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How to use Cortana search on Windows 10

When you talk about Cortana and search on Windows 10 is like saying the same thing. Sure, Cortana excels on an array of tasks, such as creating reminders, syncing notifications between your phone and PC, and even when using natural language, but the assistant is about a lot more.

Microsoft has designed Cortana as part of the next generation of search, which is about getting personal results and giving you things based on knowing your patterns without you having to ask.

On Windows 10, Cortana integrates with the operating system's local search feature to help you find local files and settings, and also with Bing to offer relevant search results from the web to answer any questions.

Here we'll explain and walk you through the steps to search for files, settings, and get relevant web search results using Cortana on Windows 10.

How to use Cortana to search on Windows 10

On Windows 10, there are two ways to search using Cortana: you can use the search box in the taskbar to enter your search query to find anything you need. Or you can start Cortana in listening mode using the "Hey Cortana" feature or the Windows key + Shift + C keyboard shortcut to ask the assistant to find anything you want.

Cortana text search (left), Cortana voice command search (middle), Cortana listening mode (right)

You can use Cortana to find virtually anything on your computer or on the web. Typically, you'll use the assistant to find files stored locally on your computer or OneDrive, settings, and web results to answer more complex searches.

How to search files and settings using Cortana

While Microsoft has designed Cortana to make search super easy on Windows 10, you'll notice that you won't just get one answer. Instead, you will get a lot of results from different categories, because Cortana doesn't quite understand the context of your question unless you're specific.

For example, when you do a search, you will get results from any source that Cortana can search, including local files and settings, and web results using Bing.

If you want to get more specific results from a query, you have to do your search with commands that Cortana can understand, which are similar to those queries you use every day on your favorite search engine.

To narrow down your Cortana search to only files and settings and apps, you can use the following examples in the search box:

  • Apps: Mail
  • Documents: Business Presentation 2016
  • Folders: Personal Docs
  • Music: Bon Jovi
  • Photos: Veronica's Party
  • Settings: Windows Update
  • Videos: Vacation

In the examples above, you can see that you can quickly type a category and a colon to specify the search type followed by your search query, which will help Cortana understand exactly the type of search you want to perform.

As you type a query in the search box you'll get a number of shortcuts buttons to refine your search. But if you prefer typing to mousing and clicking, these quick commands can make your searches even faster.

If you prefer using the shortcut buttons, you can also click the More button on the top-right to see the complete list of categories you can search using Cortana.

Additionally, you can type a query in the search box, and click the title of the category to see more results.

If you're an Office 365 subscriber, you can even connect your account with Cortana to search email, calendar, people, and Office 365 documents.

Local search on Windows 10 Mobile works different

While the concept of search using Cortana also works on Windows 10 Mobile, there some limitations. For example, on the mobile version of Windows 10, you can't search for specific files and settings within the Cortana app.

If you're looking for an specific file, you either need to open File Explorer or OneDrive and use the search functionality within that app, and you need to open the Settings app to find any settings.

How to search the web using Cortana

Searching the web using Cortana is not much different than doing a search using your web browser using Bing or Google. However, there are a few things you need to know to get the best web search results.

To search the web using Cortana there is only one command you need to know: web: followed by the search term. The example below shows how you should type a web search query in Cortana:

  • Web: How to use Cortana on Windows 10

While the Web command defines the context of your search, you'll come across two types of results: Cortana instant answers within the app, which technically you don't have to specify, because it's already programmed to respond to particular questions. This is the logic that makes Cortana feel more intelligent.

Here are some examples of specific things Cortana can answer within the app:

  • NYC Weather
  • Microsoft Stock
  • What movies are playing near me?
  • What's the time in the UK?
  • How tall is Jessica Biel?

Here a few other examples searches you can do with the digital assistant:

  • News: This command brings up the latest trending news within the app.
  • Define: When you need a definition of a particular word, you can use the keyword define followed by the word. For example, define automobile. This command will trigger a search on Bing, and the search engine will use the Oxford Dictionary to provide the definition.
  • 42+8/23: Use math standard operators +, -, *, /, %, and ^ in the search box to calculate anything you want, and press Enter to bring up the calculator.
  • Translate: When you need to translate text to another language type translate and press Enter to open Cortana in translation mode.

Web search (left), recognized web search (middle), math search (right)

When you type a search that Cortana isn't programmed to answer, you'll only see related search terms. In which case, you'll need to press Enter to open Microsoft Edge and hope the Bing search result page shows up a link with the answer you're seeking.

Remember that everything you do with Cortana (unless is a local search for files and settings) is an online search, and Bing is responsible for it.

Don't you believe me? Try to disconnect your computer from the internet and see if Cortana can answer something as simple as 2+2.

