Unless you're one of the handful of people rocking a Windows Phone, you won't have much experience with Cortana, Microsoft's personal digital assistant. With the roll-out of Windows 10, Cortana is about to make a lot of new friends very quickly — and like me, they might soon find themselves shouting instructions at their computer on a regular basis.
Cortana on Windows 10 works a little bit like Siri or Google Now, though all three have their differences: You can use your voice or the keyboard to ask questions ("what's the weather like in Sydney?"), set reminders, launch apps and even toggle Windows settings.
Setting up Cortana
First of all, Cortana is opt-in: You need to switch the app on manually, and even then you have to choose whether to have her always listening for a "hey Cortana!" command or staying hidden away until specifically called upon. You can also choose to have Cortana respond to anyone who pipes up or listen solely for your voice amongst the crowd.
Even without "Hey Cortana," she's not hard to call upon: if you've got a search key on your keyboard, you can just press that key and start talking.
What Cortana can do in Windows 10
A "hey Cortana!" shout or a click on the Start Listening icon begins the interaction — you can search for something on the web, get an answer to a specific query, find travel times to various places and scour through your upcoming schedule (if Windows 10 has your calendar data of course). If you've used Google Now or Siri before then this will all be familiar stuff.
(Unlike Google Now or Siri, you don't need to wait for Cortana to signal that she's listening before you finish your query: You can say "Hey Cortana what's the weather like in Tokyo?" in one unbroken sentence and she'll respond just fine. Here are some cool commands to try.)
Then there's the more personal aspect: Setting reminders based around times, dates, places and people. "Hey Cortana, remind me to take out the trash when I get home," for example — though in that case, you'll need to tell Cortana where you live first.
It quickly becomes apparent why Microsoft is bringing Cortana to iOS and Android, because a lot of this functionality is redundant if it never leaves your home or office desk. There are hiccups, but it's generally very clever and works well.
You can tell Cortana to explain herself and what she does, and she has a sense of humour too — try asking her to open the pod bay doors.
On top of that you can control actions in Windows 10: Switch off Bluetooth, launch the music player, search your PC for particular files... it's essentially a voice-controlled gateway into everything on your computer. It feels vaguely disconcerting and also full of tantalising potential — Windows 8 made touch input a priority, and Windows 10 is doing the same for voice.
Why you might hate it, or love it
There's no getting around it: Talking to your computer feels weird. I'm not sure if that's because it's weird in a new and unfamiliar sense or just because it's inherently weird. And there are practical problems too, because voice input won't work with a lot of background noise or with music playing (I know, I tried it).
In a busy office or a coffee shop or when watching the kids you'll have to ditch Cortana or type out your requests, which doesn't feel anywhere near as futuristic. But oddly enough, if the conditions are right, having Cortana's voice control around can start to feel rather liberating.
Even if you're as familiar with keyboard shortcuts and the inner workings of Control Panel as I am, there's something very convenient about being able to toggle settings or look for files or launch an app by speaking to your PC. And for the average user being able to say "turn on wifi" is preferable to having to figure it out themselves (it could certainly save me a lot of time troubleshooting the computers of friends and family).
As I've grown used to it, sitting back and telling Cortana to start Netflix feels much more natural than reaching for a mouse (assuming there's no one around to see such strange behaviour). And really why should I have to load up a map, type out a destination and click through a set of options when I can just ask Windows 10 how long it will take to drive home?
Cortana's natural language voice control has its limitations, and it's not for everyone in every scenario; but Microsoft knows if it's going to attract the next generation of touchscreen-savvy, Echo-owning users then it needs to make interacting with a computer much more like chatting to a friend. And Cortana is a decent first step towards that.
This post is part of a week-long experiment with Windows 10 ahead of the official launch on July 29.