How to use Cortana

Curious about Cortana? Here's how to set up the Windows 10 voice assistant

You might know Cortana as the digital voice assistant on the defunct 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 set up and use Cortana in Windows 10.

Sign in to get started

Cortana has a few basic functions you can use without being signed in, but you can get the most functionality of it if you’re signed in to your Microsoft account. To do so, within Cortana’s search window, hit the button that says “Cortana can do so much more.” When prompted, click the sign-in button and follow the on-screen instructions.

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Set up Cortana

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, but the first controls the search function’s voice activation phrase, “hey Cortana.” But you don’t really need that whole “Hey” business anyhow.

If you’re the only user of your computer, or you simply want this function to be more accurate, click the blue text “Learn how I say ‘Hey Cortana.'” 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.

If you want to make sure Cortana is obedient to you alone, tick the box that says “Try to respond only to me.”

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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 “Permissions and History” tab is also important to familiarize yourself with. Cortana can access a lot of information about you and your device, so deciding what you’re comfortable sharing with Cortana — and by extension, Microsoft — is worthwhile. You may also want to enable or disable Safe Search, depending on your own personal proclivities.

If you want to customize what Cortana calls you — by a nickname perhaps — then open up the Cortana window again by clicking on the Windows search bar, select the notepad icon and then open the “About Me,” category. Click the “Change my name” button and input what you would like to be called.

You can also use that same menu to change your location and favorite places, so that Cortana can better suggest local attractions of news to you.

Show or hide the Search button

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Michael Crider/Digital Trends

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 “Cortana” 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.

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 different sub-settings, you can enable or disable a variety of search results and tools.

Each one sources some information from web searches and specific services 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. News lets you track stories by both broad categories and specific topics.

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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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).

To manage existing reminders or to add one manually, click the Notebook icon and then select “Reminders” from the resulting list. Clicking on an existing reminder will allow you to modify or delete it. Clicking the “+” icon in the lower right-hand corner will let you create a new one.

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