Windows 10 quick tips: Get the most out of Cortana

Microsoft's digital assistant Cortana can make your life easier and more efficient -- if you know how to really take advantage of it

Microsoft's digital assistant Cortana is one of the major additions to Windows 10 -- and it's a winner. Turn it on and Cortana alerts you to upcoming meetings; searches your PC and the Web; tells you about the weather, news and sports; and a lot more.

To help you get the most out of Cortana, I've put together some of my favorite tips for using it -- including using Cortana to manage your Google Calendar, identify the music you're listening to and track packages and flights.

Note: This article assumes that you're already familiar with the basics of Cortana. If you want help getting started, see the Say "Hey Cortana" section of Computerworld's Windows 10 Cheat Sheet.

Get a direct answer to your question

When you ask Cortana a question, it will typically show you the answer via a listing of Web links; you then open the search results in your browser. That's what happened, for example, when I asked, "What was the coldest day of the year in 2015 in Boston?"

That's a useful but time-consuming process, because you have to browse through the search results, click one and then look for information from the Web page that appears.

But there are plenty of questions that Cortana can answer directly, without first sending you out to the Web. Instead, you get your answers right in Cortana's pane. Following is just a partial list -- try experimenting on your own to see what else it knows.

Define [word] Want a definition for "absquatulate"? Just ask Cortana.

When is [name of holiday]? Cortana knows when holidays fall on the calendar.

Who is [title of person]? Cortana can tell you who are the CEOs of Microsoft, Google and Apple. Oddly enough, though, it doesn't know who is the president of the United States. So its knowledge here is spotty, to say the least.

What time is it in [place]? Confused about what time it is right now somewhere in the world? Cortana knows.

Convert [currency] to [currency] Want to know the current exchange rates between currencies? Just ask.

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Cortana can offer you answers directly without sending you out to the Web.

How tall is [person]? It knows how tall most famous people are. So it knows, for example, that Barack Obama is six feet one inch tall (even though it doesn't know he's president of the United States).

How long is [movie]? How long is The Godfather? Just ask, and Cortana will tell. However, it doesn't know every movie ever made, so sometimes you'll be sent out to the Web for an answer.

What is the capital of [country or state]? If you need to know the capital of a country or state, Cortana knows.

Connect your accounts to Cortana

One way to extend the power of Cortana is to connect it to an account -- for example, LinkedIn -- so that it can look through information in that account when you ask it to do something and give you additional information about your request.

To get this started, click in the Cortana search box and, when the Cortana panel appears, click the icon of the notebook in the left-hand navigation panel. Select Connected Accounts and you'll see a list of accounts to which you can connect. You'll probably also see services to which you can connect for which you don't actually have an account -- Cortana is showing you all of the services that can be linked, not necessarily those that you use.

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You can link a variety of accounts to Cortana, enabling it to search for additional data.

To connect to an account, click it, then click the Connect button that appears. Enter the information you normally use to log into the account and Cortana will do the rest.

The benefits you'll get from linking your accounts to Cortana vary according to the account. For example, if you link Cortana to LinkedIn, when it reminds you of a meeting, it will look to see if any of the people at the meeting are in LinkedIn. If they are, it will grab their information -- including their LinkedIn profile photo, their job title and their company. You can then click on the person's name to jump to the LinkedIn Profile.

Note that the Office 365 integration is only available if you have a business Office 365 account, not a personal one.

Integrate Cortana with Windows 10 apps

If you use Windows 10 apps, you'll be pleased with some tricks Cortana has up its sleeve. You can use Cortana to work with those apps -- for example, to find a show and play it on Netflix or Hulu.

(Note that Windows 10 apps are those specifically written for Windows 10, and either come with the operating system or can be downloaded from the Windows Store. They're not desktop-based applications.)

First, you need to find out whether a particular Windows 10 app on your machine integrates with Cortana. After downloading the app, click in the Cortana search bar and, when the Cortana panel appears, click the question mark in the left-hand navigation panel. Scroll to the bottom of the screen that appears and you'll see a list of the Windows 10 apps on your system that work with Cortana.

At the moment, there aren't that many. But several popular apps do integrate with Cortana, including Netflix, Hulu, FitBit and Uber. For example, if you want to play the TV series Master of None on Netflix, you can type "Netflix find Master of None." (Actually, you can type "netflix find master of none" -- Cortana is case-insensitive.)If y ou want to use a voice command instead, you can say "Hey, Cortana, Netflix find Master of None." Use the same syntax for Hulu -- for example, "Hulu find Spiral" if you want to find and play the French police show.

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Several popular apps, such as Netflix and Hulu, integrate with Cortana, allowing you to use voice commands.

Other apps integrate with Cortana on Windows 10 Mobile but not on Windows 10 for PCs, including Twitter, LinkedIn and Wikipedia. (You can find out whether a particular mobile app works with Cortana in the same way that you find out if a Windows 10 app will.)

Unfortunately, you'll have to use the precise syntax required for each app -- you can't type or speak using real-life, natural language. And it's different for each app. For Netflix and Hulu, for example, the syntax is [name of app] find [name of show]. You can't say, "Play Master of None on Netflix" or even "Netflix play Master of None" and have it work.

