The battle for the best smartphone voice control solution has been underway for some time now; Apple has Siri, Microsoft has Cortana and Amazon's Alexa is the driving force behind its popular Echo devices.
Perhaps the most advanced competition to the iPhone's digital deputy is that of Google's new Assistant. We put the two head to head to see which one is the best virtual assistant. It's Siri vs Google Assistant.
What is Google Assistant?
Assistant is the latest refinement of Google's virtual assistant technology. Much like Siri you can use it to launch apps, send messages, search the web, and answer questions.
Until recently it was only available on the Pixel range of smartphones, along with a select few flagship Android handsets.
But at Google I/O, which took place over 17th-19th May 2017, Google announced that the app was now available on the iPhone, bringing it directly into competition with Siri. While it was initially US-only, the Google Assistant app is now available to download in the UK too.
Of course Apple's own assistant has a distinct advantage over the newcomer as it is able to access far more parts of the system than the Google variant, mainly because it's actually baked into iOS.
Outside of smartphones, Google Assistant is also at the heart of the Google Home devices, which are now fighting it out with the Amazon Echo units for dominance in UK homes. Apple has the HomePod coming later this year, but there's not much information on what Siri will offer.
You'll also find Google's voice control software in any Android Wear 2.0 Smartwatch, and Apple's on any Mac running macOS Sierra or later.
What can they do?
Siri first made its debut back in iOS 5, which launched in 2011. This coincided with the release of the iPhone 4S, leaving many to speculate that the S indeed stood for Siri. Those thoughts were quickly vanquished though when S became the Tock to a new number iPhone's Tick every other year.
Since then Apple has added features to its voice interface, without things moving forward in a spectacular fashion.
Holding down the Home button will launch Siri or you can visit Settings > Siri and turn on the 'Allow Hey Siri' feature so that the app launches whenever you say those words.
From here you can issue a number of commands which include the following;
- Calling, texting, or emailing one of your contacts
- Launching a specific app
- Beginning a FaceTime video call
- Creating a calendar entry
- Searching for nearby restaurants
- Playing music
- Getting directions
- Settings alarms
- Adjusting settings
- Buying media on iTunes
- Controlling anything connected to your Apple Home app
For the most part Siri works with apps created by Apple, but for iOS 10 this was opened up to include a number of third-party apps too. It's mainly restricted to messaging, photo search, and fitness but it's a start.
Here's how to use Siri on the iPhone.
Google's flavour of digital assistant does many of the same things as Siri. In fact its capabilities seem far more advanced thanks to contextual understanding of language that allows follow up questions to initial queries.
At Google I/O it was also given the impressive ability to read text within images caught by the camera - from signs to menus - and then translate those words into calendar entries, notes, or other useful items.
The problem is that many of these advanced features are only available on an Android smartphone.
Using the platform on iOS is a far more neutered affair, at least at the moment. Due to the restrictions Apple places on access third party apps have to the system, Google Assistant can't automate much on an iPhone.
Requests to email, text, or call friends is meet with a variety of excuses along the lines of "I'm still learning to do that".
You can check your calendar to see if you have any appointments coming up, but this will only include results from Google Calendar. Basically if the Assistant can find it on the web then it can do it. Anything involving controlling your iPhone is currently off the table.
This means the Assistant is reduced to telling you the weather, football scores, converting weights and measures, answering questions, doing calculations, and the quite useful translation tool.
It's a far cry from the intelligent agent found on Android.
How well do they understand voice commands?
This area is obviously of prime importance when it comes to using a voice control system.
The problem is that it's actually quite hard to measure accuracy when everyone's voice is different.
Some of the writers at Macworld find Siri able to parse their commands pretty much all of the time without issue. Others find the experience frustrating and at times comical.
While writing this article we sat down in a busy coffee shop and posed a simple question to both Siri and the Google Allo app on iPhone (which is where the Assistant lived before the dedicated Google Assistant app was released).
"Who is the lead singer of The Smiths?" we enquired.
Google returned the correct answer on the first attempt, along with several other general commands.
Asking Siri the same question returned a rather different response:
- "Arsenal Biscuits?"
- "Who is the Lisa?"
- "Lucy Hattersley?"
- "I didn't quite get that."
- "Sorry, I missed that."
- "Who is the beast?"
Finally Siri got its act together and remembered who Morrissey was, but in this instance Google's listening abilities easily won the day.
Moving to quieter surrounds found a marked improvement in Siri's performance, with commands being understood on a far more regular basis.
Introducing regional accents from around the UK can confuse matters on both platforms, but Apple and Google are constantly updating and improving the software to combat these difficulties.
Hopefully one day, not long from now, the Scots and the Geordies will have a place in this brave new aural landscape.
What other devices do they work with?
The voice control revolution has already moved beyond the humble smartphone and is now making a play for the living room.
Siri appears on the Apple TV, giving users the option to search for movies, music, or even ask the device to "play me some 90s music" or "find me an action film to watch".
The best command of all is when you miss something an actor on the screen has just muttered. Quickly ask Siri "What did she just say?" and it will rewind and replay the phrase with subtitles turned on. Very nice indeed.
You can also control any Smart Home devices that work with HomeKit. So dimming the lights before the movie begins is now only a few words away.
Siri has also made it to the Mac, giving user the chance to search for files and open apps, and is headed to Apple's HomePod later this year too.
Google Assistant is the technology that drives the Google Home devices. These are standalone units which respond to the voice commands and an let you know your schedule, the news headlines, and play music from apps like Spotify and Google Play Music.
Again it links into Smart Home devices, so you can control a number of features in your house just by speaking commands.
From the outset this was never a fair fight. On Android, Google Assistant is a very powerful and impressive technology that arguably has more depth and complexity than Siri. But that's not true on iOS.
If you're using an iPhone then Siri is a far more capable solution, mainly due to the access it's granted to the higher levels of the operating system. It might have problems hearing you sometimes, or quite a lot of the time, but it's the only game in town if you actually want to get things done.