We spent some time getting to know the British Cortana, to see if she can out-perform Siri and Google Now, not to mention her famous American counterpart. Here’s our full UK Cortana beta review.
Cortana has finally hit the UK in beta form, and you can download it right now, via a weird little workaround that we’ll tell you all about just below. But, is she really a better voice assistant than Siri and Google Now, and what features has Microsoft crammed into her? And how does the British version compare to her American counterpart? Here’s our full review.
Note: This is a review of the beta version of the British Cortana, so while some features didn’t quite work as expected, the chances are good that everything will be hunky dory come release time.
Cortana UK: How to download her now
First off, you’ll need a Windows Phone 8.1 handset to get Cortana. So far in the UK, you can get a number of phones that have been updated to Windows Phone 8.1, such as the Nokia Lumia 930, the Nokia Lumia 630, the Nokia Lumia 635 and the Nokia Lumia 1020.
However, that’s not all. Cortana UK has been rolled out to WP 8.1 users who are registered as developers, but us bog-standard consumers won’t be getting the update for a little while yet. Don’t go and punch a kitten in the face, though, because there’s a quick and easy (and free) work-around.
If you don’t want to wait for the consumer rollout of Cortana UK, just head to Microsoft’s website and register as a developer. It’s completely free to do, hooray! Then, provided you’re signed into your phone with the same Microsoft account, all you need to do is download the Preview for Developers app from the Windows Store. That’s your gateway to the brand new Windows Phone 8.1 features, including the British Cortana.
Cortana UK: The interface
When it comes to standard virtual assistant shenanigans, Cortana is one of the best around. Her main functionality reminded us a lot of Google Now, with all your essential info presented in a clean, neat fashion – important headlines, weather forecast, traffic updates and so on. You can grab more info with a tap, or hide each section with another tap.
Like Google Now, Cortana learns your interests and tailors the desktop to suit your needs and likes. Bit of a geek? Here’s the latest tech news, delivered straight to your eyeballs. Prefer healthy food? Here’s some ideas for low-carb recipes you can try at home.
Cortana picks up this info as you use her, but you can also opt to answer some simple questions to give her an idea of how your brain works. And of course you can manually add or remove whatever topics you like, if she gets the wrong idea.
Cortana UK: Reminders
When it comes to reminders, you’ve also got tons of flexibility. You can set the usual time-based prompts, e.g. remind me to watch Ladyboys Uncovered at 11pm tonight. Or you can set a location-based reminder instead, e.g. remind me to set the Tivo to record Ladyboys Uncovered when I get home.
There’s also the option to set a Cortana reminder for the next time you call a specific contact – so you can remind yourself to ask how their holiday was, or congratulate them on that promotion. Cortana is also supposed to remind you when you text or email the selected contact too, but we couldn’t get that feature to work on the UK version (we’re looking into it).
Personal reminders are such a simple idea yet completely genius, and we’re surprised it hasn’t been done before. And if the feature is expanded to include third-party messenger apps too, then we’re 100% sold.
Cortana UK: Searches and directions
One of the other big virtual assistant features is local search, and Cortana can direct you to nearby locations and services just like Siri and Google Now. However, the experience is a little hit-and-miss right now.
For instance, if you’re a bit vague about what you’re looking for, Cortana is perfectly helpful. Just tell her what you fancy, like a slice of pizza or just any decent restaurant in the area, and she’ll come back with some comprehensive listings tailored to your needs, complete with reviews and directions if needed.
However, if you’re after a specific restaurant or shop, Cortana’s cracks start to show. For instance, we tried asking for directions to the nearest Honest Burger, and instead of suggesting the two branches that are less than a mile from our office, we were presented with a couple that were 3-5 miles away. Even though the closer branches appear in Bing’s listings. The two suggested branches were simply the first two in the list, even though we asked for the closest/nearest.
We also found that the directions feature occasionally glitched out on us for no good reason, meaning we had to manually enter our destination to get directions.
Cortana UK: Quiet hours
All great assistants help you get your life in order, but they also know when not to disturb you. Cortana’s Quiet Hours feature is a great little addition that helps to silence your phone when you’re busy or sleeping, and she can even respond on your behalf to anyone trying to get in touch.
You can set your Quiet Hours for specific blocks of time on specific days, or you can also manually activate the mode whenever you like, handy when you head for an important meeting. You also get full control over automatic responses (which can be deactivated).
Best of all is Quiet Hours’ flexibility, so emergency calls can still get through. Not only can you specify an ‘inner circle’ of contacts who can contact you at any time, you can also opt to be disturbed if a contact tries to call you more than twice in three minutes.
Quiet Hours is a great little feature, especially if you value your sleep or you’re constantly in meetings, and it elevates Cortana above the level of glorified search engine.
Cortana UK: Music searches
There’s little to say about Cortana’s built-in music recognition (which operates just like Shazam) except that it’s bloody marvellous.
We tried playing all kinds of music, from soft rock to rap to thrash metal, and the chosen track was guessed with 100% accuracy each time. Only incredibly obscure songs managed to stump the virtual assistant, but she successfully identified even violently loud tracks by the likes of Anal C**t. Rock on, Cortana.
Cortana UK: US vs UK
One of our major disappointments with the British Cortana is her complete personality vacuum, and tedious generic voice that makes her sound like yet another automated telephone answering service.
If you asked the US Cortana to sing you a song or tell you a joke, she’d happily oblige. Try the same with the stiff-upper-lip UK version, and you’ll get little more than a list of song lyrics or a web search for knee-slappers.
We’re sure that Microsoft will inject some fun stuff into her before her full UK launch, but if you’re hoping she’ll crack wise or entertain you with some top bantz, you’ll be left cold for now. She really does have the personality of a doormat.
Thankfully Cortana does at least use British spellings and dialect, so words aren’t randomly missing U’s or rammed full of Z’s, and there’s no talk of ‘math’.
Cortana UK: Verdict
Cortana UK is still rammed full of great features that are sorely missing from other assistants, including a genuinely useful reminders feature and unique extras like the privacy settings.
However, the beta edition has a few little quirks that need ironing out before the full official release, and we really don’t like the soulless British version. Here’s hoping she learns how to crack a joke before she hits the UK for real.