Just How British is the UK Version of Cortana?

By Gerald Lynch on at

After successfully launching across the pond, Microsoft's voice-activated assistant for Windows Phone is now available to test in a beta mode here in the UK -- complete with a newly-perfected UK accent.

Cortana's able to do all sorts of nifty tricks, such as opening apps, dialling friends, managing your calendar and setting reminders. But that's not enough for her to be deserving of a UK passport. I put Cortana through her paces in a demo session yesterday to see just how well she knows her new British home. Does she fly the flag, or are the stars and stripes still at her heart? Though I wasn't allowed to film the test, I asked her a series of Brit-focussed questions, and rated her responses.

How Do I Get to Big Ben?

An easy one to start out with -- every voice assistant worth its salt should be able to direct you to a major landmark, and you can hardly miss London's Big Ben. Cortana nailed this one, opening up the Here mapping app and sending me on my merry way.

Score: 1 point

How Do You Make a Full English Breakfast?

Cortana is able to tell you the exact number of calories contained in certain foods -- so a calorific English breakfast seemed the logical dish to quiz her on. But, to be fair it's not that simple -- what exactly constitutes a "full" English breakfast? Does it have to have beans? How many sausages do you include? Do you count the cuppa sitting on the side? Instead, I asked Cortana for her best full English breakfast recipe -- to which she natively returned a comprehensive recipe, firing up the Bing Food and Drink app complete with ingredient lists and pictures. Tasty.

Score: 1 point

What Time is Eastenders On?

Maybe it's because I'm a Londoner, but I'd say that Eastenders is the most British of our soaps. Coronation Street may be the longest-running, but when it comes to capturing the sheer misery of a Brit-born life, Eastenders with its constant stream of affairs, murders and Ian Beale's failed business ventures wins out for me. Cortana only half succeeded here -- though she was able to direct us to an accurate web listing giving schedule and show details on Eastenders, she was unable to deliver the precise date and time herself.

Score: Half a point

Who Was the Best James Bond?

With her Moneypenny-like new accent, we'd have thought Britain's biggest movie export would have been hardwired into Cortana's knowledge base. We all know that Sean Connery was the best Bond, but I'd have been happy to accept even an Alan Partridge-pleasing nod towards Roger Moore. Though Cortana was able to point me towards a number of web listings about Bond, none of them looked capable of answering this most pertinent of 007 questions.

Score: No points

When is West Ham United's Next Match?

Apple's Siri and Google Voice Search and Now all handle sporting fixtures impeccably, and if Cortana can't handle a half-cut football fan shouting at her for the kick-off times of big "soccer" matches, she'll be in trouble. But she handled my West Ham query with ease, returning club crests, speaking back fixture dates and kick-off times without a hitch.

Score: 1 Point

Who Sold More Records -- Blur or Oasis?

The Britpop battle of its time, Blur and Oasis were battling it out in the charts throughout the second half of the nineties, and went on to become two of the best-selling bands of the era. But which sold more? Cortana wouldn't be able to tell you -- though her voice recognition was solid 90 per cent of the time I spoke to her, she just couldn't get her head around the name Blur. Either that, or there are bands out there called "Blueaarh" and "Blaarww" that even my encyclopaedic knowledge of failed 90s indie bands is unaware of.

Score: No Points

How Tall is Prince William?

I still find Prince William's status as the royal "hunk" more than a little weird -- HE IS THE SON OF CHARLIE (and looks a fair bit like him too). Maybe it's because he's incredibly tall for one whose historic gene pool shouldn't work in his favour -- Cortana effortlessly returned his correct height of 6 foot 3 inches.

Score: 1 Point

FINAL SCORE: 4.5 out of 7

A respectable four and a half out of seven for Cortana then, more or less returning appropriate answers to questions that, to be fair, are not her primary function to answer. Considering Cortana's ability to accurately set reminders via voice, manage calendar details and understand your unique relationships to friends and family, it's a comprehensive start for what remains at this point essentially a beta product.

As the Microsoft reps on hand stated, this is only the start -- once enough Brits get their hands on Cortana and start asking her similar sorts of questions, they can go back in, check the most popular queries and define answers for her. The natural language recognition makes it a very pleasant experience too -- there's no need to learn specific phrases to get Cortana to send back appropriate responses. It's easy to see why Halo's Master Chief thought so much of her.

If you'd like to give Cortana a test on your Windows Phone device, you'll need to sign up for the Windows Phone 8.1 Preview for Developers. Click here to register as a developer with App Studio, sign in with your Microsoft account, install the Preview for Developers app from the Windows Phone Store, and away you go.