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How to control your computer with your voice

Siri or Cortana aren't just for your phone

Siri on macOS Sierra

The AI assistants Siri and Cortana can control your macOS or Windows machine.

David Nield/Popular Science

Voice controls aren't just for your cell phone anymore. The latest versions of Windows 10 and macOS Sierra both boast voice-activated digital assistants: Cortana on Microsoft's operating system, and Siri on Apple machines.

With help from Cortana and Siri, you can do a whole lot without having to touch the keyboard or mouse. Talking to your computer may feel a little strange at first, but that's what it's like to live in the future. Here's how to set up these assistants and make the most of them.

Set up Cortana on Windows 10

When you install Windows 10 or power up your new Windows 10 machine for the first time, Cortana should activate automatically. However, making the AI assistant fully operational might require a few tweaks. To bring up Cortana's options, click inside the search box on the taskbar, then click the settings cog.

Click Get started under the Microphone heading to train Cortana to hear your voice. If you want to talk to the digital assistant at any time, first make sure the Hey Cortana toggle switch is turned on. If you prefer to use a keyboard shortcut to enable Cortana's listening mode, you get an option for this too. On computers that you share with other people, you can even train Cortana to respond to your voice and your voice alone.

Cortana home screen

Cortana home screen

Cortana picks topics it thinks you'll find interesting.

David Nield/Popular Science

Select the Notebook link (the pad icon above the cog symbol) to tweak other aspects of Cortana, such as the personal information it knows about you and the services it can access. For example, you might want to connect it up to an Outlook email address.

You can personalize the information Cortana shares with you. Pick any of the content categories to choose whether or not the voice assistant will show you information in this area. So, for instance, choose Weather to turn weather updates on or off and to set your location, or choose Sports to turn sports updates on or off and tell Cortana what your favorite teams are.

The Home icon takes you back to the 'home screen' of Cortana, where articles and information you're interested in is shown (like stories about those sports teams you selected earlier). Select the three dots by any topic to hide it from view or to make more changes in the Notebook.

To ask Cortana to do something, click on the microphone button (lower right) and speak out your command. If you're not quite ready to start talking to your computer yet, you can also type your request out in the adjacent box. You can also say, "Hey Cortana!" to open listening mode, if you've enabled it in the settings screen mentioned above.

Control Windows 10 with Cortana

Cortana has a lengthy list of supported voice commands, and we can't cover everything here. But we can give you some useful pointers about its abilities.

"What's the capital of France?"

Cortana can look up any kind of question that you might type into a web browser, from capital cities to currency conversions to the distances between two places.

"Show me pictures of President Lincoln."

As well as pulling up search results, Cortana can run image searches, courtesy of Microsoft's Bing search engine. You only get a small preview, but you can click to see more.

"What's on my schedule?"

For personal stuff, Cortana taps into your Microsoft account—and the Outlook calendars and emails you store there. You can also create and remove appointments with voice commands.

"Send an email to Chris about the weekend."

In addition to your schedule, Cortana can use Outlook to handle your emails. Start with a command like the one above to populate your draft message with a subject header and one of the recipients.

"Find House of Cards on Netflix."

Cortana works with a select number of third-party apps, including Netflix, Uber, and Microsoft's OneDrive. You can use your voice to launch these programs and carry out basic commands.

Cortana music

Cortana music

Type your questions instead of speaking them, and Cortana will give you hints about what to say.

David Nield/Popular Science

"Play some music."

Cortana can also launch the Groove Music Player inside Windows 10. The assistant will also dig out a particular artist or album if you specify one, as long as it's available in the library.

"Remind me to buy flowers tomorrow."

The digital assistant will also help you remember tasks. Using your voice, you can set up reminders based around times and places. If Cortana needs clarification, it can ask for more details.

"Turn off Bluetooth."

Cortana can also modify various aspects of your computer's settings, like Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. If you want to learn more configuration options, just say "Open Settings."

"Show me directions to New York."

On top of running your home life, Cortana makes a pretty effective travel assistant, thanks to the Maps app built into Windows 10. You can request directions to a destination, or ask to see restaurants, bars, and other locations nearby.

Set up Siri on macOS Sierra

As soon as you upgrade to macOS Sierra or buy a new Mac with that operating system installed, Siri becomes available by default. If you can't see its icon in the menu bar, head to System Preferences from the Apple menu, then click Siri.

The next dialog box lets you turn Siri on or off and enable or disable the menu bar icon (if you don't want Siri in the menu bar, you can still access it from the dock or with a keyboard shortcut). Other options let you set the default language and voice for Siri, and select whether or not the assistant will give you voice feedback.

Siri doesn't listen to a room constantly: You need to launch the assistant first. Tap the icon in the menu bar or on the dock, or use the keyboard shortcut you've configured. Unlike with Cortana, you can't type out queries for Siri, but for this type of search, you can use Spotlight instead. Launch it by pressing Cmd+Space together.

Siri help

Siri help

If you're stuck, Siri can give you some suggestions.

David Nield/Popular Science

Siri doesn't have the same range of personalization options as Cortana does, and isn't quite as proactive in delivering news and other results. But it is more tightly embedded into its native operating system than Microsoft's assistant app, at least for now. As with most technology, these assistants are always improving.

For your spoken queries, Siri's results appear up in the top-right corner of the screen. If you want to pin any of them to the Notification Center, click the plus icon in the top-right corner. The results will update while the widget is pinned, so the weather or world time zones or whatever it is you've searched for will stay up to date.

To get more information about what Siri can do on a Mac, click the question mark icon to the lower left. A lot of the commands will be familiar to you if you've used Siri on an iPhone or an iPad, but some are specific to laptops and desktops. These are the commands we'll discuss below.

Control macOS Sierra with Siri

Again, we're only sharing a small selection of the Siri commands for macOS Sierra. Using these as a starting point, you can probably discover plenty of your own.

"When was the US founded?"

Ask Siri any sort of trivia, or conversion, or calculation, and you'll get your answer back instantly. Think of it like a voice-activated version of your web search engine.

"Change the wallpaper."

If you don't want to dig through the menus and dialogs, setting a new display is one of several system tasks you can do with Siri. For example, you can also increase or decrease screen brightness.

"FaceTime Chris."

Siri ties in very neatly with the messaging apps in macOS Sierra. This makes it possible to start a FaceTime call or send an iMessage using your voice.

"Show me files I worked on yesterday."

Apple's assistant excels at pulling up files and folders from the local drive in response to natural language searches. You can also add the type of file and a date to your query if you need to.

"Show me my photos of Spain."

Assuming the pictures you need are all stored in the Photos app on your Mac, you can use Siri to search through these too. Try looking for specific places, people, or dates.

Siri reminders

Siri reminders

Siri can manage your calendar and reminders.

David Nield/Popular Science

"Read out my last email."

Another app Siri works well with is the default Mail app for Mac. You can send new emails or hear existing ones read aloud, which is handy if you're busy with another application.

"Play some music."

As you would expect, you can control iTunes and Apple Music through Siri. Either set up a random shuffle through your library (as above) or specify a particular artist or genre.

"Set a reminder for tomorrow."

Thanks to the apps built into macOS Sierra, Siri is all over your calendars, contacts, and reminders. So you can set up customized alerts, see your upcoming agenda, and more.

"Turn off Bluetooth."

Like Cortana, Siri can toggle various switches on and off. As well as adjusting Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, try enabling the new Night Shift feature, designed to protect your eyes during evening computer use.

"Find apps for word processing."

If you need some new apps for your Mac, then Siri can help here too. Include your search query with the command, and it will start searching through the App Store.

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