Cortana jumps from phone to desktop with Windows 10 (hands-on)

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/ Updated: January 29, 2015 5:00 PM PST

Microsoft's virtual assistant Cortana is now available on the Windows 10 Technical Preview. Cortana -- who is named after the AI co-star in Microsoft's Halo series -- is the company's answer to Siri and Google Now. She takes over the operating system's search functionality, tackling local searches as well as helping you track down stuff on the Web. The assistant can also help keep you organized: you can ask her to set a reminder, track your flights, and keep tabs on the weather.

Cortana is already one of the star attractions on Microsoft's Windows Phone handsets, but this early iteration found on the Windows 10 Tech Preview has a long way to go before she's anywhere near as useful as her mobile counterpart.

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Cortana is now available on Windows 10 Josh P. Miller/CNET

If you've used Cortana on a Windows Phone, you're going to be a little disappointed by her initial foray onto the desktop. This is not exactly unexpected: the Windows 10 Technical Preview has brought plenty of new changes to Microsoft's operating system, but they're being rolled out gradually, over time. That means the Cortana you can interact with today is going to pale in comparison to the Cortana we were introduced to at Microsoft's Windows 10 event last week.

If your Windows 10 device is equipped with a microphone, you can just say "Hey, Cortana" (within about seven feet of the machine), and she'll wait for your instructions. You'll need to turn the functionality on, and it might seem a little odd to be chatting with your PC at first blush, but if you've got something you want to remember and can't be bothered to grab a pen, it's a neat trick. The "Hey, Cortana" functionality is only available in the limited number of Windows Phones that are running the Lumia Denim update, so if you're a Windows Phone fan that isn't running one of those devices, then Cortana on the desktop might be your first taste.

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Cortana can't quite compete with her Windows Phone self yet. Screenshot by Nate Ralph/CNET

There's still quite a bit Cortana on the desktop can't do, unfortunately. She can't yet draft emails for you, which was one of the cooler features demoed when we first saw her in action. And much of the functionality available on Windows Phone is simply missing. If I ask Cortana "What do I have next week?" on a Windows Phone, she'll helpfully show me all of the events I've got lined up. On the desktop, she attempts to search for documents. Similarly, you can't manipulate calendar events or ask for directions. And many of the questions I asked Cortana on the desktop were directed to Web searches in a browser, though the phone could handle them just fine.

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On Windows Phone, Cortana is smart enough to set reminders around people. James Martin/CNET

Cortana's Windows Phone presence is far more robust -- she even holds her own reasonably well against Apple's Siri and Google Now, two players in the virtual-assistance space with quite a bit more experience. But Cortana's push to the desktop is an important one, as a ubiquitous personal experience will be incredibly useful for you and everyone else. Microsoft has always pitched Cortana's chief strength as being contextually aware: if you ask her "How long will it take me to get to work," and follow up with "How long will it take me to walk," Cortana will understand that the two queries are linked and give you relevant information. The competition will treat those as two separate questions, and get confused by the last one.

Cortana goes one step further: since her inception as Microsoft's virtual assistant, she's been designed with the goal of learning more about her users and the world around her, improving her capabilities as more people get on board. Relevant facts about you are stored in a "Notebook" of personal preferences, which you can access (or disable) at any time. This (Microsoft hopes) will encourage people to use the virtual assistant more often, improving Cortana's accuracy and ability to parse natural language. She's also got a bit of a personality, offering witty comments or serving up a (terrible) joke -- you just have to ask.

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I'll admit, I chuckled. Screenshots by Nate Ralph/CNET

As millions of people jump on board the Windows 10 bandwagon care of the free upgrade, Cortana will be standing by; waiting to serve, and learn, and steadily improve. It's an ambitious goal that will require legions of Windows PC, tablet and mobile device owners to be willing to chat with their devices. But given Windows' nigh-ubiquity -- only set to grow, once it's available on devices like the Xbox One -- there's no denying that Cortana will soon be just about everywhere.

This early look at Cortana might be a little underwhelming, but it's a promising taste of things to come. And once Windows 10 finally ships later this year, we'll get a better idea of how well Microsoft will be able to execute on its Cortana-centric computing vision. In the mean time, she's still good for a joke.

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