Although voice-activated personal assistants are considered standard on smartphones, Microsoft has only recently stepped up to the plate with its Cortana offering on Windows Phone 8.1. And it's eager to trump Google's Google Now and Apple's Siri.
Personal assistants help us to manage our lives, control our smartphones, and search the web faster than ever. They are like little maids and butlers, silently waiting in our handsets for us to give them a task. And when we do, they draw on our email, calendar, contacts, search history, location, and repeated habits to give us the best possible answer or experience.
The thing is, some of these assistants aren't as capable as others. That's right. We said it. Cortana has some features that Google Now doesn't offer. And Google Now has some features that Siri doesn't offer. If you'd like to know the ins and outs of all three major personal assistants, including which one reigns supreme, keep on reading.
What is Cortana?
Cortana is Microsoft's long-awaited personal assistant. It debuted in 2014 as part of Windows Phone 8.1. Microsoft said it was inspired by a popular AI character from the Halo game franchise, so the company named its personal assistant Cortana after the character. Cortana is powered by Microsoft's Bing search engine, and it supposedly gets better over time, remembers your behaviour, monitors your activity, and "filters out the noise so you can focus on what matters to you".
Cortana is only available right now as a beta in the US. It won't launch in the UK until the second half of 2014.
What is Google Now?
Google Now is a two-year-old personal assistant developed by Google. It responds to voice and text queries and serves up relevant information (in the form of specialised cards) based on your repeated habits, location data, search history, and information leveraged from the Knowledge Graph. You can access Google Now in Google's Search apps for Android and iOS and the Google Chrome browser. It is therefore available across many platforms, unlike Siri and Cortana, which are respectively limited to iOS and Windows Phone 8.1
What is Siri?
Siri is a personal assistant hard-coded into Apple's company's iOS software. It first appeared with the iPhone 4S and iOS 5 after Apple acquired the developer company behind it. Siri responds to voice queries using natural language. It can answer questions in a witty manner, make recommendations, perform tasks, and load information through supported web services. Siri isn't cross-platform and is locked to iOS, though the feature recently added support for specific vehicles through Apple's CarPlay.
Cortana: In Windows Phone 8.1, Cortana is available as a Live Tile on your Start screen. You can also access Cortana Home by pressing the search button on your device. At that point, you can interact with Cortana by speaking commands and asking questions. Microsoft said Cortana will "answer verbally and even carry on a natural conversation".
Google Now: Google Now supports a wide range of voice commands and functions. To unlock Google Now's true power and convenience by utilising voice search, tap the Search microphone and say “OK, Google Now. Google Now will anticipate follow-up questions and provide useful related information either through a vocal response or a card. With Moto X or Android 4.4 on the Nexus 5, you can also launch Google Now voice search by saying "OK Google" directly from the home screen (no tapping required).
Siri: You can load Siri by holding down the home button on an iPhone 4S or later. At that point, you can ask a question or speak a command. Siri will either provide a vocal response, pull up Wolfram Alpha and Bing information, or interact with apps like Reminders. Highlighting its natural language capability, Apple said you can speak to Siri like you would a normal person.
Cortana: While using Cortana Home on Windows Phone 8.1, you can interact with Cortana with voice or simply by typing a search query. This type of situation is most useful when - let's say - you're in a meeting. Also, Microsoft said Cortana won't talk out loud when you type queries.
Google Now: If you're in an environment where you can't speak a question, you can always type queries into Google's search box next to the Google Now microphone icon.
Siri: Siri does not let you type queries, though it will let you type-to-edit garbled voice queries after the fact. This is especially useful when Siri misunderstands you and begins searching for something completely unrelated. You can simply tap, then fix the query, and continue on.
Cortana: Microsoft said Cortana is powered by Bing. You can ask Cortana to look up restaurants, more specifically, restaurants in an area accepting reservations. It'll give suggestions with Yelp ratings and call the restaurant. You can further ask Cortana simple things like “how many calories are in a banana”. Cortana will not only give the nutritional information but also allow you to add that data into a fitness app.
Cortana will also remember what you've already asked and make connections, so it can continue serving up relevant information, suggest things based on your search history, and narrow search results. For instance, you could ask Cortana for the weather in Las Vegas and then immediately ask "How about in Celcius?". Cortana will know what you mean and change the information to suit your query.
Google Now: Google Now is powered by Google Search. Google Now recognises your repeated actions such as recurring search queries and subsequently serves up relevant information to you based on your repeated habits. This information appears in the form of cards. Google Now also leverages conversational search and Google's Knowledge Graph, a system that provides more detailed search results by analysing meaning and connections of keywords entered for search.
