Android voice assistant shootout
Battle of the Siri substitutes
Android App of the Week Special In the absence of anything shiny, the hoi polloi and the media focused on Siri as the The Big Idea at the iPhone 4S launch. Android has supported basic voice commands for ages, but there are now a number of Siri-wannabes in the Market. But are they of any use other than as a bit of mild amusement?
That depends on the use you put them to. Asking your phone “how many inches in a kilometre” or “what’s the capital of Paraguay” verbally is a darned sight easier than searching for the information in the conventional manner.
But should you trust these systems enough to schedule dinner with Alex for 10pm on 1 December and not up end up with lunch with Alice on 10 December 10 at 1? If you have to double-check every entry, it would have been faster to tap it in with your finger.
Where Edwin comes up trumps is in its use - like Siri - of Wolfram Alpha, which is without doubt the place to go if you want to ask complicated or technical questions.
Edwin also gets the best from Google’s voice recognition system - it was noticeably better even than Siri when it came to interpreting my questions about Newton-metre to foot-pound torque conversions.
The on-screen graphics are simplicity themselves: nothing more than a big microphone, and shortcuts to repeat the last thing Edwin said, to open the minimal settings menu and to access the user guide. There’s also a handy option to have anything Edwin says appear briefly on the screen in large, friendly letters.
Oddly enough, the one thing I couldn't get Edwin to do was tell me what the weather was going to be doing either in my location or anywhere else on the face of the planet.
A shiny new app that made the news for because it’s name is Siri spelled backwards and for apparently being coded in a mere eight hours.
The tiny, 900KB Iris pulls its information from True Knowledge which seems a decent source of what’s what and who’s who. Ask Iris a question about a thing, person or place and as well as a brief answer it also rustles up an illustrative image.
Iris scored brownie points by being the only app that correctly understood the subtleties of the question, “Do you know the way to San José?” and even found me a copy of the 7in single sleeve.
When I asked Siri the same question, it told me it could only look for maps and locations in the US. Yes, I know Siri can’t do locations outside the States, but I did expect it to figure out the Bacharach and David undertone.
Still very much an alpha release, Iris is developing at a breakneck speed. It underwent a complete graphical redesign only last week – so I expect it to improve over the coming months.
Another app that pulls information from True Knowledge. The name and icon may be a bit uninspired, but are relieved by the option to create your own avatar right down to sex, hair colour, style of glasses, shape of nose and even lips more than makes up for it.
I’ve got mine set up as sultry wench with fire in her eyes called Sam.
Alone among the apps on test, Speaktoit Sam is the only one that can put information directly into your Google calendar or Evernote. If you don’t want to use a note taking app Sam will store your notes herself and read them back on demand.
I have to say though that getting the date, time and event details correct in a calendar post was a very rare occurrence.
The one thing I don’t like about Speaktoit is its insistence on presenting graphical information in its own browser rather than my handset’s default, but as a multi-talented digital PA, it’s the closest thing to Siri for Android.
More an elaborate voice launcher than an assistant, Vingo - which is also available on the iPhone, as m'colleague Cliff noted last week - sidesteps misunderstandings by suggesting specific commands initiated by a keyword like 'call', 'open' or 'navigate'. To make things even easier, when you tap the desired function further options are shown as a guide, with all key words written in blue.
The app can be set to listen at launch and there’s a very nice e-mail and text reader that uses the app's own text-to-speech system - hence the size. You have to add each email account separately, but once done it works a treat.
The car screen is also worth a mention. Launch it and you are presented with five huge buttons to make a call, send a text, open Google Navigation, speak a command or enable/disable SafeReader.
Just as much effort seems to have been put into the graphical as the vocal interface making this a very polished app that’s well worth a look. A word of warning though, SafeReader does seem to eat up the battery power.
Price Free (with ads) £1.49 (no ads)
So, are any of the Android apps better than Siri? No. Apple’s offering is not better by miles, but it is still the best and benefits from excellent presentation and seamless integration with all of the iPhone’s native apps. That said, Siri is still very, very far from perfect, and the Android competition can do all the things I’d trust a digital assistant to do nearly as well. So Siri is certainly not a compelling reason to jump ship to iOS.
After many an hour asking all manner of silly questions to Siri and its Android rivals, I came to one inescapable conclusion: for requesting factual information, having a bit of fun or performing relatively simple tasks they are fine. But would I trust one to work like a flesh and blood assistant? Not on your life. ®
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