NEW YORK — Cortana, the brazen, new personal digital assistant inside Windows Phones, will tell you why she thinks she's better than her more famous counterpart, the iPhone's Siri: "Not to brag, but apparently I'm going to help save the universe in about 500 years."
Saving the universe in 500 years is a reference to Microsoft's Halo video game series, where Cortana is a character blessed with artificial intelligence. Her more immediate challenge as the fresh vocal presence inside Windows Phones may be no less daunting: trying to rescue the Windows Phone brand from its still puny market share. Android and iPhone obviously still dominate.
Cortana is the coolest feature to arrive with Windows Phone 8.1, a major update that says very loudly that Microsoft, however the underdog, deserves to be a contender. Even as an unfinished beta, she puts Siri and Google Now on notice — sharpen up your game. Microsoft says Windows Phone 8.1 will start rolling out to existing Windows Phone 8 users over the coming months, with the update designed to run on all existing Windows Phone 8 devices.
I've been trying out 8.1 on a Nokia Lumia Icon loaner from Microsoft and really like what I see. But the software isn't final or bug-free yet, and not all of the features new to Windows are fresh.
Cortana is stealing the headlines and rightfully so. She's a loose cross between Siri and Google's Google Now service that anticipates what you'll want to see before you actively search for it, and she more than holds her own. She is modeled after a human personal assistant, the kind who can serve you better if she gets to know you.
At the start, Cortana asks a series of questions. For example, she'll request that you pick a couple of things that you like to do in the evening (e.g., hanging out with friends, spending time with family).
Cortana can tap into your location, contacts, voice input, browser history and so on. You can choose a setting that will allow her to detect tracking information inside your e-mails, so she can pick up things like your flight itinerary.
She has personality, too. When I asked Cortana to sing a song, she belted out the start of the Irish ballad Danny Boy.
Cortana is closely integrated with Bing search. She's smart enough to know that if you ask a question out loud she can respond in kind with voice. But if you type in your query — maybe you're on the bus — she figures you want a less obtrusive text reply instead.
And if you ask her to find good, cheap Japanese restaurants near you, you can follow up with "which ones are open now?"
Cortana stores the information she gathers in a "notebook," where you can see what's being tracked. You can set "quiet hours" where you won't be bothered by calls and texts and choose an "inner circle" of people you want to hear from regardless of the quiet hours you set.
You can also set contextual reminders— get milk when reaching the grocery store, for example. Or you can be reminded to compliment a friend on his new job the next time you talk to him. You'll see a text reminder when you dial his number or get a call from him. Such reminders also pop up when you open a text or e-mail from the person.
Not everything went smoothly in the beta. When I asked Cortana to tell me a joke, I kept getting the same weird response: "I can't find a mobile number for Android and Me."
MORE WELCOME ADDITIONS
Beyond Cortana, Windows Phone 8.1 brings a long overdue but no less helpful Action Center, similar to what's already on Android devices and the iPhone. When you swipe down from the top of the screen, you can peek at or change Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and Airplane Mode settings or the rotation lock. Just below is a list of notifications from linked e-mail accounts, Facebook and so on. None of this is novel, but it fills in an important gap on Windows Phones.
Microsoft has also added a "Word Flow" keyboard. It lets you slide your finger from one key to the next, rather than single-tapping each key. It's similar to the way the Swype and SwiftKey keyboards work on some other phones.
I'll mention a couple of other 8.1 features:
— Data Sense lets you set limits to help conserve cellular data usage. It can defer certain data-intensive tasks until Wi-Fi is available. It had been exclusive to Verizon Wireless, but Microsoft says it is becoming more pervasive.
— You can now choose your own background picture to accompany the Live Tiles Start environment.
What's here in Windows Phone 8.1 is very impressive. But whether all this leads to major grab in market share for such phones is a question not even Cortana can answer.
E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; Follow @edbaig on Twitter
WINDOWS PHONE 8.1 AT A GLANCE:
Availability: Will start to roll out on devices over the next few months. Designed to work on all existing Windows 8 phones.
Major new features: Cortana. Action Center. Word Flow keyboard. Data Sense.