One of the most useful features of conversational search is in fact the Knowledge Graph, because the combined technologies can parse together what you're saying. For instance, just ask “How old is Queen Elizabeth II?”. Google Now will then speak the answer. You could then ask a series of follow-up questions like “How tall is she?” or “Who is she married to?”. Google Now will know who you are referring to in each question and can interpret pronouns appropriately.
Siri: Siri is powered by Wolfram Alpha, Wikipedia, Bing, and more services. You can ask “What are the basic properties of Pikachu”, and then Siri will serve up a Wolfram Alpha graph with all the related stats. You can then say “Hmm...what's his icon?" Siri will remember that you just asked about Pikachu, so it will use Bing or Wikipedia or whatever to pull up his icon. Apple also called Siri "proactive", because it'll even ask you questions until it finds the correct information.
Learning and tracking
Cortana: Cortana immediately learns things about you, from the moment you start using Windows Phone 8.1. It'll remember your name and how to pronounce it, and it'll ask for personal interests. Cortana Home will then populate with information that is curated specifically for you. Cortana will even learn your commute routine, for instance, and deliver related traffic data.
Microsoft said Cortana will "get to know you, build a relationship that you can trust, and get better over time by asking questions based on your behavior and checking in with you". Specifically, Cortana will detect and monitor your activity, including your email messages and search habits on Bing.com, then it'll take note of meetings, itinerary, what interests you, etc, and it'll filter out what doesn't matter.
There's also a hub called Cortana’s Notebook, where Cortana curates tracked information to be "proactive and helpful" throughout the day. But that's not all: Cortana is powered by Bing. So, when you sign into the web, your interests stored in Cortana’s Notebook will sync to Bing.com. Bing.com will then show stuff related to your interests and give you access to data that Cortana tracks (like weather, news, and flights).
Google Now: If you really want to see what Google Now can do, then you should use it for a while, because it monitors and understands your repeated actions like movements and the kind of information you are interested in or usually search. Just give it time to learn about you, quietly, in the background on your device, and you’ll soon reap the benefits.
The more Google Now learns, the better it can get you to appointments via real-time traffic conditions or reminders, for instance. Google Now cards will simply pop up with information related to you, and you can either swipe the cards away or tap them to get more detailed information. You can also scroll down on cards to request more cards.
Siri: Although it's not as in-depth or powerful as Cortana and Google Now, Siri can learns about your interest and personal preferences over time, and it becomes more accurate the more it's used. In fact, Siri starts learning right out of the box by recognising your accent and other characteristics of your voice and using voice recognition algorithms to categorise your voice.
Siri further leverages information from your contacts, music library, calendars, and reminders to better answer queries and move your day along such as telling you the score of last night’s game. It can also learn about the key people in your life by remembering relationship information such as "mom", "husband", and "boss". What's more, Siri will remind you to do a certain task based on a current location (such as notifying you to meet your boss as soon as you pull up to work).
Calendar, Alarms, and Reminders
Cortana: Cortana can add items to your calendar and set appointments for you upon request. Microsoft said Cortana will also automatically sift through your email to find and store calendar-related information including travel plans or meetings. In addition to having access to the Calendar app, Cortana works with other Windows Phone 8.1 apps. That means you can ask Cortana to set an alarm and create a reminder too.
And finally, in relation to reminders, Cortana lets you set people reminders. This is useful when a friend owes you money, for instance, because Cortana will remind you the next time her or she calls. These type of interests and preferences are all identified within Cortana’s Notebook.
Google Now: Like Cortana, Google Now can add items to your calendar, set appointments, and create reminders for you upon request. Google also combs through your email and other Android apps in order to be the best assistant possible. It'll provide you with specialised cards for birthdays, events, meetings, appointments, places, reminders, holidays, etc.
Siri: Apple’s voice-activated offering is just as much of a personal assistant as Cortana and Google Now. You can command it to schedule meetings, remind you of things later, and, well, all sorts of things. That's because Siri works directly with native iOS apps. For instance, if you ask Siri to remind you to make coffee in one hour, a Reminders panel will pop-up within the Siri hub. You'll just need to confirm the action.
Phone, Contacts, and SMS
Cortana: Although you can ask Cortana to make a standard phone call, the integration gets a little deeper than that. The new Skype app for Windows Phone 8.1 is integrated with the Phone dialer. That means, when you’re on a call, you can upgrade your ordinary phone call to a Skype video call. And the new Skype app works with Cortana, so you can use Cortana to setup your calls within Skype.
Cortana will also manage your phone. You can ask it to set quiet hours and silence any notifications, in-coming calls, and texts. Speaking of texts, you can have Cortana compose and respond to text messages (and emails, for that matter). Microsoft said Cortana will also identify your “inner circle” of contacts and allow their texts or calls to break through during quiet hours.
