One of the major selling points of the new iPhone 4S is the inclusion of Siri, the new voice-operated assistant. Just ask Siri anything and she’ll come back with an answer. While Siri is a very well-built and high quality voice assistant, it is by no means the first of its kind. Voice assistants have been around for quite a while and in many forms.
That’s good news for Android owners with Siri envy because it means we’re not missing out on the voice assistant party. The phone system itself comes with a few voice functions like search and dictating text, but that’s by no means the limit of voice command on Android. There are more than a few capable Siri alternatives on Android that do more than search Google.
One item that needs to be noted before looking at the individual apps is the speech recognition software itself. All voice assistant apps rely upon the same software that comes part of all Android devices. I’ve found the voice recognition to be quite good. As long as I spoke clear English and enunciated my words, my phone didn’t have any trouble recognizing my words. I haven’t tested this in other languages, but American English works perfectly fine.
Since all the apps voice recognition works in the same manner, I instead tested for how well they could research a question and return an answer. I asked the same questions to each app to see what their answer was. Some were easy (When was the War of 1812?) while others are a bit harder (What is the name of Arcade Fire’s second album?). The results were quite telling.
Although this app is technically still in beta, it still does a good job of doing research and being generally helpful. Calling, texting, or emailing everyone in your phonebook is as easy as saying “text Dad this is a test.”
Also included is the option to type in your question or command on the virtual keyboard. It’s a nice feature, even though I’m not sure I’d ever use it. The point of a voice assistant is to talk to it and avoid all that tedious typing.
One of the other advertised functions is as a fact finder. In theory, all you have to do is ask Speaktoit a question and get an answer back quickly. That’s what they advertise for Siri, after all.
Speaktoit did a decent job of answering my questions. Well, I would say that it actually did not do so well. Asking general trivia questions like at what temperature water boils instead yielded me the temperature for that day.
However, the user interface actually makes up for Speaktoit’s shortcomings. If it can’t find an answer, it’ll pull up your question in a small box showing the results of a Google search. The search results box usually had the answer I was looking for.
The UI is one of the better examples out of the services I tested. Ask it for directions somewhere and it’ll show you a little box with Google Maps. Even if Speaktoit doesn’t know the answer, it does a good job of bringing you to something that does.
In general, Speaktoit worked quite well. It’s no Siri, but it performed well and felt like a reasonably competent app. Plus, it’s free.
Jeannie differentiates itself a little by performing automatic searches and bringing you the results in app. Its search engine is much more refined, streaming results from Google, Google Images, and databases like Wolfram Alpha.
It also functions as a center for common toggles like wifi, Bluetooth, and volume. Just tell Jeannie to turn wifi or Bluetooth on and it’ll do it for you.
With regards to fact finding, Jeannie had the most variety in its answers. It was the only app to successfully answer my question of who was the lead actor in Fight Club (Brad Pitt, with Edward Norton Jr. accepted also) but also had a lot of trouble with basic questions.
I don’t think it understood some of my queries. It told me that Arcade Fire’s second album (Neon Bible) was a person. On the other hand, it did know who the lead singer of The Gaslight Anthem was.
Jeannie also did well fielding questions about Barack Obama’s exact age and who wrote The Lord of the Rings. It’s a good app. Decent fact finding abilities supported by a variety of settings toggles and a cost of zero dollars make it a viable candidate.
Iris is supposed to be the reverse of Siri (get it? Because Iris is Siri spelled backwards), but that comparison is only true in that Siri works and Iris doesn’t.
Iris boasted a very nice interface but had a lot of trouble with even the most basic stuff. The biggest problem seemed to be phrasing. If the question wasn’t phrased a certain way (even if it was grammatically correct English), Iris couldn’t answer it.
Seriously, it had trouble answering everything. The War of 1812 apparently occurred “recently” and Abraham Lincoln was the author of the comic book series 100 Bullets. Who knew an American president from 1860 wrote a comic published in 2009?
Once I figured out the correct phrasing for everything, Iris worked a lot better. However, there’s really no excuse for being that touchy. At least it’s free.
Vlingo Virtual Assistant
Vlingo seems very professional. It had easily the nicest interface out of all of them, complete with super smooth graphics that make you want to hug your phone. That’s not just me, right?
Vlingo comes with quite a few options that are all nicely listed at the home screen of the app so you know exactly what you can do. It definitely offered the most functionality.
Just talk to the app and it lets you find businesses (found a Sprint store), update your status on Facebook, and launch apps. It even worked with some oddly named apps like Snesoid (try pronouncing that).
And of course it offers the ability to call/text/email anyone in your contacts. The text to speech works easily and didn’t make any mistakes.
As far as trivia goes, Vlingo did moderately well. It knew who wrote A Game of Thrones and who was the lead singer of the Rolling Stones. As long as the query was general, Vlingo could find the answer.
All in all, Vlingo felt like easily the most professional of all the apps I tested. It works fine and can do a lot of different things. I’d say that’s worth the free price.
Edwin was the odd child of the group. Every voice assistant relies on some sort of database they access, but Edwin was the only one I found to blatantly freeload off of Wolfram Alpha.
Almost every query takes you straight from the app to WA’s databases. This isn’t necessarily bad as WA is rarely wrong, but it would be nice if Edwin just pretended to know the answers instead of copying off his buddy Wolfram.
The painfully obvious reliance on WA (it actually leaves the app and opens up WA in browser for every question) and a couple odd glitches (George Washington’s birthday is apparently “Howdy”) make Edwin a candidate that should maybe take a back seat. It works, just not as well as the others and certainly not as well as Siri.
All in all, there’s no real equivalent to Siri on Android. As of now, Apple remains unmatched in that Siri is far more efficient and easy to use than anything on Android. However, I would say that some of the apps here offer almost all the quality of Siri for a whole lot less money than a new 4S.
If you can deal with not having Siri, then the voice assistants I listed are all very capable replacements. Plus, they’re all free.