How to tell if your Windows 10 Anniversary Update clobbered Cortana

Microsoft has not yet acknowledged, much less fixed, the last-minute bug

How to tell if your Windows 10 Anniversary Update clobbered Cortana
Pixabay (Creative Commons BY or BY-SA)

A bad patch distributed the day before Windows 10 Anniversary Update’s release has taken out Cortana on many machines. Yesterday, I wrote about the build 14393.10 patch, KB 3176929, which Microsoft distributed to beta testers on the night of Aug. 1. I have no idea why Microsoft patched the Anniversary Update on the night before its long-anticipated general release.

Thanks to contributors on Reddit and on, we now have details about the way this specific patch disabled Cortana on many machines.

As best I can tell, Microsoft has not yet acknowledged the problem, except a report on one Microsoft Answers forum thread that “Microsoft support says engineering is working on the issue, hope to resolve in the next couple days.” I have seen no workaround.

There are three telltale symptoms.

First, when you click in the Cortana Search box, Cortana doesn’t appear. Instead, you get a notification to “Start typing to search for apps, files, and settings” (screenshot). On the left side of the Cortana search pane, under the hamburger icon, you see a “home” icon, but the “notebook” icon that normally appears below "home" is missing. If you type in the search box, Cortana only looks for local files and programs -- there’s no intelligent repartee, no search outside the PC. Cortana works, in effect, exactly like the Search box in Windows 7 or 8.1.

cortana search no notebook

Second, when you right-click on the taskbar on most Windows 10 systems, the second entry says Cortana and you’re given the option of hiding Cortana, showing the Cortana icon only, or showing the search box -- which is the default. But on these clobbered systems, when you right-click on the taskbar (screenshot), there is no entry at all for Cortana.

cortana taskbar context menu

And third, inside Microsoft Edge’s Advanced settings (click the ellipses, then Settings, scroll down, then Advanced Settings), you’re normally given the option of turning off Cortana search, keeping Cortana from working inside Edge. In Cortana-clobbered machines, that option is grayed out (screenshot). Edge informs, “This setting isn’t available when Cortana is turned off in Windows” -- a fascinating observation, because the Anniversary Update removes the ability to (easily) turn off Cortana.

cortana edge setting disabled

There are other, more subtle, manifestations of the problem. PKCano reports

If I type something in Search Box, Cortana Background Task Host pops up in Task Mgr as well and I see some CPU usage, so something is going on.

Rpodrick reports:

No Notebook and no Windows Search key at all. Also “Not Configured” in group policy.

Many threads I’ve seen on the Microsoft Answers forum and elsewhere are simply incorrect. Users didn’t do anything to bring on the problem. It’s a bug that appears in some copies of one, specific version of Windows 10 Anniversary Update. Unfortunately, that version of Win10 AU was rolled out to a few hundred million people on Aug. 2 -- and it’s still rolling out, even as we speak.

This Cortana bug is different from the language snafu that has disabled Cortana before. It isn’t related to Cortana being pulled from Education editions. It’s directly attributable to build 14393.10. And yes, the bug was introduced the night before the big rollout.

I haven’t seen any fixes that work. If you’re in the Insiders program and roll back to beta builds 14393.0 or 14393.5, Cortana returns. If you’re not in the Insiders program and you have this problem, you can roll back to the Fall Update 1511 (Start > Settings > Update & security > Recovery, Go back to an earlier build), which takes quite a while.

That’s assuming you actually want Cortana, which is by no means a given.

Microsoft’s in an interesting quandary right now. If the ‘Softies release a manual workaround, chances are pretty good somebody will figure out a way to reverse the steps in the workaround and allow anyone to turn off Cortana. That would be something of a Holy Grail in some circles, as Microsoft makes it very difficult to turn off Cortana in the Anniversary Update.

If the ‘Softies release a patch -- perhaps yet another cumulative update for its newly released product -- some will be tempted to simply block the cumulative update and thus retain control over Cortana.

Let’s hear it for last-minute patching. 

Many thanks to those who have contributed, especially PKCano (who took the shots) and rpodrick.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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