Google Now: Yes, yes, and yes. Google Now will call, text, and email whoever you want. Unfortunately, Google Now doesn't quite work with Hangouts completely yet, meaning you can't ask Google Now to start a Hangout with someone.
Siri: Siri will call, FaceTime, text, and email contacts for you.
Cortana: You can ask Cortana to give you the weather forecast, or you can pull up Cortana Home to see the weather report. Microsoft said Bing.com will also give you access to things that Cortana tracks for you such as weather.
Google Now: You can ask Google Now for the local weather or any weather forecast, but chances are, there's a card already stored in your Google Now hub with all the weather information you want to know.
Siri: Like Cortana and Google Now, you can ask Siri for the weather forecast in just about any city or town in the world.
Cortana: You can ask Cortana to play a song. While that's certainly handy, the coolest bit is that Cortana also features music recognition. That means it can identify any song playing.
Google Now: Google Now will load Google Play Music and play whatever song you want on your device. Or it'll let you buy a song and listen. It'll even launch a music recognition feature if you so desire.
Siri: Siri will play, shuffle, and open music for you. And that's about it.
Cortana: We've mentioned that Cortana works with apps like Phone, Calendar, and more, but it also works with built-in Windows Phone 8.1 apps and software features like Wi-Fi Sense. Wi-Fi Sense auto-connects to public hotspots and enables your contacts to auto-connect to your home Wi-Fi. If you turn off Wi-Fi in Wi-Fi Sense, you can have Cortana automatically turn it back on whenever you arrive at a favorite place identified in Cortana. And that's just the tip of the iceberg. Cortana has access to many functions within native apps.
Google Now: Unlike Cortana and Siri, Google Now is available in the Chrome browser for desktops. But what's even cooler is that Google Now supports a huge range of cards on mobile and desktop. A few of them include: activity summary (walking/cycling), boarding pass, concerts, currency, breaking news, events, event reminders, Fandango (ticket service), flights, friends' birthdays, hotels, location reminders, movies, nearby attractions, new albums/books/video games/TV episodes, next appointment, package tracking, public alerts, and traffic.
Siri: Siri notably features Dictation. Tap the Siri microphone on the keyboard throughout iOS, say what you want, then tap Done, and your iPhone will convert all your words into text. You can use Dictation to write messages, take notes, search the web, update your Facebook status, tweet on Twitter, and more.
Cortana: Microsoft said Cortana can interact with third-party apps installed on your Windows Phone 8.1 device. Just ask Cortana to bring up a TV show in Hulu Plus, look up your news feed on Facebook, or send a tweet with Twitter's app.
Google Now: Yes, Google Now supports third-party apps. It even recently updated its Google Search and Google Now apps on Android to integrate search results with third-party applications. That means, when results are retrieved and delivered to you, a button now appears next relevant entries with the option to “open in app” if you have the app installed.
For instance, if you’re searching for a movie or an actor, results from from IMDB will now have an “open in app” button so that you can learn more within the IMDB app rather than with results in the Chrome browser.
Siri: Siri is currently incapable of completing basic tasks like booking a vehicle or hotel reservation or using a third-party messaging app. But all that could soon change. Apple is allegedly developing a feature set for Siri that would allow the voice assistant to do such tasks. Plus, Siri could eventually support more third-party integrations that don’t require direct deals with Apple. Example third-party integrations of that nature, which are already available in Siri, include OpenTable and Wolfram Alpha.
Cortana: Microsoft said Cortana isn’t "just a dry computer returning search results." In fact, the company claimed "she" has a bit of personality.
Google Now: Google Now is just a computer returning search results. Seriously. It'll do exactly what you want in the most efficient manner, but don't ask it to tell you a joke because it'll just search that for you.
Siri: Siri was one of the first digital assistants with an attitude. It's chock-full of wit, comedic responses, and easter egg-like doozies.
Microsoft has really gone after Google Now and Siri with Cortana. It delivers Bing search power, ultimate sass, third-party app integration, personal assistant capabilities...and everything you could want, really.
That said, we think Cortana and Google Now are probably closer in comparison than Siri. After all, Apple can't draw on huge amounts of user data through a search engine or rich email system. Thus, no matter how many bells and whistles it may offer, Siri can't quite take on Cortana and Google Now. At least not right now.
In a nutshell: Cortana and Google Now are equally powerful assistants. Cortana technically has more to offer in the personality department (and let's not forget that it also offers People reminders), but Google Now is still perfectly capable and just as addictive. We can't pick between the two just yet, as they're far too similar and helpful, but feel free to add your thoughts below.