Using Siri, Apple's voice assistant, you can speak commands to your iPad or iPhone and have it do your bidding. To activate Siri, hold down the Home button on your compatible iPad or iPhone, or hold down the control button on your earphones. Siri is faster and more reliable than ever with iOS 7, and iOS 7.1 brings some new features and a female voice for the UK.

Siri works by recording your voice and sending it to a server that interprets what you've said and returns plain text. If you don't have an internet connection, Siri won't work.

Siri is a massive leap forward over old-fashioned speech recognition. This used to require a strict vocabulary and couldn’t do very much. Worse still, for non-Americans, voice recognition struggled with European, Australian and other accents.

Siri doesn’t require a strict vocabulary, and it’ll generally figure out what you’re trying to say. That makes interacting with it seem much more natural. It also works pretty well with a range of accents, and has American, British and Australian settings, as well as French, German, Italian, Spanish and more.

Siri is comprehensive. It’s tied into Messages, Calendar, Music, Reminders, Maps, Mail, Weather, Stocks, Clock, Contacts, Notes and Safari. It’s also linked to Wolfram Alpha, the computational knowledge engine that can provide answers to numerous factual questions, and Yelp, the directory of local businesses.

iOS 7 also sees Siri capable of searching Twitter and adjusting Settings. Siri can also perform a web search for you – although it now uses Bing as the default search engine, asking Siri to “Google” something results in it using Google instead.

Get started with Siri

Getting started with Siri couldn't be easier. Simply press and hold the Home button. The background will blur, you’ll hear a ‘ba-ding’ noise and ‘What can I help you with?’ appears onscreen. You should also see a wavy white line at the bottom of the screen.

Simply speak your request into the iPad and, when you’ve finished speaking, the white line turns into a round microphone icon and Siri will get back to you with an answer. Sometimes it takes Siri a few moments to think about the answer, but it’s a lot faster in iOS 7.

With iOS 7.1, you can also manually control how long Siri listens to you for, rather than waiting for it to detect that you've stopped speaking. To do this, hold down the Home button while you say your command or ask a question, and release it when you've finished.

In the UK, the male Siri voice has been updated with iOS 7.1 to sound less robotic and more natural. In addition, there's also a new female voice option. Switch Siri's gender to female by going to Settings > General > Siri and tapping Voice Gender. Here, choose female.

Above: In iOS 7 there was no Voice Gender option for English (United Kingdom) Siri (left). With iOS 7.1, the gender option has appeared and you can now change Siri to female (right).

You can ask Siri all sorts of things, and the more you use Siri the more accurate it becomes. You soon become aware of just how useful it can be, and what its boundaries are. It knows a lot about weather, restaurants, movies and football, for example, but nothing about Formula One.

It is also hooked-up to the Maps application, so it can locate businesses, movie times, restaurants and bars near you. One of the great things about Siri is asking it to find things in your local area.

There are a few scenarios in which Siri truly excels. The first of those is when you’re in a hands-free scenario, mostly likely when driving a car. (The iPad knows when you’re in a hands-free situation and becomes more chatty, reading text aloud that it might not if it knows you’re holding it in your hand.) Siri is also deeply integrated with the directions feature in Maps, and the iPad works as a fantastic (if slightly large) voice-activated satnav.

When you get a message, you can instruct Siri to read the message, and it will. You can then tell it to reply to the message, dictate the entire message, have Siri read it back to you to confirm that it makes sense, and then send it. You can also ask Siri to read out your Mail messages and it’ll let you know who sent you a message and what the subject line is.

There are still some gaps. Siri won’t read your emails to you and it’d be great if you could get it to read out whole books and web pages. (There is a workaround, though, which you can find out about here) And while iOS has the nifty Notification Centre, which gives you granular control over how different apps notify you about what’s going on, there’s no option to read alerts out loud when you’re in hands-free mode. A missed opportunity.

Get Siri to help you with daily tasks

Siri can now access the iOS 7 Settings, which makes it much easier to quickly make changes. You can also ask it to search Twitter.

If you aren’t driving, Siri can still be useful. In fact, the feature proves that some tasks can be done much faster through speech than through clicking, tapping and swiping. It’s much easier to set an alarm or timer using Siri than it is to unlock your tablet, find the Clock app, and tap within the app. Just say, “Set a timer for three minutes,” and your iPad begins to count down until your tea is ready. “Set an alarm for 5am” does what you’d expect, instantly. “Remind me to record my favourite show” and “Note that I need to take my suit to the cleaners” work, too. These are short bursts of data input that can be handled quickly by voice, and we’ve found they work well.

It’s also much faster to ask Siri to access settings than it is to dive through the menu. You can just say “Change wallpaper” rather than opening Settings and tapping Wallpaper.

You will soon become impressed by Siri’s ability to understand the context of conversations. It doesn’t always work, but when it does, it’s magical. We asked Siri for suggestions for places to have lunch and it provided us with a list of nearby restaurants that serve lunch.

Talking to your iPad or iPhone is not much different from talking on your mobile phone. It’s not appropriate in all contexts. If, for example, you’re quietly reading in the library and need to set a reminder, you should use the Reminders app, not Siri. And if you’re out in public, well, you can use Siri, but you do risk people giving you funny looks.

Apple’s integration of Wolfram Alpha with Siri is a smart move. If you need answers to factual questions, such as the speed of light or the number of days until Christmas, the answer engine can provide the solution.

Personal dictation

Siri can hunt down business, movie and sport information, as well as answer general questions.

While Siri gets the bulk of the iOS feature hype, another speech-related technology may prove to be more important and a bigger boost to user productivity. On the keyboard you’ll see a new button in the bottom row, to the left of the spacebar, with the image of a microphone on it. Tap this button and the iPad will transcribe whatever you say. It sends the results over the internet to a server that analyses your speech and converts it into text. We were impressed at just how fast the results came back, especially over Wi-Fi. And they were generally an accurate representation of what we had said.

To get the most out of dictation, you’ll need to start thinking in punctuation. For example, to construct a decent email message, we might say, “Dan. Comma. New paragraph. What do you think about writing a review of iOS numeral five. Question mark. New paragraph. Let me know what you think. Exclamation point.” However, it works.

Part of Siri’s charm isn’t in its feature set (which is still hit and miss), but it’s personable nature. Siri feels a lot less robotic than other voice-activated technology. Even when Siri gets out of its depth and doesn’t know what to do, it’s difficult to feel too frustrated. And you can joke around with Siri. Apple has spent a lot of time providing Siri with a range of comebacks to joke questions (many geeky by nature). Try telling Siri you love it, or use common catchphrases such as “Who’s your daddy” or “Who let the dogs out?” These are constantly being updated, too – for example, a recent one is to keep saying “Okay Glass” (the phrase used to activate a rival product made by Google), and Siri starts to get annoyed.

SEE: Funny things to ask Siri

Siri is by no means perfect, and occasionally it can mistranslate what you’re saying, either transcribing the wrong message or finding the wrong result from Contacts. But it gets better the more you use it, and the more useful it becomes. And it’s fun! Siri is one of the most entertaining aspects of the iPad, so be sure to hold down the Home button and try it out.

Siri has a quirky sense of humour and will respond to geeky comments, flirtation and famous sayings.