Late last week, Microsoft made its Cortana digital assistant available as a beta for Android, and we’ve been putting it through its paces ever since to see how it stacks up against Google Now. To compare, we put together a list of all the things we think a good assistant should be able to do, then tested them both using the same commands.
Asking for a weather forecast is almost a default first question with digital assistants. In fact, both apps’ main user interface, or default launch screen, almost always have weather information on show. I have to say, both do well responding to requests for future weather predictions.
Ask either “what’s the weather going to be like tomorrow?” and you’ll get a quick and accurate response. You can also ask follow-up questions like “what about in Cape Town?” or “what about on Friday?” and they’ll understand the context and keep the responses on subject. Cortana and Google Now both have this feature.
Reminders and Calendar events
Another area where both assistants perform well is reminders. You can ask them to set time or location-based reminders. For instance “remind me to go for a run in 2 hours” sets the appropriate reminder for two hours’ time. What’s more, you can ask something like “remind me to check out the new Italian restaurant when I’m next in Glasgow” and they can do that too. It’s infinitely useful and accurate on both assistants.
Similarly with calendar events you can include times, locations and event names and they’ll intelligently translate it in to a calendar entry. For instance “Work from Starbucks on Friday” will detect the day, location (Starbucks) and subject (work) accurately.
Timers and Alarms
I won’t lie, I primarily use these awesome, powerful tools just to set timers and alarms. In fact, of all the instances I have used Google Now, Siri or Cortana, I’d guess that 99% of my requests were for timers or alarms.
Both Cortana and Google Now can set alarms on Android. Ask Cortana to set you a timer, however, and you’ll get a web search. Wonderful, right? An assistant that can’t even set a timer is completely useless to me. And that’s no exaggeration.
Make a note
“Make a note” is an effective command on both Now and Cortana. As in many cases, Google Now offers a faster, more intuitive response. It immediately answers “sure, what’s the note?”, kicks in the microphone and you can dictate right away. Cortana waits for you tap a blank note field before launching Google Now’s “tap to speak” interface on the bottom third of the screen. Either way then, it’s technically Google Now that’s taking the note for you.
What am I listening to?
Regardless of platform, Shazam is almost always the first app I download to a new phone. When a TV ad or show has an awesome soundtrack and I want to find out what songs they are, I have to be able to Shazam within a few seconds. A good assistant should be able to tell me the same, and quickly.
Google Now does this impeccably. Ask it what you’re listening to, or wait for it to automatically detect music and it will recognize the song and give you a direct link to Google Play. You can either ask it what you’re listening to, or press the musical note icon on the bottom right of the Google Now card.
Cortana? Not so much. Ask it what you’re listening to and, instead of understanding the context of your question, it pulls up a web search using “what am I listening to” as your key search words. It would be fantastic if it could realize that it can’t do what you want. Instead of offering up useless web searches, simply saying something like “Sorry, I can’t detect music as part of my programming.” Alas, it is not so and Microsoft’s supposedly smart and personal assistant looks impersonal and incredibly un-smart.
It’s in instances like these that Cortana’s promise of being a “truly personal” assistant a wiped away. It’s not the only time it does this either. If it can’t do what you want — in every case — it shows a web search instead of telling you it can’t do what you’re asking.
Oddly enough, both of the services on Android give you the exact same result when you ask for directions somewhere. Since Cortana doesn’t have maps information built in to the app, and since Here Maps isn’t guaranteed to be on your phone, it launches Google Maps. Navigation on Google’s Maps is generally fantastic, so there are no complaints here.
Calls, SMS, Email and Social Network updates
Cortana once again shows its limitations when attempting various methods of communication. It can make calls and send text messages without an issue. Ask it to send an email, or update your Facebook status and you can probably guess what happens next. Yep: Web search.
Google Now can send emails, make calls and send messages. Sadly, it gets stuck with posting Tweets and updating Facebook statuses. Like the Microsoft program, it launches a web search.
Trivia and Arithmetic
One of the most fun and interesting ways to use a digital assistant is to ask it questions you don’t know the answer to. Whether that’s general knowledge, trivia or complicated arithmetic. Ask Cortana what the square root of 9,378 is, and it’ll correctly tell you that it is “approximately 96.84”. Google Now does exactly the same.
Ask Google how many cubic meters of water there are on Earth, it tells you the answer with a breakdown of water types. Cortana: Web search.
That said, Cortana can do capital cities quite confidently. So it’s useful for something, I guess.
What I like about Google Now here is that it not only does capital cities, it can answer any follow-up, in-context questions. I asked “how many people live there?” and Now knows that I’m still referring to Lima (the capital of Peru) and gives me the answer based on the most recent census.
Convenience and Knowing You
Google is the all-powerful know-it-all. It knows what I’m interested in, knows where I live and can give me suggestions of articles to read, shows to watch, football scores, places to park nearby and so much more without even asking me. I just have to swipe across to my Google Now screen and almost anything I need is in there. It can be information I need for travel, or even packages being dispatched. As long as I have those confirmation emails sent through to Gmail, Now lets me know when I need to know.
If my favorite team, Tottenham Hotspur, is playing a match, the live score will update in a card on Google Now. If it’s someone’s birthday, Google Now tells me. It’s pretty fantastic.
Cortana, for me, fails right away by being an app. The very fact I have to actually launch an app, then tap a microphone already adds more steps to using the service. With a simple “Ok Google” command I can launch Google Now, even from my lock screen. No swiping, tapping or unexpected web searches.
As of right now, Cortana is a BETA app which means it should improve between now and when it officially launches on the Play Store. Microsoft could conceivably add more features and make it a stronger, more versatile personal assistant. Sadly, I’m not hopeful of that. I’ve been using Cortana on Windows Phone since it launched and I had mostly the same issues with it on its native platform. Granted, it can launch quickly with a voice command, but a lot of the time — like with the Android app — it’ll opt for a pointless web search instead of understanding your command.