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Cortana vs Google Now vs Siri: Which is best?

Andrew Williams

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Digital Assistants
Digital Assistants

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 1997?

However, we are now 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 10'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.

Now that Apple is set to introduce Siri to its Mac OS, we thought we might take a closer look at each of the digital assistants to find out which is the best of the lot.

Siri

Which phones use it? iPhones

How do you use it? You just press down on the main home button and wait for Siri to pop up. You can then talk to Siri, rather than typing into a box. She's a good listener. You can choose her/his gender too.

It's also possible to access some of Siri's burgeoning pre-emptive suggestions by scrolling left from the main homescreen. This feature is nowhere near as advanced as Google Now as yet, but it's there.

Related: iOS 9.3

Siri

What can it do?

• Search the web

• Send SMS texts

• Make calls

• Open apps

• Make FaceTime Calls

• Sent tweets

• Update Facbook statuses

• Suggest apps and contacts

• Setup/alter calendar events

• Look up calendar details

• Set alarms

• Change some phone settings

• Look up movie details

• Look up directions in Apple Maps

• Ask for public transport directions

• Locate nearby attractions/restaurants and so on

• Play music

• Identify music

• Read out text messages

• Read out unread emails

• Show photos according to date and location

What can it not do?

• Send Facebook messages

• Interact with most third-party apps

• Pre-empt most of what you want

• Pull out info from your email

Related: iPhone 6S

Siri

Is Siri any Good?

Siri is powered by some very interesting technology, which tries to understand not just your words but your sentences. Understanding meaning is a lot trickier than just identifying words.

It's improved a lot with iOS 9, too. No longer is Siri a separate module within iOS, or one that exists merely because it's cool. It's now tightly integrated into Apple's mobile OS, and has been rolled up with Spotlight Search into a dedicated screen to the left of the main home screen, Google Now-style.

This screen also shows off Siri's newfound smarts, as it recommends contacts and apps, nearby services (through Apple Maps), and the latest news (via Apple News).

It's still not as wide-ranging as Google Now, but Siri ties in better with the platform owner's own apps.

Google Now

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. The Google Now Launcher, meanwhile, enables you to access it by dragging to the left of the main homescreen.

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. 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. Some phones will listen out for an "OK Google" vocal prompt, too.

Related: Nexus 6P

Google Now

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

• Notify you of emailed item dispatch notices, flight times etc

• 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

• Launch contextual assistance based on what's on screen (Android 6.0)

• Identify music

• Play music

What can it not do?

• Let you search for anything within the Now interface

• Search for photos

Related: Android Marshmallow

Google NOw

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 laid-back style is rather less irritating and gimmicky than a voice assistant.

Since Android 6.0 Marshmallow, Google has introduced Google Now On Tap. This drags the platform out of its isolated screen and weaves it throughout the Android OS. Google Now On Tap gives you contextual assistance based on what's on the screen at any one time. It's a great idea, but Google's initial implementation is too hit and miss to be truly useful. Watch this space, though.

Google Now arguably found its natural home as part of Google's smartwatch platform. The information card-based system is at the heart of Android Wear, and feels like it was designed at least partially with the watch format in mind.

Cortana

Which phones use it? Windows 10 phones (Cortana is also available on the desktop version of Windows 10)

How do you use it? Cortana is taking over as the Search part of Windows 10. 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.

There's also a Live Tile dedicated to the personal assistant, and you can configure a 'Hey Cortana' vocal prompt.

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.

For a detailed walk-through of Cortana on Windows 10, see our 'How to use Cortana' guide.

Related: Microsoft Surface Book

Cortana

What can it do?

• Make calls

• Send text messages

• Search the web (using Bing)

• Show local events, restaurants, and the like

• Add/change calendar events

• Make notes

• Offer weather reports

• Tell you how long it'll take to get to home/work

• Offer travel advice

• Identify music

• Check your flight status

• Set reminders when you next talk to a person

Related: Nokia Lumia 630

Cortana

Is Cortana any good?

Cortana is arguably the most flexible personal assistant out there for the simple fact that it is built into the Windows 10 desktop OS as well as Windows 10 Mobile.

It mashes together some of the best bits of the other two, with the scheduling and email integration of Google Now and the personality of Siri.

However, Cortana is arguably the most hit and miss of the three in terms of results. When it works, it feels like it's the best of the bunch - but it fails more frequently than Siri or Google Now.

It also has an over-reliance on simply offering up dumb web search results when Siri and Google Now (particularly the latter) will often try and contextualise or zoom in on a more precise answer.

Cortana feels like it's in the earliest stage of development - because it is - so there's plenty of scope for improvement here. It's already handy in the way it tries to get to know your habits and interests, and being able to have it remind you of things the next time you talk to a specific contact is really cool. Right now however, it's lacking a little polish and consistency.

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. That's improved in iOS 9, where Siri has been better integrated, but it's still the least pro-active of the three assistants.

Siri does have the most personality of all three systems, however, and is the most comfortable with natural language.

Both Siri and Google Now are more consistent and slick experiences than Cortana, which is clearly the youngest of the three. Along with Google Now, however, its pre-emptive approach is pleasingly progressive, and it has bags of potential as both a desktop and mobile assistant - particularly when it comes to organising your daily schedule.

Related: Best smartphone

Now

All of which means that Google Now is our pick for the best personal assistant of the three overall. It may lack the personality of the other two, but its consistency and accuracy approaches that of Siri, while its smartness and pro-activeness is top of the pile.

