Microsoft Copilot: what it’s like using the new AI desktop assistant

Microsoft Copilot preview

Adding generative AI features to everyday Windows 11 applications, Microsoft Copilot aims to help PC users get things done.

The rise of OpenAI’s ChatGPT saw generative AI make headlines for its ability to understand questions posed in plain English and then craft in-depth answers, which appear as if they were written by a person.

Microsoft’s Copilot brings generative AI to the desktop, primarily designed to help Windows users with day-to-day tasks rather than be a jack-of-all-trades like ChatGPT. It’s built into the new Bing Chat and was made available in Windows 11 at the start of November via the free Windows 11 2023 Update, also known as 23H2.

Meanwhile, Microsoft 365 enterprise users can pay to add Copilot to Office tools like Word, Excel and Outlook. These features will gradually become available to all Microsoft 365 users.

Editor’s note: as demonstrated in our recent Microsoft Surface Laptop Studio 2 review, generative AI still makes egregious mistakes in its output. Always cross-reference generated content with credible sources.

Using Microsoft Copilot to answer questions

Put to the test on the new Microsoft Surface Laptop Go 3 running the Windows 11 2023 Update, Copilot appears as a new “Copilot (preview)” icon in the taskbar.

Clicking the icon opens a menu on the right, where you can select whether you want a more creative, precise or balanced conversation style. Along with a few examples of what Microsoft Copilot can do, you’re presented with an “Ask me anything” window where you can type to engage with Copilot or click the microphone to speak your query aloud.

In this way, Copilot replaces Microsoft’s ill-fated Cortana smart assistant. Like all smart assistants, you can ask Copilot for simple objective facts, such as “How tall is Mount Kosciuszko” and generally trust the results.

You can also ask Copilot more complex subjective questions, such as “What’s the best holiday itinerary for two weeks in Australia?” The result is several hundred words long, written in plain English and with links to the sources.

If you want more detail, you can ask a follow-up question, such as “What if I want to swim with dolphins?” and it understands the context – knowing that you’re still talking about an Australian holiday. It will even give you links to places where you can swim with dolphins in Australia, including their TripAdvisor rating.

Copilot is also built into the Edge browser, letting you ask questions and request summaries of pages. You can also use Copilot to control your computer, such as opening apps, turning on features and getting guidance on how to use different aspects of Windows.

Generating written content

Along with answering your questions, Microsoft Copilot can also write content, letting you specify details such as style and length. Here it can be a significant time-saver, at least when it comes to writing first drafts, although obviously it’s open to abuse.

Copilot understands the structure, style and requirements for different kinds of documents. For example, you can ask it to write a cover letter for a job application as a high school librarian or an email to the mayor requesting a new local dog park. In both situations, Copilot refers to its efforts as a “possible” option, while adding generic details and examples which clearly aren’t accurate – presumably expecting you to fill in the blanks.

You can hone the results by including more details, such as “write an email to the mayor requesting a new dog park in the City of Moonee Valley”. The result is far more customised but still can’t be trusted without fact-checking.

For example, Copilot addresses the email to the previous mayor of Moonee Valley, cites a survey from a non-existent local dog owners association and refers to a vacant lot on the corner of two streets that don’t actually intersect in the real world. You clearly can’t take everything it says at face value.

You’re on safer ground if you ask Copilot to stick to more established facts, such as “write a 100-word review of the novel 1984“. Once again, you can hone the results, such as “write a 100-word review of the novel 1984 for a primary school book report” which adapts the language and themes accordingly. It does a very impressive job – although you’re assuming it hasn’t made any obvious mistakes – and offers a taste of the challenges that generative AI will present teachers.

Image creation

Microsoft Copilot can also create images from scratch, plus it will work with applications like Microsoft Paint and Photos.

Asking Copilot to “create an image of a whale” generates four options, after which you can ask for changes such as “make it fly a kite”. However ludicrous, Copilot will do its best to bring your ideas to life. You can also drop existing images into Copilot and ask it to analyse them.

Generative AI is also coming to Microsoft Paint as a new “Cocreator” feature, as well as Photos, but these are currently only available to Windows 11 beta users and haven’t been released to the general public yet.

Read more software news on GadgetGuy