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Meet Cortana

With Windows Phone 8.1, Microsoft needed to jump into digital voice assistance in a big way. With Cortana, it has. The program, inspired by the video game Halo, is off to a promising start against Siri and Google Now with a boatload of tasks you can command using only your voice. Here are seven of Cortana's most interesting tricks.

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Link reminders

Say, "The next time I speak with [person], remind me to [do something]," and it shall be done. The next time you and the other person exchange a phone call or text, a reminder pops up to guide you.

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Run interference

When something requires your complete attention -- like an important meeting, or a good night's sleep -- you can program Cortana to block out texts and calls from everyone except people in your inner circle. Cortana can do this daily, or as a one-time event.

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Follow-up directions

When looking up local businesses or the weather, Cortana keeps the context of the search in mind so that you can ask follow-up questions of the listed results, such as "How long will it take to get to the second one?" or "How about Thursday?"

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Make a funny

If you told me you've never spoken to your digital voice assistant like it's a real person, I wouldn't believe you. It's a time-honored tradition. To Microsoft's credit, Cortana can sling back a few snarky remarks. Prepare yourself for minutes of amusement!

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What a jokester

Cortana is also aware of its  namesake's backstory, and can rattle off a joke. Hahahaha. Haha. Ha.

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Newsfeed

When you first get started, Cortana will ask you about your interests, which you can also revisit in the app's settings. Just swipe down on the main screen to see a list of headlines and the local forecast.

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ID music

Like TellMe, the voice command program that came before (and also like Google Now), Cortana can recognize music that you play when you turn on its digital listening ears. Tap the result if you want an opportunity to buy it.

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Versus the competition

Cortana also has its drawbacks, but so far in its beta stage, it can stand up to its more developed competition. Read my full hands-on comparison with Siri and Google Now.

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Manipulate system settings

Tell Cortana to open apps and switch Wi-Fi and Bluetooth on and off and it will. Cortana isn't alone in this feat, but it's a neat function to have as a quick settings shortcut.

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