Siri, are you the most amazing feature on the iPhone? If you've seen any Apple advertising at all, you may come to the conclusion that Siri is indeed the slickest feature available on any phone ever made. You may be surprised to learn, though, that Siri isn't the only speech-recognizing search-assistant available on the iPhone, and that it may not even be the best one.

Is Google better?

Recently, Google added voice-input capabilities to its free Google Search app for iOS devices. If you haven't tried that out yet, I highly recommend you do: I find the app's voice input so useful that I've given Google Search a spot in my Dock and have essentially retired Siri from everyday use. (Another advantage: Google's voice search also works on older iOS devices that don't support Siri, such as the iPhone 4; it runs on any device that supports iOS 4.3 or newer.)

What's so good about Google's voice search, especially on a device that comes with Siri already? The best way to answer that question is with a test. I posed the same four questions to Siri and the Google Search app.

  • How do you spell exuberant?
  • Who won the Trailblazers basketball game last night?
  • How do you make vanilla ice cream?
  • How high is Mount Kilimanjaro?

So how'd it work out? See for yourself:

For each question, I started a timer when I started speaking, and stopped it as soon as there were usable results on the screen. While this method ignores the time it takes to launch Google compared to launching Siri, I think it fairly compares the actual speed of each language-parsing engine.

The video demonstrates some key differences between Google and Siri. For instance, instead of sending a recording of my voice to a server, converting the speech to text, and then sending the text and search results back to my device (as Siri does), Google seems to be doing the voice-to-text conversion directly in the app: Words appear on the screen nearly as quickly as they're spoken. It's nice seeing what I'm saying in near real time, as it's easy to see if the words are being recognized correctly. Google also catches and capitalizes words such as Trailblazers and Kilimanjaro as they're spoken. It's a little thing, but it's a nice touch that makes the assistant seem that much more personal.

Google also speaks out many of its results--the spelling of exuberant and the height of Mount Kilimanjaro, for example. Siri often just displays text on the screen; even if she does speak, what she says isn't always very helpful. ("OK, Rob, here you go.") Siri's text displays can be quite nice (the Trailblazers box score, for instance), but I prefer hearing the results to just looking at them.

Finally and importantly, Google is much faster than Siri, and sometimes dramatically so. In total, Google was able to answer my four questions in about 15 seconds, whereas Siri took about 26. That's a lot of time spent waiting for Siri.

Stumping Siri

The time differences were most dramatic when I asked Siri a question she couldn't answer: Siri took twice as long as Google with my vanilla ice cream question. Technically, she would have taken even longer, as I'd have to tell her that I did indeed want to search the Web for an answer, then wait for those results to appear. It seems obvious to me that if I ask Siri a question and she doesn't know the answer, she should just look it up--why force me to basically ask twice for the same information?

Siri is also much slower than Google when you ask her a question that requires her to use another service, such as asking about the height of Mount Kilimanjaro. Siri's results come from Wolfram Alpha, so you've got to wait through a two-stage process to see the results. And again, Siri ever-so-usefully tells you, "This might answer your question," instead of simply stating the mountain's height (as Google does). Google does great with fact-based queries because, well, it's a search engine and that's pretty much what it was designed to do.

Siri does have one key advantage over Google, of course: She's never more than a press-and-hold away from activation. This alone will keep many people using Siri. To use Google, I have to make a conscious effort to first switch to the app, which is why I've added it to the Dock. (I tried using Siri to launch Google, but unfortunately, I also have Google Earth installed. If I tell Siri to "launch Google," she always asks me which one I want to launch, despite the fact that I clearly did not say "launch Google Earth." Argh.)

Because of the speed, accuracy, and usefulness of Google's search results, I've pretty much stopped using Siri. Sure, it takes a bit of extra effort to get started, but for me, that effort is worth it. Google has taken a key feature of the iOS ecosystem and made it seem more than a little antiquated. When your main competitor is shipping something that works better, faster, and more intuitively than your built-in solution, I'd hope that'd drive you to improve your built-in solution. So how about it, Apple? Can we have a non-beta Siri--yes, it's still technically prerelease--that's a more worthy competitor for Google's voice-powered search tool?

See also:

Siri on the Mac: Apple recruiting developer to bring Siri to the Mac

Apple looking for writer to evolve Siri's character and personality

The complete list of things to ask Siri in the UK

Gestures: Hard to use, harder to find

Video: Cute baby talks to iPhone's Siri, gets nowhere, laughs