How to search with voice command using Cortana

Cortana has been designed to work with the keyboard and mouse, as well as with voice commands using natural language.

If you're using the hands-free feature, then simply say "Hey Cortana" followed by the search term. For example:

  • "Hey Cortana: How's the weather."

If "Hey Cortana" is not enabled on your device, then use the Windows key + Shift + C keyboard shortcut and say your search term. For example:

  • "How tall is Mount Everest?"

Remember you're not limited to say keywords in your search, just use natural language. For Cortana, "Can you tell me what is an automobile?" and "define automobile" are the same thing. However, the search experience may be different using voice commands and typing the query in the search box.

Mauro Huculak is technical writer for WindowsCentral.com. His primary focus is to write comprehensive how-tos to help users get the most out of Windows 10 and its many related technologies. He has an IT background with professional certifications from Microsoft, Cisco, and CompTIA, and he's a recognized member of the Microsoft MVP community.

23 Comments
  • What I will like to know is how to make hey Cortana Work on my 1520.3 I lost it after updating to windows 10, and now it says this feature not available for this device. Thank you for the article, I use Cortana all the time. On my laptop and phone , she is a great assistant, very nice.
  • What I'd like to know is when will Microsoft release Cortana in New Zealand or any other country? Or will they finally detach it from the system region so we can use the store and Cortana at the same time?
  • Available since AU.
  • Still not available in many languages. Hebrew for instance...
  • Waiting for Hebrew too. Microsoft sure takes its own sweet time.
  • I had to use wdrt (Windows Device Reset Tool) then use Windows Insider (Release Preview Ring) to get Cortana back on my 1520 under Windows 10. It now works, but the restore did not complete 100% for me and I had to manually re-set-up all my live tiles. I also have the problem with giant text in Edge (Disqus comments are affected particularly) which makes many sites pretty much unreadable. After wdrt and initial install of Win10 Mobile the problem was fixed, but after a few hours of downloading updates and restarting the problem came back :(
  • I'd love to start using cortana in my desktop pc but I have a poor genius iLook 310 genius camera and it just doesn't work with the anniversary update. I've tried everything and still doesn't work. I won't buy another camera because I would face the same trouble and I just want to use cortana not video calling
  • Why do you need a camera for Cortana?
  • "If you're an Office 365 subscriber, you can even connect your account with Cortana to search email, calendar, people, and Office 365 documents." ​But only if you have a school or enterprise O365 account....    
  • Excuse me, is this true? I've got an Office 365 Home Edition subscription. I can't set up Cortana to search my email, calendar, contacts and other Office 365 documents? Really? Well, that would certainly explain why I couldn't find this.
  • I really want to be able to use Cortana with Mail for search and reminders. Search is just awful in Mail and reminders for specific emails is absent. It's cool that Cortana can surface emails you might want to be reminded about, but there's no way to do this manually due to the lack of sharing from Mail (which makes no sense). I wind up using People to find emails way more than search in mail, but that also fails a lot. Maybe the new people features in RS2 will help with some of this.
  • Also, the lack of Cortana access to local or OneDrive files on mobile is quite annoying.
  • Search works GREAT on Windows 8.  I can just start typing while on the Start Screen. I don't have to find a stupid box and click in it to search.  Windows 10 search is horrible in comparison.  And, on the PC, trying to get a decent search out of Cortana is nothing but a frustrating endeavor.  At least on the phone it works.
  • You still can do that - just start typing when bring up the start menu/screen...
  • How do I make 100% sure that Cortana is disabled on my Windows 10 machine? I only want simple search for files and want to stick with Google for Internet search. I do not want to share any of my search data, keystrokes or local files with Microsoft and their partners. The fact that windows 7 was not inherently spying on me was why I did not want to upgrade to windows 10, but in the end it was forced on me. Posted via the Windows Central App for Android
  • That's easy go to settings, search, turn Cortana off.
  • Anybody else who things the new Cortana UI is worse than the 8.1?
  • Off topic. How to set the height to full screen for Cortana like in the screenshot? Mine is just like a flyer on the start. (New user here.)
  • I don't think Cortana is full screen in the screen shot, but a cropped image. But I agree that most of these things should work in a similar fashion so that the Cortana, Action center, "ask Cortana" in Edge, etc. are all the same. Preferably full screen.
  • I see. My mistake here. Anyway, thanks for replying! :)
  • One can also type/speak "Translate hittepå to English" and Cortana will automagically figure out what language the word is in (in this case, Swedish) and present a translation. She's not very good at spelling other languages when spoken to her, but she has no problem pronouncing words when translated.
  • Cortana sucks on Windows 10!!!
  • Anyone know if there's a way to set the default categories that appear when you type in a search? It'd be nice to save an extra step if possible.