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Cortana looks great on Microsoft Launcher, but challenges and competition remain

Cortana inMicrosoft Launcher
Cortana inMicrosoft Launcher (Image credit: Android Central)

Microsoft's presence on Android continues to grow. There are dozens of apps available in the Play Store (opens in new tab) from Microsoft, many of which are at the top of their respective categories such as Office, Microsoft Launcher, and SwiftKey. But Microsoft is trying to bring its digital assistant, Cortana, to the forefront and compete against the likes of Google Assistant, Alexa, and Siri. The company has made it easier than ever to access Cortana by integrating it with the beta version of Microsoft Launcher.

Cortana was already available on Android through an app, but this integration with the popular Microsoft Launcher brings a new design and the likelihood that people unfamiliar with the assistant will try it out.

Because the integration is in beta, it isn't fair to do a full review, but I'll go through the concepts behind the integration, what it does well, and how it can improve.

In addition to browsing through features and the look of the integration, I also tried using Cortana over the weekend much more than usual and compared it against Google Assistant and, to a lesser extent, Alexa. When I wanted to perform a task, I would ask both Cortana and Google Assistant to find out which assistant handled it better.

Easy access

Since Cortana was already available on Android, one of the biggest things that the integration of Cortana and Microsoft Launcher brings is quick and easy access to the assistant. You can get to it by either pressing the microphone button on the search bar on the home screen or within your cards section after swiping from the left. You can also have a card dedicated to Cortana in this section that lists some examples of what you can ask Cortana to do.

The Microsoft Launcher is worth using on Android even if you're not a die-hard Windows user.

This might seem like it doesn't save much time, after all, you can setup Cortana as your default digital assistant on Android devices and can set your phone to summon it with a long press of home, pressing a button, or squeezing your phone, depending on what hardware you have. But I don't think this integration is aimed at people who already know about and use Cortana on Android. Sure, it makes it easier and makes it so you have one less app to manage, but I think a big reason for this integration is to attract users who like Microsoft Launcher but haven't jumped on board with Cortana.

Microsoft Launcher is very popular and respected among users outside of the circles of Windows Phone converts and Microsoft aficionados. Bringing Cortana aboard makes it more natural for these users to convert to Cortana and also makes it very simple for people who already like Cortana.

Using Cortana also allows you to stay within the Microsoft ecosystem. You can schedule things through Outlook, add to-do list items in Wunderlist or to your Microsoft account, and can avoid using Google, which is important to some users.

Sleek new look

The integration of Cortana into Microsoft Launcher also comes with a new look. Personally, I like the look, but I also agree with Windows Central Executive Editor, Daniel Rubino, that Microsoft needs to unify the look of the many versions of Cortana.

When you summon Cortana within the launcher, it pops up on the bottom of the screen with a prompt that says "You can ask me like this." This pop up is an overlay over the rest of your home screen which makes Cortana feel like part of the launcher, rather than just a shortcut to an app. This creates a smooth flow of access. The design is simple, yet shows you how to use the assistant. You can also hit a keyboard icon to enter requests with text rather than voice.

Stiff competition

Cortana may have a big part in Microsoft's plans for the future, but it's facing stiff competition now from giants in the industry. Google Assistant has thousands and thousands of third-party integrations. Alexa is coming to more and more devices, including Amazon's own Echo Dot which saw massive success over the holiday period. Many people are already choosing which assistant works for them and selecting the hardware to match. Once a consumer buys a set of Google Home speakers or puts an Alexa device in every room of their house, the chances of them even trying Cortana are likely minuscule.

In my testing this weekend I was taken aback at how much Google Assistant can do. People use digital assistants differently, but for me, Google Assistant tackled my smart devices, messaging needs, and other requests better than Cortana.

Cortana varies quite a bit between regions, one of its biggest faults, and for me, the UK version of Cortana just doesn't do what I need it to. Asking it to play an artist on Spotify yields music video results. It can't integrate with Whatsapp to send dictated messages. These are two major ways that I would use a digital assistant and easily did using Google Assistant. Some of these issues could be credited to the Cortana integration with Microsoft Launcher being in beta, but I tried the same requests on the app version of Cortana and got similar results.

