Windows 10 review: It's familiar, it's powerful, but the Edge browser falls short

Microsoft has listened, and Windows 10 debuts with compelling new features—Cortana, Task View, a familiar Start menu—well worth the upgrade.

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Meet Cortana, the digital assistant of the future

Possibly the most significant addition to Windows 10 is Cortana, the digital assistant that first debuted in Windows Phone. The first thing you should do is tap the “Ask me anything” search field in the lower left and set up Cortana. Yes, Cortana noses into all aspects of your digital life—your calendar, location, interests, email, and more—but it’s worth it.

windows 10 cortana overview Mark Hachman

Cortana provides a handy overview of useful information when you tap the search bar.

On Windows 10’s lock screen, you can set up several apps to display minimal or detailed information. But tapping Cortana at the beginning of each day provides a terrific summary of what you need to know: the weather, relevant news, local interests.  Just make sure you manually connect to your Office 365 account, if you can, to surface relevant work-related information.

Oddly enough, my HP Spectre x360 lacked a microphone of sufficient quality (in Windows 10’s view) to enable the “Hey Cortana” feature, which actively listens for that keyphrase as a summons. That didn’t stop it from working, although Cortana still had a disconcerting tendency to trigger multiple devices within earshot.

Voice commands take some getting used to. But there’s something so handy about telling Cortana to remind you to pick up eggs and milk at the store. Of course, you can also do this with your Windows Phone, which brings location into the equation—you can either remind yourself to buy eggs at the store, or, when you’re at the store, your phone can remind you to buy eggs. Unfortunately, once a reminder is set, it’s set—you can’t adjust the time. I also had no luck trying to set a reminder with my Windows Phone 8.1 phone and having it talk to Windows 10 Cortana behind the scenes.

windows 10 cortana reminder Mark Hachman

Reminders can be surprisingly detailed, but, once set, they’re not flexible.

Cortana even takes dictation—such as an email to your boss, for example, while you’re working on another screen.

One issue I do have with Cortana is that, like the early days of search engines, she sometimes requires specific phrasing. Saying “what can you do?” to Cortana helps establish her limitations. But commands that seem natural – “Play some Rolling Stones” – just aren’t recognized. (“Play my music” seems a little vague.) In the email example above, I had to “Send an email to Melissa,” then pick the correct “Melissa,” then dictate the email, and so on. Microsoft touts Cortana’s natural language capabilities, but there’s significant room for improvement.

windows 10 cortana forecast Mark Hachman

Weather reporting is child’s play for Windows 10 Cortana.

Cortana’s reminders and other updates pop up as notifications that “fly in” from the lower right. I particularly like the way Microsoft handles these. A reminder will plop itself into my peripheral vision and squat there until I deal with it. But email appears only briefly, sliding in with the sender’s name, subject, and first lines, then vanishing—tucked away in Outlook or Mail for later.

If you miss a notification, though, don’t worry. You’ll find them all archived in the Action Center notifications tab, accessed by the speech balloon icon in the lower right.

windows 10 action center notifications Mark Hachman

Miss anything? Check the Action Center to the right to find it. (Swipe in from the right to reveal it.)

Reminders, though, still can be a bit flaky. On a Surface Pro 2 test machine, a reminder that I set on that machine popped up as a small alert on the bottom of my screen. But the same alert only appeared in the reminders tab on the Spectre—which, since I had it minimized, never appeared.

I suspect Cortana will be one of Windows 10’s more polarizing features. Home users won’t mind yelling at Cortana for the answer to a question, but workers in a busy office will probably think twice about asking Cortana to email their doctor about that strange rash.

Next: Exploring the new frontier of virtual desktops

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