- Associated Press - Monday, April 14, 2014

NEW YORK (AP) - “Yay, it’s Nick! How can I help?”

Thanks for asking, Cortana. And thanks for making the Windows phone software better, Microsoft.

With the new Cortana virtual assistant, Windows catches up with Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android in a major way. Microsoft takes some of the best parts of Apple’s and Google’s virtual assistants and adds a few useful tools of its own. The result is Cortana, named after an artificial-intelligence character in Microsoft’s “Halo” video games.

The new Windows system, Windows Phone 8.1, has several other new features, which I’ll review separately Tuesday.

The update, including Cortana, will come with new phones starting next month, while existing phones will be able to download it for free in the coming months. On Monday, Microsoft is making a preview version available to software developers. I was able to test that version over the past week.

Apple’s Siri virtual assistant on iPhones and iPads has a feisty personality. She has good comebacks for such questions as, “What is the meaning of life?” She’s also helpful with directions, restaurant recommendations and appointment reminders. Google Now on Android phones is boring by comparison, but it’s better at anticipating your needs and giving you information before you even ask.

Cortana combines Siri’s personality with Google Now’s knack for anticipation.

Cortana also incorporates a feature for blocking calls, texts and notifications during times of your choosing, while letting you set exceptions for specific people or emergencies (defined as someone trying to call again within three minutes). That feature is separate on iPhones and Samsung’s Android phones. Cortana will also identify the name of songs heard in a retail store or bar, while you need separate apps such as SoundHound or Shazam on other phones.

Other differences include:

- Cortana asks rather than assumes.

When you first use Cortana, she guides you through a brief questionnaire to gauge your interests. You can tap an icon on the top right to pull down a notebook and change your preferences.

Cortana also offers to scan your email for flights and other events to remind you about. Unlike Google Now, Cortana asks whether you’d like that flight tracked. Google Now does that automatically and erroneously picks up itineraries that your travel companions send you. Also, Google Now works only with Gmail, while Cortana works with all major services except Yahoo, which Microsoft says it couldn’t track because of Yahoo’s terms of service.

Although Cortana avoids mistakes by asking, she requires slightly more work on your part. After asking Cortana about the latest Mets game, I had to tap a link to get future updates automatically. I didn’t have to do anything with Google Now. But Google Now also assumes that just because I search for a company once, I want its stock quote every day.

- Cortana lets you ask follow-up questions.

After asking Cortana for Mexican restaurants, I asked for ones that are open and got my list narrowed. I then asked for the ones that are good. Cortana responded with the Mexican restaurants that are both open and have at least four stars on Yelp.

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