(Another slightly out-of sequence tip as this could be more timely now than in a few weeks)

clip_image001One of the most written-about and eagerly-awaited features in the soon-to-appear Windows Phone 8.1, is Cortana – the “digital assistant”, named after the character in the Halo games.

If you’re desperate to get hold of the developer preview of WP8.1 – bearing in mind it is still a preview, and there’s no going back once you’ve installed it – then there’s still time. The preview did receive an update which made the battery life a bit better, so if that’s the reason you’ve been holding off, then maybe it’s time to dive in. Paul Thurrot detailed how to install 8.1 preview here, and if you are not US based and want to enable Cortana, then you’ll need to fool your phone into pretending to be Septic.

The general feedback on the 8.1 preview has been very positive, though in some quarters, it’s a step back from the Hubs strategy that Windows Phone pioneered, in favour of more monolithic apps – it seems that’s more in line with what users expect. Also, there are some features which draw a parallel with Android – like the notifications that show when you swipe down from the top of the screen.

It’s a fun exercise to play around with the voice input on Cortana – ask her how old she is, where she comes from, who’s her daddy, what she’s wearing (warning: best not do these in public in case you get deservedly funny looks) and you’ll get some amusing answers. Ask her what she thinks of Steve Ballmer, whether she likes Google, or if she’s better than Siri… How we laughed! Still, there are a whole load of useful things you can ask Cortana – a non-exhaustive list appears here. clip_image002

There’s some nice reminder type functionality in there – like “next time Alistair calls, remind me to ask him about what the agenda is for sync week”. Sure enough, next time that person rings you, there will be a small text splash on the incoming call notification, reminding you of whatever it was. clip_image004

There are some less visible but even more awesome Cortana features behind the scenes, though – and some of them you’ll only discover by accident and by using the phone. Here’s just one example – Cortana, your pocket PA, can keep an eye on your calendar and prompt you when appropriate. Here’s an email, for example, where the phone has spotted various terms that correspond to dates and times, and has automatically hotlinked them… tapping on one of these links will offer to set an appointment, in context – so the “how about 4pm” link already knows that the day in question is the next Friday. Very smart indeed.clip_image006

Cortana will also make sure that you’ve got time to drive to your next appointment, if she can recognise an address in your calendar, and can even learn your routine too (e.g. if you visit the same place regularly during the working day, then the settings page will ask you “Is this your work place?”, and if you tend to return to the same place in the evening, she’ll ask if that’s your home).

clip_image007All of this could be seen as a bit creepy but remember that you can always switch any of it off, and that Cortana is using technology pioneered by the Bing search engine to build a model of your world, so she can help you without you always needing to ask, and she’ll never tell you that it looks like you’re writing a letter. Ask her “Do you like Clippy?” if you’re in any doubt.

Sadly, the subject line of this ToW doesn’t quite work – “Cortana, let’s rock!” merely results in a Bing search for the term. However, “Cortana, play some rock!” gets the response “Queuing up your Rock Music”. If you have any jazz music on the phone, that would be lined up instead. Nice.