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I'm not much of a fan of iPhone's Siri digital assistant or Google's Google Now -- I tried them briefly and found them only moderately helpful. They sometimes felt more like parlor tricks than practical features I could use throughout the day. So I didn't think I'd be happy with Cortana.
I was wrong. Cortana is more than a mildly useful appendage to Windows 10. It's embedded deeply into the operating system. The more you use it, the more useful it becomes, because it learns about you over time. Not that it's perfect, because it makes errors along the way and there are some important things it can't do.
Cortana is present primarily as a search bar under the Start menu; you can also launch it by tapping its tile on the Start menu. (In tablet mode, it's accessible from an icon on the Taskbar). You wake it up by saying "Hey Cortana" or "Hi Cortana." You can then ask it to do something, such as find a file, launch a program or find information. If you prefer typing to talking, type your request into the search bar.
What you'll see next depends upon your request. Cortana, which is based on Bing's search engine, looks through your files, your Microsoft OneDrive cloud storage account, your videos and music, the apps on your PC, your settings, your email and the Web. The actions it takes or the way it shows your search results varies according to what you've asked for.
For example, when I said, "Show me my photos from Italy," Cortana quickly found them on both my PC and on OneDrive -- and displayed them. At the top of the results, I could click a link to search for photos of Italy on the Web.
When I asked, "What's the weather?" it knew my location and told me it was 74 degrees and sunny, and also displayed the weather forecast. And when I said, "Add an appointment on Sunday," it asked me what time the appointment was scheduled to start, and from there I was able to quickly add an appointment to my calendar.
There are limits to Cortana's capabilities, though. I use Gmail as my primary email account, and Cortana wasn't able to reach into it to search through messages. In fact, it wouldn't even launch Gmail for me. Instead, it did a Bing search for Gmail and showed me a page of search results on the Web. If Cortana is going to become a truly useful digital assistant, Microsoft will have to figure out a way for Cortana to interact with all the major Web-based apps.
I will say this for Cortana, though -- it's a fast learner. When I said "Launch Google Chrome," it asked whether I wanted to launch Google Chrome or Chrome App Launcher. I told it to launch Google Chrome. Every time after that, when I made that same request, it launched Google Chrome without asking for clarification.
When Cortana runs, it displays a menu made up of a group of four icons stacked underneath a "hamburger" menu on the left side of the screen, which are both somewhat useful and somewhat confusing. The top one, Home, simply navigates you to the main Cortana interface. Beneath it, the strangely-named Notebook icon leads you to a tool to change Cortana's settings -- such as whether you want to get recommendations about places to eat or events to attend; what your home, work and other "favorite locations" are; how to change the name Cortana uses for you; and so on.
Beneath Notebook, the Reminders icon does exactly what it says -- lets you set reminders, which can be triggered by a time or a location you visit. And the bottommost icon, Feedback, lets you provide feedback about Cortana.
Cortana is tied to your Microsoft ID, so it has the same information about you on all the Windows devices you use, including smartphones.
Overall, Cortana is still a work in progress. It does an excellent job of reaching into your PC; searching the Web; knowing your location, likes and dislikes; and delivering you information based on that. But until it can also reach into Web-based apps like Gmail, Cortana can never be a complete digital assistant.
Gaining an Edge
Another big addition to Windows is the new Edge browser, which replaces the justifiably maligned Internet Explorer. Edge is Windows 10's default browser and with it, Microsoft hopes to eventually bid farewell to IE.
Microsoft can't entirely get rid of Internet Explorer yet, though, especially because enterprises have built apps based on it. So you'll still find it in Windows 10. But unless you have to run it for compatibility reasons, don't -- because Edge is a considerable improvement.
With Edge, Microsoft focused on creating a speedy browser -- and the work has paid off. I found that it displayed Web pages extremely quickly, much faster than Internet Explorer, and equal to or possibly faster than Chrome.
To check my impression, I ran three browser speed tests using Edge, Internet Explorer and Chrome. I ran each test three times for each browser and averaged the results. Edge scored faster than Internet Explorer in all three tests and faster than Chrome in the SunSpider and Kraken tests, while losing to Chrome in the Octane test.
Windows 10 Edge browser: Test results
But even though Edge is speedy, you may encounter rendering problems with some Web pages. It won't run Google Inbox, for example. And when I ran the HTML5 test, which tests for compatibility with HTML5 standards, it lagged behind Chrome, scoring 402 out of a possible 555 points, compared to 526 for Chrome. Internet Explorer did even worse than Edge, with a score of 348.
Edge takes much of its inspiration from Chrome, dispensing with as many menus and extraneous design elements as possible. For example, it has jettisoned Internet Explorer's oversized back and forward buttons, so that the content of a Web page stands out more. Edge will also support add-ins, but that feature is not yet available, and will be included at some time later.
The browser's basics are straightforward -- there are several icons to the right of the Address Bar that offer access to a variety of features.
To begin with, you click on a star to add a favorite. A menu icon just to the star's right lets you to browse favorites, view downloaded files, see your history list and use the browser's reading list feature (more on that in a bit).
Another icon lets you share a URL via Mail, Twitter, OneNote and the reading list. And over on the far right there are three small dots that, when clicked, bring up other features such as zooming, launching a new window, printing, pinning the current site to the Start screen, opening a new "InPrivate" window for anonymous browsing, and launching the current page in Internet Explorer.
There is an icon to the left of the star that resembles a book and activates Edge's Reading View, which is much like a similar Safari feature: It strips out everything extraneous to a page's content, including ads, navigation, sidebars and anything else that diverts attention from the content. You read the text in a scrollable window, with graphics included. The icon will be grayed out if you're on a page that Reading View can't handle, such as a page that is primarily used for navigation.
As for the reading list, it's a list of your Reading View favorites. So when you're in Reading View, click the star icon for adding favorites and the current page gets added to your reading list.
Edge also offers the ability to annotate and share Web pages. Click the annotation icon (to the right of the menu icon -- it looks like a pencil and paper) and you'll be able to mark up a Web page using highlighters and note-creation tools, save the annotated page and share it as a .jpg graphics file via email, OneNote or Twitter. You can also save the annotations to your PC via Microsoft OneNote. I personally found that feature less than useful; others may differ.
On the other hand, one of Edge's most useful features is the way in which it takes advantage of Cortana, which inconspicuously appears at the top of pages for which Cortana can offer help. For example, when I went to the Web page of one of my favorite restaurants, the Cortana icon appeared to the right of the Address Bar with the message, "I've got directions, hours, and more." When I clicked it, a sidebar appeared on the right-hand side of the page with a map, address, phone number, description of the restaurant and reviews. There were also links for getting directions, looking at the menu and calling the restaurant.
For me, this is the biggest edge that Edge has over competing browsers. It doesn't just display specific Web pages, but it can also deliver useful information not found on that page.
My verdict on Edge? Given its speed, Reading View, Cortana integration, simple design and eventual ability to use add-ins, it's a winner. For now, it may not render all Web pages correctly, but I expect that will be fixed eventually. When that happens, I may abandon Chrome for it.