Cortana vs. Siri vs. Google Now: An early look at how Cortana stacks up (hands-on)

Can Windows Phone’s new voice-activated assistant stand up to Siri and Google Now? We put an early version to the test.

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The iPhone has Siri. Android has Google Now. And Windows Phone now has Cortana.
Not everyone likes speaking commands into their phone, but for those who do, Microsoft's new Cortana voice assistant for Windows Phone 8.1 is exactly the viable competitor to Apple's Siri and Google Now that the company needs to keep its Windows Phone OS current.

Like Siri and, to a lesser extent, Google's voice actions, Cortana is a personable (or vaguely person-like) voice-activated system for taking dictation, looking things up, and opening apps. (Yes, Halo fans -- Cortana is named for Master Chief's AI companion, and even voiced by the same talent: actress Jen Taylor.) Even in its early beta stage, Cortana mostly keeps pace with its rivals, and introduces one or two minor innovations that Apple and Google can learn from.

While Cortana isn't revolutionizing the field of voice assistants, it does give Windows phones a sorely-needed boost in the voice option department -- the previous generation, fueled by TellMe, was limited and impersonal. Out of all the additions to the Windows Phone 8.1, it's Cortana that pulls the most weight keeping the Windows Phone in the OS game.

Before we begin

There are two ways to start Cortana: by pressing the capacitive Search button below the screen, or by manually launching the app from the phone's start menu or app tray.

I tested Cortana on a Nokia Lumia Icon preloaded with a prefinal version of Windows Phone 8.1. The OS update is designed to work on all version 8.0 phones, but update times will depend on individual vendors and carriers. Expect Lumia phones to receive the update over-the-air by summer, for instance. New devices like the Nokia Lumia 930, 630, and 635 will ship with 8.1 starting in late April and early May, and developers can get their hands on the new OS on April 14.

Now, Cortana gets it (or, if your Microsoft, her) knowledge from your personal usage patterns, and also from a database of users. That means that Cortana's ability to understand natural language (versus strict commands) and accents will improve as more people use it.
Since CNET got Cortana and Windows Phone 8.1 review units before even Microsoft's developer partners, the results of my testing may not be as sophisticated as they will be when more people start using Cortana to search.
Just one more qualification before we get going here: as I said before, this is an early summary and test, so we're reserving our final evaluation of Cortana until after it enters the mainstream. At that point, we also plan to revisit this battle and see if the circumstances change.

Versus Siri and Google Now

To get into the meat of the testing, I spoke the same commands to the most up-to-date versions of Cortana (on the Icon running Windows Phone 8.1), Siri (on an iPhone 5 running iOS 7.1), and Google Now (on the Samsung Galaxy S5 running Android 4.4.2), often with more than one syntax to see if phrasing makes a difference in the result. Below, I compare some of the more common activities you'll demand of a voice assistant, with a few outliers thrown in to see how each system behaves.
1. Calls, texts, and email
Launching calls, texts, and email is one of voice commands' most common actions. Cortana handily recognizes text and call commands. It can even take slightly more complex dictation, say: "Call Mom and Dad on speakerphone," just like Siri (Google Voice won't do this).

Of the three voice assistants, Siri handled punctuation commands best. Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET
But Cortana doesn't compose email using either the terms "Send email to" or "Compose email to." That's a big hole for now, but hopefully one that Microsoft will plug with the next update. (Note: You can tell Cortana to open Outlook, then press the microphone button to dictate there, but it's a clumsier workaround.)

Another area that Microsoft needs to improve is its understanding of punctuation when composing messages by voice. Say: "Hey [comma] how's it going [question mark]" and the voice assistant should always spell out "Hey, how's it going?" Cortana, however, takes you literally, adding the words "comma" and "question mark," instead of inserting their respective symbols. Siri got both symbols; Google's system got one.
2. Alarms and appointments
All three voice assistants adeptly set alarms for specific times, say 6:00am ("Set alarm for 6:00 am), as well as for spans of time, such as "Wake me up in five minutes." A little more interesting than that, Cortana and Siri will vocally cancel an alarm ("Cancel alarm for 6:00 am"), but Google Voice will not.

Cortana and Siri could cancel an alarm. Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET
The same goes for calendar appointments; they're easy to schedule ("Schedule appointment for...", but you'll have to manually remove them in Cortana and Google Now. Siri alone will strike appointments from the record ("Cancel appointment for...").
3. Apps and system settings
Cortana, Siri, and Google's voice actions all open downloaded apps in response to your voice ("Open Yelp"), but only Cortana and Siri manipulate settings; for instance, toggling Wi-Fi and Bluetooth off and on ("Turn Wi-Fi on," or "Turn on Wi-Fi").

Google Now can't manipulate system settings, but Cortana and Siri can. Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET
4. Facts and figures, flight status
Ask the three assistants for Genghis Khan's birthday, the height of Mt. Everest, sports scores, or the weather, and you'll get the same answers presented in an easy-to-read format that sets apart the response (above) from more detailed information or Web links (below).

They all also convert currency and can tell you the time in another city. Siri provided the most context with both of these, adding visual elements of a clock and a currency graph, respectively. Strangely, Cortana could tell me the time in Mumbai and London, but not Taipei (I got a list of search results instead.) This is likely a function of Cortana's beta status and something that Microsoft will build out.

Siri provided the most additional context when it comes to currency conversion. Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET
Depending on what you ask and how you ask it, the results may differ among the assistants. They can be a little finicky on your articulation and exact wording. Siri, for example, didn't understand when I asked "What time is Captain America playing tonight?" I got the MLB schedule for the Mets game instead (on more than once occasion). When I worded the phrase slightly -- "What are showtimes for Captain America tonight?" -- I was correctly shown movie times.

A similar oopsie occurred with Cortana, which displayed the film schedule when I searched for Captain America, but then presented a list of Bing results when I asked about "The Lego Movie."

Tracking a flight isn't Siri's forte, but it's something that Google Now and Cortana can do. Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET
Cortana's claim of flight status worked well when I asked it, "What's the status of United 931?" Google Now kept pace, with the same results posted clearly on a card, but Siri returned my query with a Web search, not with an at-a-glance flight status.
5. Directions
Voice-activated directions worked flawlessly for all three assistants ("Navigate me to Palo Alto.")
Looking up addresses (that you don't necessarily want directions for) is also something you can do. When asked, "What is the address for the Exploratorium?", all three returned the correct response...eventually. On my first attempt, which was outdoors, only Siri returned a specific result. The other two proffered up a list of links.

This time it's Cortana that offers up the greatest context, including a phone number and a prompt to get walking directions. Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET
There was one other on-demand command that only tripped up Google Now, and that was asking "How long will it take me to get home?" You'll get search results instead of a card response. That said, Google Now cards proactively predict your commute, so that information is available.

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About Doru Somcutean

Hello, my name is Somcutean Doru and I'm from Romania.

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