I spent a few days using Cortana instead of Alexa or Google Assistant and the experience made me feel just as rough as Cortana. Unfortunately, Microsoft has fallen so far behind that the only reasonable solution is to give up.
Satya says goodbye to Cortana presenters
Recently, Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, said he no longer sees Cortana as a competitor to Alexa or Google Assistant. According to MSPoweruser, he stated:
“You need to be able to use it in Google Assistant, you need to be able to use it in Alexa, just like you use our apps on Android and iOS, so at least we want to think about where it will go.” «.
But is Cortana so far behind? Is it time to go in a new direction and give up on Cortana as your personal home assistant? I spent a few days trying to determine exactly this and I found the following: yes, this is the correct solution.
Installation was difficult
When I started this experiment, I immediately ran into a problem. I have Alexa and Google devices at home. But I don’t have Cortana devices that are conveniently placed. I have a Surface Pro 3, a Windows 10 PC and I installed Cortana on my phone. But my computer doesn’t have a microphone, these days my Surface is turned off most of the time, and my phone doesn’t have a decent microphone for quick voice commands.
So I got a Harmon Kardon Invoke for my office (where I spend a lot of time) and used my phone elsewhere in the house. It’s not a perfect one-on-one scenario, but it’s good enough. Unfortunately there is no Google Home Mini or Echo dot, only Invoke. So cheap placement of Cortana speakers around the house is out of the question. The price of the Invoke has dropped to $50, which is very low for such a great-sounding speaker, but you can get Echo Dots and Google Minis for less. If you keep a close eye, they can be seen for as little as $30.
Cortana handles half the basics fairly well
My main use for my Google and Alexa devices is smart home controls, music, timers, and routines that automate things. When it came to integrating Smart Home, at first I thought that everything was fine with me. Cortana has Wink, Smartthings and Philips Hue integration. I currently use a Wink hub for many of my smart home devices and Philips light bulbs and control of these devices works seamlessly. The experience with most of my smart home devices has been on par with Alexa or Google Assistant.
Cortana continued to work well with simple timer and alarm settings, and adding Spotify was a simple process that seemed to work well. At least it was until I wanted to stop the music. About half the time, saying “Stop” or “stop the music” failed. Cortana will tell me that she can’t do it right now. If I tried a few more times it would eventually work. Recalling playlists was no less problematic. Despite the misnomer, the word «play blind forest on Spotify» correctly got me out of the Ori and Blind forest playlist, but the word «play orig and blind forest» confused Cortana every time. I found it easier to control music from the Spotify app than through voice interactions.
Conversely, as long as I get the name of the song or person right, I rarely run into similar issues with Google Assistant and Alexa with Spotify.
More opportunities are missing than the present
The problems started in my living room. The lights in my living room are Magic Home devices and Cortana has no integration for them. Then I realized that my smart plugs are iClever or GE devices, and while GE devices have Wink integration, iClever devices do not. So I can’t turn on the lights in my living room, nor can I control most of my smart plugs with Cortana. I had to go back to Alexa or Google for that.
Sometimes the music I like is not available on Spotify, in which case I turn to another source. Unfortunately, the choice of music service for Cortana is minimal. For example, there is no Pandora, despite their promise that this would happen over a year ago. Pandora didn’t update its news blog with additional mentions of Cortana even when it last updated the Xbox app. Even on Spotify, Cortana doesn’t have multi-channel audio, a feature I use regularly. And if I wanted an intercom, it went back to Alexa or Google. The problem is not only that I don’t have Cortana speakers at home, those features don’t exist.
I have email and calendar integrated through Outlook.com so this should be a breeze. And while my email worked well, my calendar left a lot to be desired. «Cortana, what’s on my calendar» and «what’s my next appointment» led to responses that there’s nothing on the calendar today. But I was looking tomorrow. So I tried «what’s on my calendar tomorrow» and after two tries it worked. Unfortunately the information I got was not helpful due to the packages.
Every time I receive an en route delivery email, Microsoft helpfully adds it to my calendar on the expected arrival date. Unfortunately, asking Cortana «when does my package arrive» doesn’t work. My calendar lists five packages arriving tomorrow, and Cortana will only read the first four items on the list. Which means my actual appointment (the sixth item) for tomorrow was not on the list.
Calendar appointments have also shown that Cortana doesn’t work consistently across devices. The event for tomorrow has a reminder for today. When this reminder happened, it affected my Android phone, my Windows phone, my computer, and my Surface. But nothing happened on Invoke. If the other devices weren’t in the same room, I might have missed the reminder altogether.