This could just be region related. I know many coworkers and people who use Cortana on a number of devices, including asking her to play music on the Harman Kardon Invoke. So this might be something that is easily fixable but Microsoft needs to make feature parity a priority for Cortana on all devices, regardless of what country they're in.

The best launchers for Android

A promising start, with obstacles

Using Cortana through Microsft Launcher over the weekend gave me mixed feelings. On the one hand, I love the look, feel, and easy access that the integration provides. But on the other hand, unless Cortana as an assistant improves, I predict that many people will happily use Google Assistant or Alexa with no issues.

By integrating Cortana into a popular Android launcher, I think Microsoft might be able to lure some people to try the assistant and depending on their needs, convince them to use it, especially if those users are in the United States.

The development team behind Microsoft Launcher has done a great job of making an attractive launcher that integrates Microsoft services. Now, the teams behind the integrated services need to make sure they step up and retain the users that are pointed in their direction.

Download: Microsoft Launcher (free) (opens in new tab)

15 Comments
  • Long time WP user but Assistant is my default. Cortana on Android just isn't (or maybe unable to be) as integrated into OS. I have her set up because I love being able to receive/respond to texts on my laptop.
    Sincerely wish I could recommend Cortana over Assistant, but can't at this time.
    I do love Microsoft Launcher , though.
  • Yep, I have to agree with everything you said. I stopped using all of microsoft products because they pissed me off with their treatment of most consumer side products/services.
  • People that are pissed that Microsoft didn't continue to 'piss' away billions of dollars for even more years on a dead platform amaze me.
  • it wasn't simply that they didn't continue windows 10 mobile. its how they dragged it out without any sort of communication, except for promises that they'll keep going... and then stopped. and its more than just windows 10 mobile. Groove. Kinect. I mean, sure, go head and act like you know better than everyone else. people who try to act all high and mighty when they clearly don't understand the situation in even the simplest terms... *that* amazes me.
  • People are pissed off because there were so many vague promises from MS re: mobile for such an extended period of time.
    It was a brutally long, slow death for those of us that hung in there.
  • Bingo. Google Assistant just integrates much better with android... at least on my Note 8.
  • Agree with both comments to some degree. I'm near end of 1st month on Android - Note 8 - from WP. Google Assistant is definitely better on Android than Cortana but Cortana was great on WP for replying to texts...something I've not got Cortana to do on Android... though same is true of Google Assistant and Bixby! Any tips greatly appreciated...
  • Cortana on WP was awesome.i used it loads on the 950XL.
    I'm running Microsoft launcher and tried Cortana app on Android but nowhere near as good as on WP or Google assistant.
  • Yeah, MS has a lot of work to do if they want Cortana to usurp Assistant on Android. Probably impossible. Too bad because Cortana on WP was fantastic. Bygone era, though.
  • Why did you not reveal that you live in the UK at the beginning of this article? And why in God's name are you the person conducting this research?! OF COURSE it won't function as well in the UK! Was there no one in the US who could have more accurately conducted this research and written this article?! UGH!!
  • Why? Don't people using Cortana in the UK count?
  • While I don't understand the OP's negativity, I think his point was that Cortana has more capabilities in the US than in the UK. Though, to be fair, that should be taken into account in a review, but maybe the review should be done where Cortana has her full capabilities.
  • edit: duplicate message accidentally
  • If you use Cortana in the MS Launcher, should I *not* have Cortana installed separately? It's also confusing when they give you the steps to setup MS Launcher as your default assistant. It says to select Microsoft Launcher, but there's no option. It just says Cortana Voice Search or something like that. Which was doubly confusing because I had Cortana installed at the time so I had to choose between Cortana or Cortana Voice Search. I wasn't sure which was which at that moment, so I uninstalled Cortana and then went through the process again. In any case, it would be nice to know what functionality is available in one version of Cortana (MS Launcher vs Standalone) versus the other and if its advantageous/redundant/disadvantageous to have them both installed at once.
  • I have an android phone now but was a long time windows phone/windows mobile user. I like integrating my services as much as possible with my Microsoft account so I definitely use cortana still.