Microsoft Cortana promises more phone smarts than Siri (hands-on)

/ Updated: 15 April 2014 3:48 pm BST

Meet Cortana, Microsoft's new virtual assistant. James Martin/CNET

Forget about Siri or even Google Now; according to Microsoft, its new virtual assistant, Cortana, has way more mobile brains than its rivals. Announced at the company's Build keynote in San Francisco, Cortana is part of the Windows Phone 8.1 smartphone operating system and relies heavily on Microsoft's Bing search engine and voice-recognition technology.

Named for the AI computer from the popular Halo game franchise, Microsoft says Cortana has the ability to pay attention to what you search for, your interests, and the places you visit. In this way Cortana will offer tailored search suggestions. Additionally it will get smarter the more you interact with it (or shall I say "her"?).

Among Cortana's other capabilities are looking up and keeping track of your flights, checking when your next appointments are, and delving into associated details to better serve you. For instance, Cortana will be able to dive into your appointment specifics to say, call the restaurant where you're planning on having lunch and adjust the reservation if necessary.

Additionally, you'll be able to ask Cortana to perform typical voice assistant tasks such as saving calendar reminders and the like. Where Microsoft expects Cortana to really surpass other similar assistants, though, is in the realm of contextual awareness.

For instance, you can tell Cortana to create reminders centered around people. Specifically, you can have the feature remind you to ask about your sister's puppy the next time she calls. Cortana is also supposed to be intelligent enough to understand a wide range of queries using more natural language. Users can say, "Facebook, what's up with such and such?" and Cortana will initiate a report of your friend's recent Facebook activity.

We gave Microsoft's new software a spin at the company's press event in San Francisco, where we played with older Nokia Lumia 1020 handsets tricked out to run Windows Phone 8.1.

Perhaps it was because these demo phones didn't have live SIM cards and were connected to on-site Wi-Fi (no doubt burdened by hundreds of devices), but Cortana wasn't very nimble. In fact, the assistant took about 10 to 15 seconds to return search results. This is a lot longer than Google Now or Siri took.

Cortana is smart enough to set reminders around people. James Martin/CNET

Since then, though, we've spent a little more time getting to know Cortana and reviewing Windows Phone 8.1 in detail. Additionally, we pitted our early version of Cortana and WP 8.1 against Siri and Google Now. But even after all that, it's clear that Microsoft is still playing catch-up with iOS and Android.

For example, the interface isn't as slick as Google Now's, since you must tap a small microphone icon in the Bing toolbar or hit the Cortana symbol to begin searches. That's nowhere as easy as saying, "OK, Google Now" on the Motorola Moto X and Motorola Droid phones, which launches queries immediately and even wakes up the devices from sleep. Even the Google Nexus 5 responds to a similar "OK, Google" command.

Also frustrating are some of the bugs we encountered when testing the more advanced contextual abilities Cortana is touted to have. Specifically, Cortana kept us in a perpetual loop when trying to set reminders, continuously asking when and what we wanted it to remember.

That said, since Cortana is still officially in beta, it's understandable that some kinks still need to be worked out before the new operating system and Cortana arrive on Windows phones in force over the next few months.

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