How To Use Cortana For Android

Beyond Google lies the expertise of Windows artificial intelligence

Figure 1-1: A screen shot showing two ladies holding two Android phones.
Figure 1-1: Cortana is now available for Android devices. Getty

While developed for Microsoft products first, Cortana is available for all major platforms including Android. Cortana, of course, is Microsoft’s digital assistant that is installed on Windows 10 devices and the latest Xbox consoles.

You can get Cortana from the Google Play Store and use it as a helper for basic (and sometimes not-so-basic) assistance. Cortana, like Google Now, accepts and understands voice commands to set alarms, organize your calendar, communicate with others through text and phone, and get information from the web, among other things.

To get Cortana, launch the store app from your Android phone, search for Cortana, and then tap the Install button.

How to Activate Cortana

Once you've installed Cortana, tap the icon to configure it. You’ll also be asked to agree to grant the app access to all kinds of personal information, including your location. You’ll need to agree to this setting for Cortana to get directions and inform you of traffic problems, find the closest movie theater or restaurant, obtain weather conditions, and so on. When you’re prompted, make sure to set it as the default digital assistant Android app, too.

Additionally, Cortana will ask for permission to access your files (like photos, videos, music), your Calendar, search history, microphone, camera, emails, and more. It will want to send you notifications. You should grant access to everything if you want to be able to use Cortana effectively.

Finally, you’ll need to log in with a Microsoft account.

If you don’t have one, you’ll need to go through the process to get one. Following that are a few more user interface settings and an offer to let you work through a quick tutorial.

To activate the Cortana app for the first time, use the long-press Home shortcut. You can also access Cortana from the Lock screen by swiping left.

How to Talk to Cortana

You can talk to Cortana through your phone’s mic. Open the Cortana app and say “Hey Cortana” to  get her attention. She’ll let you know if you’ve succeeded with a prompt that says she’s listening. Now say, “How’s the weather?’ and see what she offers up. If Cortana doesn't hear you say "Hey Cortana" or hear your request (perhaps because there's too much background noise) tap the microphone icon inside the app, then talk. If you're in a meeting and can't speak out loud to Cortana, simply type your query or request.

To learn how to speak to Cortana and see what she can do, try these commands:

  • Open Facebook.
  • Show me the top news headlines.
  • What’s 15 times 34?
  • Turn on Bluetooth.
  • Add a dentist appointment to my calendar for tomorrow at 2 p.m.
  • Set an alarm for an hour from now.

Cortana Notebook and Settings

You can configure settings for Cortana to define how you want her to work. Although the look of the app will likely change as time goes on and new versions are released, locate three horizontal lines or ellipsis near the top or bottom of the interface. Tapping that should take you to the available options. Although there’s lots to explore, let’s look at two: Notebook and Settings.

The Notebook is where you control what Cortana knows, keeps, and learns about you. This can include where you live and work, events you’ve been invited to or want go to, news, sports, and similar data that interests you, and so many other things, like browsing history and what’s in your emails. Cortana also makes recommendations based on these preferences, including where you might like to eat or where to watch a movie.

Cortana can tell you if there’s a traffic jam on your usual route to work and urge you to leave early if you turn on applicable notifications. You can set quiet hours too, but there so many other options.

Explore these as time allows to configure Cortana appropriately.

Settings is where you change how Cortana looks. Perhaps you want a shortcut on the Home screen, or you want to use Hey Cortana to get her attention. You can also opt to sync notifications to Cortana on your PC. Again, explore all of these settings to configure her to meet your personal preferences.

How to Use Cortana

One way to get started with Cortana is to tap the app icon. As noted, you can then speak or type to communicate with her. However, there is also an option to work with the available icons behind the scenes. These can include My Day, All Reminders, New Reminder, Weather, Meeting, and New, although they may change over time. You can swipe left to see even more options.

To get to these icons, tap the square of nine dots available inside the app. Tap each entry to drill into it to see the options, configure them if desired, and click the Back key to return to the previous screen.

Here’s a brief look at a few of the icons you’ll likely find in your version of Cortana:

  • My Day: Cortana provides information here she believes you need to get through your day. This includes appointments, news headlines, weather, places to eat near you, and similar data. As time passes and Cortana learns more about you, these will become more and more relevant.
  • Reminders: You can talk to Cortana and ask her to remind you to do things, like buy a birthday card or put a roast in the oven. You’ll see the reminders here and you can create new ones.
  • Meetings: Cortana keeps an eye on your calendar app and lists your meetings here. Tap them to open the meeting for more information about it.

There are many other features, which you’ll access as you tap each of the nine entries here.

Why to Choose Cortana (or Not)

If you're happy with Google Assistant, there's likely no reason to change until Cortana evolves some. Google Assistant was built for Android and Cortana is late to the game here. Additionally, Google Assistant is already linked internally to all of your compatible Google apps, likely already configured to access personal information in apps like your calendar and email, and is attached to your Google account. This makes Google Assistant a smart and effective choice for Android-based users and devices.

Additionally, in my opinion, Google Assistant works better than Cortana (at the moment) when it comes to casual dialog. I tested both by asking for directions to a particular place, and while Google Assistant immediately brought up Google Maps and offered those directions, Cortana listed several places I might want, and I had to choose one of those first. I also had better luck scheduling an appointment with Google Assistant than I did with Cortana.

If you're unhappy with your current assistant's performance though, or you've found holes in it, Cortana might be able to step things up a little. Cortana links well with multiple third-party apps like Eventbrite and Uber, so if you're having trouble communicating around those apps, try Cortana.

Cortana's search results come from Microsoft's Bing search engine too, which is very powerful. 

Ultimately it's a personal choice though, and Cortana is worth trying for a week or so. See if you like it, and you do, keep it and watch it evolve.