Which is the Best Virtual Assistant?
Digital assistants have been around for decades. Remember Clippy, the irritating Microsoft Word assistant, used as far back as the 1997?
However, it is just now that we are starting to see them try to push their way into our day-to-day lives. The iPhone’s Siri, Android’s Google Now and Windows Phone 8.1’s Cortana are all highly advanced assistants, complete with artificial intelligence and remarkably accurate voice recognition. As long as you don’t have a thick accent, that is.
But which is the best of the lot? We’ve had a closer look at these three main systems to find out.
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Which phones use it? iPhones
How do you use it? You just press down on the main select button and wait for Siri to pop up. You just talk to Siri, rather than typing into a box. She’s a good listener. You can choose her/his gender too.
What can it do?
• Search the web
• Send SMS texts
• Make calls
• Open apps
• Make FaceTime Calls
• Sent tweets
• Update Facbook statuses
• Setup/alter calendar events
• Look up calendar details
• Set alarms
• Change some phone settings
• Look up movie details
• Look up directions in Apple Maps
• Locate nearby attractions/restaurants and so on
• Play music
• Read out text messages
What can it not do?
• Read things out other than unread text messages
• Send Facebook messages
• Interact with most third-party apps
• Pre-empt what you want
Is Siri any Good?
Siri is powered by some very interesting technology, which tries not just to understand your words but your sentences. Understanding meaning is a lot trickier than just identifying words.
However, we don’t know many people who regularly use Siri. It feels like quite a separate module within iOS, and one that exists in part because it’s cool, rather than an essential part of the everyday use of the phone.
Which phones use it? Android phones with version 4.1 or higher
How do you use it? It varies depending on the phone, but the consistent way to get Google Now up is to hold your finger down on the Home button until the Google button pops up. You don’t have to talk to Google Now – it’s not a primarily voice-driven assistant. Instead, it relays its information through info cards it gives you automatically.
You don’t ask for these cards directly. Instead, Google Now pre-empts the sort of information you’ll need. Staples include the weather, the public transport route back home and new content on sites you’ve visited recently.
It’ll gather this information ‘organically’ as you use the phone, but you can tell Google Now about your preferences directly. You can let Now know about your favourite sports teams, the stocks you follow and where you work and live.
If you want to talk to Google Now, you can do. Up at the top of the screen is a Google search bar, to the right of which is a little microphone to enable the voice feature.
What can it do?
• Tell you the weather
• Tell you how to get home by car
• Tell you how get home on foot
• How to get home by bus/train
• Remind you about calendar events
• Give you updates on your sports team
• Give you stock updates
• Offer info based on your web searches
• Lets you search the web with your voice/typing
What can it not do?
• Let you search for anything within the Now interface
Is Google Now any good?
Google Now seems to have been built with the knowledge that not a great amount of people are that keen on using a voice assistant. Google has its own voice recognition and voice synthesis software that could have easily been made the front end of Google Now, but instead the voice feature is relegated. You can use it (there’s a mic icon at the top of the New screen), but it’s not really what Google Now is about.
The way it works can initially seem underwhelming, and we imagine that many Android owners don’t use it at all – even if they are signed up to use it. However, its laidback style is rather less irritating and gimmicky than a voice assistant.
Google Now will really come into its own as part of Google’s smartwatches. It seems to be at the heart of Android Wear, which is the smartwatch side of Android – revealed in March 2014. Google Now’s simple card system will make a lot more sense on the small screen of a watch.
Which phones use it? Windows Phone 8.1 mobiles
How do you use it? Cortana is taking over as the Search part of Windows Phone 8.1. It’s not just a speech assistant, but rather both a Siri-like voice assistant and an intelligent text analyser – so you can type, not just talk, to Cortana. You long-press the search button to make Cortana start listening, or a quick tap to type.
Cortana feels a bit like an amalgamation of the ideas behind Siri and Google Now. For example, you can tool Cortana up with information about your interests and life – such as your interests, hours when you don’t want to be disturbed and so on. It also learns more about you based on your Bing search history. Or you can talk to it – your choice.
What can it do?
• Make calls
• Send text messages
• Search the web (using Bing)
• Add/change calendar events
• Make notes
• Offer weather reports
• Tell you how long it’ll take to get to home/work
• Offer travel advice
• … and more (we’re yet to fully examine Cortana for ourselves)
Is Cortana any good?
It’s a little early to tell exactly how good Cortana will be. The first phones to use it haven’t arrived yet, and we’ve only had a brief play to date. However, it has bags of promise.
It feels less gimmicky than Siri and takes a similar data-harvest approach to Google Now. Cortana could offer the best of both – a bit of flashiness to show off with, plus enough substance to make it a good day-to-day function. We’ll be back with more impressions once we’ve had more chance to evaluate the system.
So which is the best?
Cortana and Google Now are more clever and dynamic in their approach than Siri, which feels more like the 'movie version' of a virtual assistant than one people are actually likely to use. As yet it's a bit early to tell whether Cortana will be better than Google Now, but the pre-emptive approach these systems take is more progressive, and an important part of making both phones and future smartwatches easier to use.
Next, check out our round-up of the best mobile phones in the world