You can find the syntax for each app on the screen (mentioned earlier in this article) that lists the Windows 10 apps on your system that work with Cortana.

Hopefully, more Windows 10 apps will integrate with Cortana over time as developers use Microsoft's API.

Manage your Google Calendar with Cortana

Windows 10 includes a built-in calendar app that works with Cortana. However, if you're a Google Calendar user, you can get Cortana to integrate with that as well, so you can use Cortana to create and edit appointments, and show you your schedule with Google Calendar in the same way as you do with the built-in Windows 10 Calendar app.

To do it, you first need to integrate your Google Calendar with the Windows 10 Calendar. First, launch the Calendar app. (It's typically found on the upper left corner of the Start menu. You can also launch it by typing "Calendar" into Cortana, then clicking the Calendar app icon that appears at the top of search results.)

Next, click the Settings icon on the lower left of the Calendar screen -- the icon is in the shape of a gear. When the Settings menu appears, select Account > Add account. From the "Choose an account" screen select Google. You'll be asked to sign in with your Google account information. Follow the prompts to create the account.

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You can create an appointment in your Google Calendar using Cortana.

That's all it takes. From now on, your Google calendar will sync with the Windows 10's Calendar app. So, for example, if you ask Cortana to "Create appointment," you'll be able to fill in the details using Cortana, including the date, time and purpose. Cortana will add the event to the Windows 10 Calendar. To save it to your Google calendar directly, choose the calendar from the drop-down list just above the Add button. Regardless of which calendar you add an event to, both Google and Windows 10 Calendar will remain in sync.

Also, when you ask to see your schedule -- such as by asking "What's my schedule today?" -- Cortana will show you the events from all of your calendars, including Google.

One downside is that you can't add events to sub-calendars on Google Calendar (like 'home' or 'work') with any regular success. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't.

Use Google rather than Bing search with Cortana

When you ask Cortana to search the Web, it uses Microsoft's Bing search engine. But if you prefer to use Google instead, you can -- with a little bit of work.

First, install Chrome. Next, you'll need to set Chrome as your default browser. Open the Windows 10 Settings app and select System > Default apps. Click the browser icon and select Google Chrome from the list that appears.

Now open Chrome, go to the Chrome Web Store, search for the Bing2Google extension and install it. From now on, whenever you use Cortana to search the Web, that search will be redirected from Bing to Google, and you'll see your search results in Google. In fact, even if you're on and do a search, the search will be done by Google, not Bing. (While I didn't have any issues with this feature, some people have reported that it sometimes gave results from Bing rather than Google.)

Note that this only happens when you do a Web search and not every time you do a search in Cortana. Cortana answers a lot of questions directly without sending you to a Web results page, as explained earlier in this article. For example, if you use Cortana to search for "Weather" you'll see the results right in Cortana.

Set and use reminders

One of Cortana's most useful features is the way in which it can remind you about tasks or upcoming events. It's very simple to set a reminder -- just say or type "Remind me." From the screen that appears, fill in the form with the person, place, time or thing that you want to be reminded about. If you prefer, you can bypass the form and just say something like "Remind me about my tennis game today at 6 pm."

Cortana can set three general types of reminders: based on location, time and contacts.

Let's start with location. Say that you always want to be reminded to buy a pint of Ben and Jerry's Cherry Garcia ice cream when you're near your favorite supermarket -- Whole Foods, for example. Say or type "Remind me to get Cherry Garcia ice cream when I'm at Whole Foods." A screen will appear, showing the address of any nearby Whole Foods stores and asking you which one to set a reminder for -- or whether the reminder should show up when you're in any Whole Foods. Then, the next time you're there, Cortana will remind you to indulge in your ice cream addiction.

Note that if the place isn't one that Cortana readily recognizes, it will ask you for more information or have you type in the address yourself.

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Cortana allows you to create reminders based on location.

You can set reminders in the same way for time and contacts. If you want to be reminded to fill your car with gas tomorrow morning, for example, you say or type "Remind me to get gas tomorrow morning." A screen will pop up asking for more details, such as the exact time and whether it should be a recurring reminder.

You can also tell Cortana to remind you to do something when you interact with someone in your contact book. So if you want to remind yourself to ask your friend Lydia about a dinner invitation, say "Remind me to ask Lydia about a dinner invitation." A screen pops up asking for the contact's name if Cortana didn't recognize it. Then the next time you send or receive an email with that person, you'll get the reminder. If you have a Windows phone, it will pop up when you talk by phone, also.

Miscellaneous cool stuff

There are a variety of other useful and/or fun things that Cortana can do for you. A couple of my favorites: You can track packages or flights by typing or saying the flight number or package tracking number. You can identify a piece of music (the same way Shazam mobile apps do) by asking "What is this song?" and holding your phone up to the audio source. Cortana will listen to the music using the phone's microphone and (hopefully) tell you the name of the song.

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There are a variety of other useful services Cortana can perform, such as tracking flights.

To find out other things that Cortana can do, just type or say "Help Me" and you'll get a long list of other Cortana features. Click anything on the list -- "Play music," for example -- and Cortana will do your bidding.

This story, "Windows 10 quick tips: Get the most out of Cortana" was originally published by Computerworld.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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