Cortana is Microsoft's answer to Siri and the Google Assistant -- an AI that you can give voice commands to for things like driving directions, calendar scheduling, texting, or just helping you win an argument over a trivia question. While she's built into Windows 10, Microsoft wants to go one step further by integrating her into your Android phone. With Windows phones in the twilight of their existence, let's see if Cortana can still carve out a space on mobile devices.
Handy two-way syncing and texting with Windows 10: By default, Cortana will notify you on your PC when you miss a call or message on your phone, or when your phone's battery is low. You also have the option to enable syncing of all of your mobile notifications to your PC.
In fact, if you enable that last one, you can also set up Cortana on your PC to let you send SMS text messages from your PC to your phone. In Cortana's settings on Windows 10, enable "Send notifications between devices" and add your phone contacts on your PC. From there, your Windows 10 machine will let you send an SMS when you tell Cortana "Text (name of contact)" or type "SMS (name of contact)" in the AI's question box in the lower- left corner, next to the Windows 10 Start button. It's not quite as slick as iMessage on a Mac, but it gets surprisingly close.
When you open a webpage within the Cortana mobile app, there's also a button in the upper right that can send that browser tab to your Windows 10 PC. If your PC can't be contacted at that time, you can tap on Continue Later to get a notification on your PC when it becomes available.
Overall, Cortana's cross-platform integration is not only helpful but also something that we haven't seen emulated by Google, not even with its own Chromebook laptops and tablets.
Easy text entry -- though it may not look like it at first: Being able to communicate with your virtual assistant silently is an important feature to have, because you don't want to be talking at your phone all the time, especially in public. The Google Assistant app, for example, has a button you can tap to open your mobile device's virtual keyboard, and iPhones and iPads have a "Type to Siri" feature available in their accessibility settings.
With the Cortana app, you just tap on the bottom of the screen where the suggested question is located. It doesn't look like an interactive section, but tapping there pops open the keyboard and presents you with other popular questions you can tap on to get verbal answers from Cortana. Tapping on the downward arrow right below the last displayed question will show you a longer list.
The suggestions may not all apply to you, but the phrasing at least gives you a better idea of how to speak Cortana's language.
The "Hey Cortana" wake-up phrase only works with the app open and in front of you: On Android devices, Google doesn't allow third-party virtual assistants to be summoned outside of their apps, probably for security reasons but also to enforce their own vision for the operating system. With the use of "Hey Cortana" limited to when you are actively using the app, the wake phrase doesn't have much utility; pretty much every section of the app already has a microphone icon that you can just tap on to talk to her.
Cortana ultimately isn't as effective of a taskmaster as the Google Assistant: As good as the Cortana app has gotten, Cortana herself isn't as sharp as the Google Assistant at understanding your input or at presenting its information clearly. When we asked for directions from the San Francisco Ferry Building to the Fruitvale BART station, Cortana gave the starting location as "Edificio Ferry, CA." "Edificio" means "building" in Spanish, but why is this being translated into another language to begin with?
In fact, Cortana could not produce directions at all during our testing. Does mapping require a mobile data connection, and not just Wi-Fi? The app doesn't say; it just stalls at the "getting you directions" step. Meanwhile, it had no trouble pulling up stock prices or a 10-day weather forecast, or telling me the President's birthday. So the app's data connection did not seem to be an issue.
Asking Google Assistant for directions couldn't be more different of an experience. This opens up Google Search results from within the Google Assistant app, with a Google Maps card featured right at the top with estimated travel time, travel distance, and a highlighted route -- all with just Wi-Fi enabled on the phone. Tapping on the fat Directions button opens up the actual Google Maps app with all the turn-by-turn navigation and route customization. And if you have Android Auto, Google Maps is in your car, too.
The mobile version of Cortana has some welcome additional utility for Windows 10 users, but Android's security restrictions prevent the app from being a credible replacement for the Google Assistant. [score: 3.5 stars]