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The battle of the digital assistants: Windows Phone Cortana vs Google Now vs Siri

Mark Hachman | April 15, 2014
Even in beta, Microsoft's Cortana digital assistant has an impressive amount to say for itself.

Expect Cortana also to figure out where you live and work--i.e., the locations you frequent during the workweek and on weekends. Unfortunately, Cortana didn't tell me any information about travel times when I set a meeting.

Keying Cortana to the search button was a smart move--it's the easiest way to access it. Certain queries will generate an attractive "card" response, including an oral response, an image, and some additional explanation. It's also worth noting that you can trigger Cortana without first bypassing the lock screen. Searching via Cortana can pull up contacts, music, and documents stored on the phone itself--but, oddly, can't seem to search your OneDrive account.

Although Cortana handled everything we threw at it pretty well, there were some inexplicable omissions: Asking it to email a contact failed during my hands-on, and it still didn't work at the time this story posted.

Neither does asking Cortana for the details of an airline flight (bad news, as that's one of Google Now's strengths) or telling it to take a picture. The latter generates a page of search results, which is just laughable.

Finally, ordering Cortana to call "Round Table Pizza" won't work if the number isn't saved to your contacts. Both Siri and Google Now will simply search for the number in the background and call the closest location. Cortana is a beta product, and it shows in quirks like these.

You can tell Cortana to listen to and identify a song being played. It will even match that song to a track in your collection or in the Xbox Music store. There's also a setting to enable "vision searches" with the camera, but I couldn't get it to work.

Cortana includes a few nifty features that aren't available in Google Now, as far as I know: Quiet Hours, and the related Inner Circle of friends. (Apple's iOS6 added these capabilities, called Do Not Disturb.)

As the name implies, you can set a time (after 11 pm, for example) when Cortana will intercept a call and prevent you from being disturbed. It's convenient for bedtime, or even during critical business meetings. But Cortana will let a privileged Inner Circle of friends break through the cone of silence. You can also tell Cortana to allow repeated calls through, indicating an emergency.

Here's another handy feature: If you receive a text saying, for example: "Let's meet at AT&T Park at 7 to go see the game," Cortana will highlight part of the text. Clicking it allows you to schedule it automatically on your calendar.

Siri doesn't suck, but she's limited

At this point, the notion that Apple's Siri simply can't cut it is ingrained into the national zeitgeist. The Simpsons parodied it. A disgruntled customer filed suit because of it. And when Siri launched, maybe there was a case to be made. But iOS 7 reportedly improved Siri, and our tests showed that it holds its own. 


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