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9 min read

What is Microsoft Copilot? (And how to access it)

By Miguel Rebelo · December 5, 2023
Hero image with the Microsoft Copilot logo

I dream of a day when my computer can act as my assistant: summarize my top email threads, queue up music playlists for work, and run a quick Google search in the background while I write—all through voice commands. That day may be closing in on us. After the boom of AI chatbots, AI has spread to other apps to offer a better, more integrated experience.

Microsoft Copilot isn't that yet—but it's a step in the right direction. Offering an experience powered by the GPT and DALL·E models, courtesy of Microsoft's close relationship with OpenAI, you'll now see new magic buttons and AI chat boxes spread throughout the Microsoft apps you use every day.

What is Microsoft Copilot?

Copilot is a set of new features that combine large language models (LLMs) with existing Microsoft products:

  • Windows 11

  • Bing Search's AI Chat

  • Microsoft Edge

  • Microsoft 365 apps (Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook, Teams)

Copilot's AI features include generative AI (text and images) and text and data analysis, among other things. The objective is to save time as you search, write, and ideate your way to get your job done.

The features are spread out across the apps you use every day. When you ask Bing a question, start writing with AI in Word, or get into forecasting in Excel, a request flies out to the Microsoft Azure infrastructure. The AI models there compute the appropriate response and send it back to the app you're using. This means that you'll need an internet connection to access Copilot, as most personal computers aren't powerful enough for LLM-level work.

I tested these new features myself by signing up for the early-release channels. As a long-time fan of Linux, I confess I'm excited by the prospect of using an AI-powered computer system. 

How to use Microsoft Copilot in Windows 11

Still in preview, Copilot for Windows 11 brings a chat experience into the operating system and a range of AI-powered features to Clipchamp, Photos, the Snipping Tool, and Paint.

If your system is up to date and you were part of the release wave, you'll find the Copilot icon in your taskbar. Alternatively, press the Windows key + C to check whether you have it installed.

Microsoft Copilot in the menubar of Windows 11

The Copilot chat in Windows 11 shows promise, but there's still a lot of ground to cover. Once you open it, it sits as a sidebar to the entire window, like when using a browser but at a system level. It looks and works like Bing Chat: you can ask it the same questions, run internet searches, and ask it to generate images.

Copilot in the Windows 11 sidebar
The Copilot sidebar in a clear Windows 11 desktop, ready to answer all your questions.

It can't control your system. This cuts both ways: having cutting-edge AI technology running your computer can be dangerous; but it would be awesome to type what you want to do in Windows and have the chatbot do everything for you.

I asked it to open the Spotify app and play one of my playlists as a test. The best Copilot could do was offer a button in the chat that opens the app, but it didn't start playing anything.

Asking Copilot to play a song in Spotify

This is still pretty good: the AI figured out my intent and offered a command to follow through. If this keeps evolving, here are a few possibilities that I'm hoping will become true:

  • Troubleshoot issues with Windows by running an AI agent that finds solutions in Microsoft's knowledge base, creates a unique action plan, and executes the entire repair process while providing updates.

  • Run a chain of actions involving multiple apps: based on a Notepad file, send that text to Word and expand it, generate images in the Microsoft cloud, and add them to the file.

  • Search for answers about a topic online and store it in multiple Word files, organized in a folder inside your computer.

This becomes even more interesting when you use your voice to talk to Copilot. The Windows dictation feature is excellent, sending what you're saying directly over to the AI. It replies back in voice, making it feel like you're having a conversation with your computer. Now imagine doing all I've described above just by talking: you won't have to tab out to other apps to record a short note, do a quick fact check, or send a brief email—all this without leaving the task at hand.

Moving on from the chat experience, AI landed in Clipchamp too. The Microsoft video editing app offers a simple user experience to polish your content, and now you can start a new project with AI Auto Compose. Upload your source video, choose a style, and select a background song. You'll get a video ready with transitions, jump cuts, and colorful backgrounds right out of the gate.

Microsoft Copilot in Clipchamp

If you need a voiceover but aren't up to recording it yourself, there's a text-to-speech feature available, offering a range of controls for how the voice sounds. The result is decent, a good option if you're tight on time to source it elsewhere.

If you grew up in the '90s, I'm sure you remember Paint. It's making a comeback with the Cocreator feature, an AI image generation tool: start with your prompt, pick a style from the dropdown, and the result is pasted into the canvas, ready for editing. It can also blur the background of images, a feature that it shares with Photos.

Microsoft Copilot in Paint
Paint makes a comeback with AI-generated images and background blur.

Finally, if you take lots of screenshots, consider taking the improved Snipping Tool for a spin. It can now extract text from images and quickly detect and redact sensitive information such as email addresses and phone numbers. As someone who takes dozens of screenshots every week, not having to plug each one into an image editing app makes me very happy.

The Snipping Tool in Microsoft Copilot
The Snipping Tool has new AI-powered possibilities that may save you from having to open the image in another app for quick edits.

How to use Microsoft Copilot in Bing Search's AI Chat and Microsoft Edge

Next up, Bing Chat and Microsoft Edge. I've grouped these since the best way to access Bing Chat is via Microsoft's native browser—and Edge doesn't have much else in terms of AI.

A view of Copilot when accessed from the Microsoft Edge browser

After the launch of ChatGPT, Microsoft was quick to integrate AI into Bing Search, a chat experience for searching the internet and generating natural language responses based on the results. Its most exciting update is the integration with DALL·E 3, OpenAI's recent image generation model. 

Generating images with Bing AI Chat in the Microsoft Edge browser
Generating images with Bing AI Chat in the Microsoft Edge browser.

