Cortana for Windows Phone 8.1 inspires envy in Siri and Google Now

By Malarie Gokey | Apr 09, 2014 04:18 PM EDT

Cortana may be late to the party, but if early reviews are any indication, she will show up looking just fine this summer. Even though Cortana isn't out of beta testing yet, the builds that tech pundits tested seem to work well and even managed to impress a few reviewers.

Cortana will, of course, do all the same things that Siri and Google Now do, but Microsoft thinks it has upped the ante with its first digital assistant. Microsoft actually spoke with real, human personal assistants to get a better idea of what the big wigs want out of a top-notch assistant.

Microsoft found that executives want more than coffee and calendar appointments taken care of by their assistants and so added several different features to Cortana to meet these demands. One reviewer received a demo of Cortana's special capabilities from Lucas Westcoat, a senior Microsoft product manager who has been working on Cortana.

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Westcoat showed how Cortana can remind the user to congratulate their spouse on a new job the next time they spoke on the phone or texted. The moment the spouse texted or called, Cortana promptly popped up to remind Westcoat to congratulate his wife on her accomplishment. Although Siri can set reminders and alert you, she can't exactly do the same thing as Cortana. Siri isn't clairvoyant enough to know that your spouse is calling and so remind you to say congrats.

Cortana can also handle two- and even three-step requests. When Westcoat asked Cortana to look up restaurants nearby, she guided him to Yelp, just like Siri and Google Now typically do, but then when he asked her directions to the second restaurant on the list, Cortana replied right off the bat and even told him how the traffic was on the way to his new destination.

Another reviewer tested Cortana without any Microsoft executives around, found that Microsoft's improvements to Bing were the main reason behind Cortana's success. Additionally, the reviewer discovered that Cortana's Notebook, where all your contacts and information are stored, really helps Cortana perform better. Nonetheless, Cortana still has a lot to learn before she starts to perform really well.

As with any digital assistant, the first few weeks are a bit rocky, but things improve as Cortana starts gathering information about you and learning your preferences. Based on your searches, Cortana can even subscribe to specific streams of information, such as airlines, stores and train schedules. This allows Cortana to access information more quickly and accurately without you even having to ask.

Although almost everyone agrees that Cortana isn't ready for showtime just yet, it looks like once she is, she'll be a real star.

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