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How to use and customize Cortana in Windows 10

You might know Cortana as the digital voice assistant on the Windows Phone mobile platform, named after the AI character in Microsoft’s Halo game series. Starting with Windows 10, Cortana has graduated to the desktop operating system’s primary search tool, plus many other customizable and personal functions. Here’s how to get the most out of Cortana after your Windows 10 upgrade.

Show or hide the Search button

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Cortana “lives” in the taskbar, either as a full-sized search bar that you can type directly into (which is only available when the taskbar is at the bottom) or as a simple button. You can choose between these modes, or hide the search function completely. Right-click on an empty portion of the taskbar and move your mouse to the “Search” field, then select either “Show search icon” or “Show search box.”

You can also select “Hidden,” which will hide Cortana completely. You can still access searches from the keyboard by pressing the Windows button + S, or simply typing quickly when the Start menu is first opened.

Setup Cortana

When you first start using Cortana, it will ask you to give it a name or nickname. Just enter your own first name for now — this is what Cortana will call you when search queries or notifications need a name. Next it will ask to use your location data. You can disable this for privacy, but to get personalized local results, you’ll need to enable it.

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Next, type “Cortana settings” in the search bar. The first result will be “Cortana & search settings” — click it. (You can also access these through the Notebook view — see below.) There are a variety of options here. The first option allows you to disable the more active portion of Cortana completely; change this setting to “off” if you’re tired of Cortana popping up with non-vital alerts and tips.

The second setting controls the search function’s voice activation phrase, “hey Cortana.” If you’re the only user of your computer, or you simply want this function to be more accurate, click “learn my voice.” The search program will guide you through a series of tests to make sure your microphone is working correctly, then it will “learn” your voice so that you can instantly activate the Cortana window with the phrase from any screen.

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Alternately, you can turn off this detection by switching the “Hey Cortana” switch to “Off.” This is useful if you want to save battery life on a laptop, or if you’re using a desktop with no microphone. You can manually activate a voice search by clicking the microphone button in the search bar at any time.

The other two options allow you to disable flight information and other tracking info (automatically gathered from email and SMS messages associated with your Microsoft account) and to disable “taskbar tidbits,” small pop-up messages that offer hints for using Windows. If you’re confident in your ability to learn and operate Windows 10, you don’t need these. The bottom of the list is links to Bing’s safe search settings (all web searches made in Cortana will use Microsoft’s Bing search engine on your default web browser) and the broader Windows privacy settings screen.

Related: Cortana for Android is now available

Cortana Home

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When you click the Search button you’ll see the Cortana home screen, a heads-up display of all the news and personalized items that Cortana thinks you’ll be interested in at the moment. You can go into greater detail on what to show and what not to show in the Notebook section below, but to quickly remove a sub-section from the Home screen, click the three horizontal dots at the top-right of any individual section (referred to as “cards” in the Cortana interface). Click “Hide [section]” to remove the section completely, or “edit in Notebook” to quickly go to the relevant Notebook page.

Cortana Notebook

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To change what appears in the Home view and in search results as a whole, click the button beneath the Home button on the left side of the Cortana window to open the Notebook. This is your way to access Cortana’s learned information about you as a user, and to customize which dynamic suggestions it gives you to questions and other search queries. In the menus for the following sub-settings, you can enable or disable a variety of search results and tools.

  • Eat & Drink
  • Events
  • Finance
  • Getting Around
  • Meetings & Reminders
  • Movies & TV
  • Music
  • News
  • Sports
  • Travel
  • Weather

Each one sources some information from web searches and specific services (like FourSquare for Eat & drink) and “learns” your preferences as you search. If you don’t like the results you’re getting, you can manually tweak them (like selecting an “atmosphere” for your preferred restaurant type or entering your favorite sports team for tracking) or simply set the card to “off” to disable those results in Cortana.

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Click each sub-menu to see what you can tweak or adjust. Some are quite robust – Eat & Drink even lets you select how far you prefer to go from home for a restaurant, and News lets you track stories by both broad categories and specific topics.

Related: Parallels 11 will let you use Cortana in Mac OS X

Changing your name and locations

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In the Notebook view, click “about me.” If you’d like to change the name you entered when you first set up Cortana, click “change my name.” Cortana will then allow you to customize the pronunciation: click “hear how I’ll say it” for an audio playback. If you’re not satisfied, click “that’s wrong,” and Cortana will try to learn from a pronunciation that you speak aloud.

On the About Me page, you can also edit “places,” learned locations for home, work, and other places. This can be useful — for example, a voice search for “what time is it at home” when you’re on vacation will give you the time in your home time zone. You can add or manually edit the locations of these places here.

Connected accounts

The Connected Accounts menu allows you to manage any Microsoft or third-party services that Cortana can access. For maximum utility (and getting the most out of the “personal assistant” aspirations of Cortana), it’s best to leave these enabled. For privacy, you can disable sensitive accounts, or simply un-link them all to use Cortana solely as a web and computer search tool.

Reminders

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The third icon in the left menu is “reminders.” Reminders are automatically set when you make a relevant search in Cortana. For example, searching for “remind me to rent Avengers” will automatically bring up a screen to link the reminder to a specific time, person (when you connect with someone in your Microsoft Contacts) or place (when your computer or phone determines that it’s in a matching location).

The Reminders page lets you manually edit these reminders. Clicking on an existing reminder will allow you to modify or delete it. Clicking the “+” icon in the lower left-hand corner will let you create a new one.

Feedback

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Cortana for Windows 10 is still being actively developed by Microsoft. To send feedback, click the last icon in the left-hand menu. You can write a short note to Microsoft’s support team, including an idea, an encouragement, or a problem, even attaching a screenshot if it’s necessary.

Related: Windows 10 shines, but Cortana and Edge could use some work