Start by stating that you want to generate an image, and type in the prompt. Four results will appear. While Bing suggests that you can regenerate parts of the image by adding additional prompts, this doesn't always work as expected. Keep trying to find what you're looking for.

While you can access Bing's AI Chat in any browser, it has a special integration in Microsoft Edge. It's easier to access with its dedicated sidebar, offering a cute disclaimer in the footer: "Copilot is powered by AI, so surprises and mistakes are possible." Indeed. 

But the surprises don't end here. Take a closer look at the top of the sidebar, and click on the Compose tab.

The Compose tab in Microsoft Edge
The Compose tab generates content that you can paste easily into any input field on any website.

Here, you can use a prompt to write a quick email, brainstorm ideas, or draft a blog post. There are extra controls for zeroing in on what you want:

  • Tone, anywhere from professional to funny

  • Format (paragraph, email, ideas, or a blog post)

  • Length (it's a bit biased for longer responses)

Once you get your output, you can paste the response in any website you have open: just click the Add to site button. This is a useful shortcut to paste AI-generated text in a new Gmail email, a new WordPress post, or any input field anywhere on the web.

How to use Microsoft Copilot in Word, Excel, and PowerPoint

What if you could create, expand, and improve your documents with an AI chat experience? This is the question that Copilot for Microsoft 365 sets out to answer. Instead of opening ChatGPT or Bing in a separate tab, you'll be able to access generative AI and data analysis directly within Microsoft's productivity suite.

In Word, you can get a first draft going with just a prompt. Use it to flesh out an idea or as a guideline for your own work, pruning and expanding with the AI writing tools: you can shorten or rewrite parts of your document and ask for AI feedback on sections you wrote yourself. It's like having dozens of products launched this year rolled into a single document-focused AI experience.

Excel already offers data analysis, but it's greatly improved by Copilot. Using a chat window, you can ask questions about the data in your worksheets, explore "what if" scenarios, and create graphs using plain English.

PowerPoint gets extra tools for its arsenal. For example, you can ask to create a new presentation based on one of your Word documents. PowerPoint will make it happen, lining up slides ready with text and images. You can add extra slides, make the presentation more visual, or add animation via the chat window. Don't know what to say on each slide? That's ok: there are AI-generated speaker notes to help you remember the key insights.

Only a few people use all the tools and commands in these apps, especially because it's time-consuming to learn them. But with prompts, AI can find the best way to create what you need, using the most appropriate tool for the job.

Microsoft planned to release these AI features in mid-November 2023 for the general crowd, but that got pushed back indefinitely—so I haven't been able to test them yet. The above is a roundup of product videos and feature documents of Copilot for Microsoft 365. I'm excited to sit down to test them, so I'll come back and update this section as soon as I've got real experience to share.

How to use Microsoft Copilot in Outlook and Teams

The upgrades extend to Outlook and Teams, too. Communication is key, but the sheer amount is overwhelming and can drive you away from important tasks. Copilot features here focus on reducing time spent, while still extracting the important insights and following up fast with everyone involved. 

Outlook reorders your emails based on priority, a feature called Catch up with Copilot. It offers a set of topics present in your messages. When you click to start catching up, you'll be taken through the top threads, so you can reply quickly.

The conversation is long and full of angles, so why go through the entire novel when you can get a summary? Copilot can summarize entire email threads. And now that you have all the core information present in your mind, you can use generative AI to draft a response. For business users with Microsoft data services enabled, these responses can even retrieve file links, helping you provide everything your team needs to move forward.

Teams has nearly everything that AI meeting assistant apps already offer. It transcribes meetings and has a Copilot button to summarize what's been said so far—and even who said what. You can ask questions as to what the group is feeling about the topics at hand, but the participants need to be talking in-depth for this to have real value.

Can't make it to a meeting? Click to follow it instead. Once it's done, you'll get a lot of data:

  • The meeting's transcript

  • Shared files

  • A breakdown of topics and keywords

  • A summary, notes, and tasks

To top it off, this meeting recap also has a chat window, so you can ask further questions to the data and get AI-generated insights based on the transcript.

Microsoft 365 Chat also deserves a mention here. It leans on the enterprise side for now and it's closely associated with Teams, but I hope it'll become available for everyone at some point. It acts as an AI-powered search engine for all your data in your Microsoft account, especially OneDrive (and Microsoft Graph if you have it set up). You can use it to ask questions about all your files and data, understand the differences between each of them, and analyze their content.

Copilot everywhere

These are just the top places where you'll find Copilot. Enterprise users get a range of interesting features, letting them train AI on their company data and use it to assist employees in communication, generating content and finding more angles to look at information. These span more advanced apps such as Power Apps (create AI-powered apps), Power BI (analyze big data trends), and Business Chat (a tool to ask questions about your business data and get grounded, accurate answers).

How to access Microsoft Copilot

Right now, you can access these Copilot features immediately:

  • Bing Chat by visiting the website and starting a new chat

  • Copilot for Microsoft Edge

  • Copilot for Windows 11 (make sure your system is updated to access it)

At the time of writing, Copilot for Microsoft 365 apps is still on the way. It was originally expected to drop in the middle of November 2023, but the timeline was pushed back without a new estimate.

AI power everywhere

AI features are spreading across software like a web, connecting models to buttons and commands, offering you endless possibilities to complete each task—and it's up to you to choose and tweak the best ones.

While most of these are still in preview mode, Microsoft Copilot is improving quickly, so be sure to check it out from time to time if you're not a full convert—I definitely will.

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