Meanwhile, Google Now on Tap shows that the system is going to become increasingly integral to the Android experience.

What are your thoughts on virtual assistants? Let us know in the comments below.

Darkedge

April 10, 2014, 11:33 am

Google Now can do more than the listed - it can control your music if using google music amongst other things but lots of the features are not well documented or known

schriss

April 10, 2014, 12:16 pm

Google for "Google Now Easter eggs"

Charles - The Great and Powerf

April 10, 2014, 5:54 pm

Google is trash. Gangsters of the tech industry. Bury all of them. Cortana will rock! It learns! Google hardly does what TellMe did in 2010.

Manzoor E Elahi

April 10, 2014, 6:38 pm

As suspected, and conformed after reading, this article should have been written after the weekend. WP8.1 preview reportedly drops on 14th.

EveryonesOpinion

April 11, 2014, 12:07 am

Whoever wrote this article I guess has never used Google Now as you can talk to it to perform tasks as set reminders, get directions, & more

Edin Orozco

April 11, 2014, 7:04 am

That's what I think... In Google Nexus 5 you can even activate the Google Now by voice even if the cellphone is in standby and if you are using another cellphone with Android 4.1.x and up with Google Now Launcher you can activate Google Now by voice in the desktop just by saying OK Google... This article is very flat of information I use Google Now a lot in my days and I can say is better than Siri...

Chris Bell

April 11, 2014, 7:34 am

Way off the mark with Google Now features. As mentioned by Darkedge there's many more voice control features than you're giving it credit for. Any phone running the Google Experience Launcher can instigate voice commands by saying "ok google" and has a dedicated Google Now home screen as the left most one. For those not using the experience launcher holding home will not work on Samsung phones or many other devices. If your phone has a touch home key swiping up from home to the Google circle which appears will get you there, as will use of the Google search or Google Now widgets which are universal.

One of the most powerful features is the integration of Google Now voice commands and Google Keep reminders which you don't mention at all. Simply saying "Ok google, remind me to buy apples at Morrisons supermarket" will set a location aware reminder to do just that.

gsquared007

April 12, 2014, 1:17 am

Also looks like the author never used Siri either with the statement that Siri cannot "Read things out other than unread text messages"....Really? How about one of the great unique features Siri – the ability to read all or selected email out loud, or search through and read my reminders, and the same with notes! I use Siri quite a bit, especially when I'm driving so I can keep my eyes on the road. This was obviously a very superficial article and more like link bait. If your going to write comparison articles at least do your homework.....

GaryMG

July 29, 2014, 4:07 pm

I had Siri. Never used it. Same with google now, was ok but not great. Cortana on the other hand just works, understands my accent (cockney) even when using the USA version (as UK version not out for a week or so. "wake me at 8 in the morning", and it does.

Barrett Boucher

July 31, 2014, 6:57 am

I just updated my Nokia 1320 with Windows Phone 8.1 and have used Cortana for two days. The voice recognition is excellent, the best I have experienced. However, it is painfully obvious that this is not an AI personal assistant. It can do basic things that were possible 20 years ago but I hoped that today we would have more "intelligence" built into these types of PA's. The hundred or so canned responses are extremely limited and it does not seem to have the capability to learn anything, you cannot follow up a voice query with another related query. It can send messages (SMS) very well but it cannot send email (ask for recipient, topic and message). It is fair at searching but no better than any other voice searching apps. It is good for very basic commands, for example, wake me up at 7 o'clock, no problem. The problem I see is that Microsoft, Google and Apple make billions and this is the best they can come up with in 2014, I am starting to wonder if I will live long enough to see a truly useful digital PA. I have a feeling, once I tire of the beautiful voice, I will just perform these tasks with the keyboard, there does not appear to be the depth that I believe can be achieved at this point in time. I should be able to carry on a conversation, however rudimentary, if only to filter searches. None of this is present, I can do better with the keyboard searches which should be obsolete by now on modern phones.

At first Cortana seems clever but once you actually use it, it is the same as all the others, throw in some shiny trinket (canned responses) as a marketing ploy but never actually make the PA break through, AI in infancy (this is not AI). Aside from the excellent Voice recognition, I think someone could actually do much better, especially with a few billion dollars.

Neill Buchanan

September 30, 2014, 7:52 am

I've not had an iPhone for over a year so maybe it has advanced by now but having owned Android and Windows phones too, the clear winner is Google. It's strongest showing as been on the Motorola Moto X, that can respond to voice whilst the device is sleeping. All devices with Google Now, for over a year now, however have contextual conversations, something @Barrett Boucher complained was lacking in these PAs... The common example of this working is asking about a landmark like Eiffel Tower, then asking to show me pictures, then how do I get there, call (to book tickets) etc... Google knows we are all taking about Eiffel Tower and that is a great intelligent PA tool. Aside from the showing pictures part of that example, this means it has given the ability to ask about an event or landmark and book tickets and get directions, so that you can do all that whilst driving home to pickup your wife (or other half, date, etc) to then carry on to your reservation.

When I used it, Siri and Cortana couldn't do more than one step at a time as a completely new command, some they couldn't do at all without further physical intervention by me such as tapping on the number the search brings up.

LesleyLooneytunes

August 17, 2016, 10:48 am

I hate how Cortana uses Edge. That is slow to load and crashes. She's crap at understanding my accent and I wish we had the ability to change her stupid name. Google is top.

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