive in it’s initial beta stage. She needs to get better at conversational commands and hopefully Microsoft can tempt third-party developers into some integration. If that happens then Cortana is well on her way to being just as good or better than Siri.
For right now, Siri’s maturity keeps her the better digital assistant overall. Still, if Apple wants to keep it that way the company should add Cortana’s advanced reminders and calendar features. Adding a learning component might not be a bad idea, either. Even if it does bring us one step closer to a sentient SkyNet.