Head-to-head: Apple's Siri (left) and Microsoft's Cortana virtual assistants.
With Windows Phone 8.1, Microsoft is taking on Siri, Apple's chatty assistant in the iPhone. In Microsoft's corner is Cortana, a brand-new virtual personality that shares the same name as Master Chief's holographic helper from the Halo games.
A screenshot of Microsoft's Cortana. Photo: AP
Cortana made her debut at Microsoft's Build conference earlier this month, but she's now in the hands of Windows Phone developers and should be coming to the first Windows Phone 8.1 handsets in a couple of weeks. Compared with Siri, which arrived in 2011 on the iPhone 4s, Cortana is a newborn lamb.
That doesn't mean she doesn't know how to walk and talk at the same time, though. Microsoft is launching Cortana with much of the functionality that Siri has acquired over the last few years, such as the ability to open apps and set reminders. Cortana can even understand context, taking into account the last question you asked.
Siri, however, has more than two years of evolution under her belt, and she's learned a thing or two from the millions of iPhone users who call upon her every day. She's also had developers working with her for longer, resulting in convenient integrations, such as the ability to tweet and post Facebook updates.
A screenshot of Apple's Siri.
So who provides the better experience? We challenged both Siri and Cortana with some everyday queries: creating appointments, finding restaurants, launching apps and more – as well as some offbeat chit-chat. While the two assistants are both pretty good at translating speech, how they respond to that speech can be quite different.
On creating calendar appointments, both assistants struggled with anything more complicated than adding an event. Siri ended up asking several follow-up questions in an attempt to get it right, but Cortana made more assumptions along the way – not all of them correct. Still, this ended up being a pain on both phones, so we'll call it a draw.
When asked about restaurants, both shot back a list of results quickly. It was only Cortana who understood follow-up questions, though – telling me how far one of the results was, doing her best to find the menu and calling them – while Siri had no idea what I was talking about. Point Cortana.
Both Siri and Cortana were good at discerning natural language, knowing what I meant by casual greetings and "Where the sushi at?" Only Cortana, however, knew to serve up a list of calendar events when I asked if anything was going on today. Point Cortana.
Each assistant could launch apps just fine, but Cortana got a little tripped up when I asked to open Evernote, since I had a specific note pinned as a live tile. And only Siri could actually interact with third-party apps, fully understanding and executing the verb "tweet". Point Siri.
Changing basic settings was a breeze for both assistants, and each was able to turn things such as wireless settings on and off. Interestingly, though, Siri complained that she would be disabled if I went into aeroplane mode, whereas Cortana didn't say a word and continued to listen to me even with aeroplane mode engaged. Point Cortana.
Finally, I challenged both Siri and Cortana with some offbeat "chit-chat" questions such as "Who is your creator?" While Cortana had some clever responses, Siri was much more quick-witted, replying to odd questions that left Cortana dumbfounded. Point Siri.
Out of the gate, Microsoft's virtual assistant is already a force to contend with. Cortana scored more points in our test than Siri, and the areas where she didn't do so well are likely to improve quickly.
But Siri's third-party app integration is a big advantage over Cortana right now. Developers will eventually close that gap, but it will be interesting see how Apple responds.
Apple's iOS 8 is expected to debut in June, and chances are Siri will get plenty of upgrades, suiting her up for a titanic rematch. Cortana, you better not lose Master Chief's number.
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