Cortana app doesn’t help much
I use routines extensively to automate my home. I thought about switching them to Cortana for the full experience, but at the start of the process, there just wasn’t any routine for Cortana. Halfway through there was an update and Microsoft introduced features very similar to procedures called Scenes and Rules. Scenes can combine action — if the kitchen lights turn off, turn the thermostat 70 degrees. The rules force actions to happen at a certain time — at 9 pm, turn on the porch light.
I thought I had found my way to automation, but again quickly found that Microsoft had only half implemented this feature. You can install only Scenes and Rules in your own voice. If you dig into the settings of the Cortana app (where Microsoft has moved notebooks), you can see and remove existing scenes and rules, but you won’t be able to add them. At that moment, I raised my hands and surrendered. I have too many procedures to add with my voice.
Alarms and timers are equally problematic. You can’t name them whether you’re using an app or a voice, and if you’re creating one from a Cortana speaker, you must remove it from the speaker. Since you can’t name it, it means saying something like «remove my 4:30 p.m. alarm» and hoping Cortana understands. If I installed one on my phone it went to the clock app. Although when I did that, the time was not correct despite the fact that I used the print option.
The simple fact is that Google and Amazon have done a much better job of integrating apps here. I can manage reminders, alarms and timers for any of my devices from the respective app. And I can set up procedures by tapping on my phone’s screen without talking to these devices in a simple and convenient way.
There are very few skills and they are confusing to turn on.
When Microsoft announced Invoke, it boasted that there were already 46 skills on Cortana. Since then, that number has risen to 100. But that’s infinitely small compared to Alexa’s 50,000 skills. And while not every Alexa skill is impressive, many are at least trying to do something unique, like reading a story or lightening up a board game. Cortana barely has the basics like Domino, Dark Sky, and Wink.
But the worst part is adding the skill. You can find the skills you have already installed in the Cortana app. But clicking on the «Learn more skills» option will take you to the Cortana Skills webpage, where you can click on a skill to get a description. But there is no add button, install option or anything to suggest how to enable it. Microsoft expects you to try this skill by talking to Cortana, after which you’ll be prompted to add it.
But you have to know that the skill exists in the first place, which means you will inevitably end up on this web page — so why not just let us turn it on from there?
The most powerful thing you can do with Cortana is turn her into Alex
Every time I’ve run into a problem using Cortana, the answer has been pretty simple: Call Alexa. In keeping with my promise to «only use Cortana devices», I didn’t take the easy way out. Instead, I called Alexa through Cortana using their new integration. I’m happy to say that it worked great. Most of the time, within two seconds, I heard Alexa call to let me know that she had taken over, and then I could speak the command I needed. After my request went through, Alexa asked if there was anything else. When I was done, I could either say «stop listening» or not say anything at all. Eventually, she will stop.
But as tight as this integration is, it’s still a slightly delayed step where you could just use the Alexa speaker in the first place. When it comes to the convenience of voice assistants, it makes sense to simply straighten the virtual horse’s mouth and skip the delay.
Cortana stuck in time
Almost all the problems I’ve had with Cortana were once problems with Alexa and Google Assistant.
They did not always take into account the presence of several speakers and did not have multi-room sound. They lacked sophistication in their applications, and there were no subroutines in the beginning. But Amazon and Google have been working to improve their offerings, and frankly, Microsoft hasn’t. At least not consumer-oriented. They may have put on futuristic demonstrations in the workplace at the office, but that doesn’t do you or me any good.
Can Microsoft catch up? Yes, probably, but at what cost? Microsoft is a large corporation that has a lot of iron in the fire, and every time it focuses on one resource, it loses focus elsewhere.
The truth is that even if Microsoft were to add all the features currently missing from Cortana, it wouldn’t solve a problem that Microsoft seems to be having too often. Low adoption means no 3rd party support, but no 3rd party support means low adoption. Microsoft is facing the same chicken-and-egg problem as Windows Phone, which is why Cortana has so few skills. Nobody is interested in developing them.
At some point, it’s best to change course and ask a new question. What else could Cortana be? And this is what Satya Nadella has been doing with his recent statements.
In the meantime, I return to Alexa and Google. I’ll leave Cortana Speaker for Spotify integration, but more than likely. Even if the voice response doesn’t improve, I can keep it close to the PC and control it from the Spotify app, or just use it as a Bluetooth speaker. And to be honest, this is a pretty good-sounding $50 Bluetooth speaker.
CONNECTED:Why isn’t Microsoft just giving up on Cortana?