Siri remains one of the outstanding voice-controlled personal digital assistants, but it faces some strong competition. We compare Siri with Microsoft Cortana, Google Now and Amazon's Alexa, reviewing speed and accuracy of response, breadth of knowledge and much more, to find the best voice tech on the market right now
Apple has been launching new hardware left, right and centre in recent months including, of course, the new iPhone SE and iPad Pro 9.7in just last month. But there was a bit of software excitement behind the scenes of that event too, with rumours emerging that Apple would be bringing the Siri voice control system to the next version of Mac OS X
.Siri has made a lot of progress in the last couple of years, developing into an impressive digital assistant that can handle all sorts of tasks on your iOS devices, and even on the latest Apple TV too. But Siri's absence on the Mac has been a glaring omission - especially as Microsoft has had its own Cortana voice-tech running on Windows PCs since the launch of Windows 10 last year. You can use Cortana on the latest Lumia Windows phones too, and there are other rivals lining up against Siri as well.
Google has had a voice-search option built into its apps for both Android and iOS for a while now, and Amazon recently launched its new Echo speaker system that includes the Alexa voice-assistant. The Echo is only available in the US at the moment, but we spent a few days recently with the new iPhone SE, Windows Lumia 950 and the Google app to see how the various voice assistants coped with a variety of requests and commands.
Siri vs Cortana vs Google Now vs Amazon Echo: Understanding regional and foreign accents
Siri was the butt of plenty of jokes when it was first launched, but voice-recognition technology is constantly being refined so that it can deal with a wide range of voices, as well as national and regional accents. In fact, accents from different countries don't seem to be too much of a problem for these voice-recognition systems any more. The Amazon Echo is only available in the US right now, but Siri, Cortana and OK Google are used on smartphones sold all around the world, so they have to be able to cope with a wide range of accents.
If you've got a really strong regional accent, or something like Dick Van Dyke's legendary cockney accent from Mary Poppins then you might get the occasional "Sorry, I didn't catch that." As it happens, I am a genuine cockernee myself, and it was only OK Google that understood my exaggerated "Cor blimey, guvnor!" when I tried a Dick Van Dyke impression as a test.
However, these voice systems are designed to learn and recognise your personal accent and speech patterns as you use them day after day, so it's only the most extreme accents and dialects that are likely to cause any problems.
Siri vs Cortana vs Google Now vs Amazon Echo: Dealing with natural language questions
Reverting from Dick Van Dyke mode to my normal speaking voice, I found Siri to be one of the most versatile voice-recognition systems, and it was able to field all sorts of questions, from just asking about the weather to finding a nearby petrol station or looking up flight times on the internet. And, importantly, Siri is also very good at dealing with colloquial language, which makes it feel natural and easy to talk to.
Apple's programming team have obviously had a lot of fun figuring out how Siri can respond to remarks such as "Hey Siri - how's it hanging?" (response: "I'm happy to be alive!"). But when I asked Cortana and OK Google that question they both ended up doing a web search to look up the derivation of that phrase in a few online dictionaries.
Siri vs Cortana vs Google Now vs Amazon Echo: Breadth of knowledge
Siri isn't perfect, though, and seemed to be completely stumped by my request for "film times at the Rich Mix cinema in Shoreditch" (a well-known hipster hangout in East London). In contrast, Cortana and OK Google took this in their stride and quickly found the film times on the web for me.
Oddly, though, Cortana could sometimes be completely thrown by a relatively simple question, such as "What day is it today?" That enquiry left it beeping and repeatedly telling us that that it was "thinking" until the Lumia phone turned itself off after a couple of minutes.
One other difference worth mentioning is that Cortana and the Google app both attempt to anticipate questions that you might ask and provide information automatically. Cortana stores a 'notebook' of topics that you're interested in, while the Google app creates a set of 'cards' on similar topics.
This allows them to automatically provide quick updates on the weather, share prices and other information without you needing to ask, whereas Siri just waits until you specifically ask for something first (although the iOS Notifications system can update important information for you as well).
Another strong point of Siri is that it's designed to work with other Apple apps, such as Mail and Reminders, so you can tell Siri to "Send an email to Cliff" and then even dictate the entire email to your iPhone. That's great when you're driving, or in other situations where you're unable to use your hands, and some cars that supportApple's CarPlay software even have a special Siri button on the steering wheel so that it's always available without taking your hands off the wheel.
Google is also getting in on the driving scene with Android Auto, and if you're using OK Google on an Android phone then it can work with other Android/Google apps to send emails, create reminders and perform other tasks just like Siri. However, depending on the type of phone you have, you may have to activate OK Google from within the main Google search app, rather than being able to activate it from the Home screen as you can with Siri. The iOS version of the Google app is a bit more limited, though, primarily using its voice option for web searching rather than being an all-round digital assistant.
Cortana is also good at working with other apps on Windows devices, and had no trouble creating emails, reminders or notes. We could also use it to launch other types of apps too, such as the Paint graphics app on a Windows laptop, although we were a little disappointed to see that Cortana couldn't handle additional commands, such as pasting a screenshot into the app for us. Even so, Cortana is the only one of these digital assistants that currently works well on a wide range of desktop and laptop computers, as well as mobile devices.
In fact, Microsoft has even launched a Cortana app for iOS (although this is currently only available in the US). That's really throwing down the gauntlet for Apple and Siri, and makes us even keener to see Apple bring Siri on to the Mac as soon as possible.
Siri vs Cortana vs Google Now vs Amazon Echo: Switching on accidentally
Speed and accuracy of response isn't the only thing you need to think about. The Amazon Echo recently made the news when a number of owners reported that the Alexa assistant was responding to voices it heard on the television - starting a music playlist unprompted, and even adjusting someone's radiator thermostat in one case.
But that's been a problem for Siri too. When Apple VP Phil Schiller introduced the new iPad Pro there was a point in his speech where he was talking about using Hey Siri - except that he pronounced it "Hey... Siri" - and admitted that he did this in order to avoid activating Siri on iPhones belonging to people in the audience. He was joking, but there was more than a hint of truth to the jest.
We tried Siri out with some videos from YouTube (check out the popular "Siri, call my girlfriend" clip) and it did sometimes respond to voices coming from the speakers on our office iMac.
How to stop Siri, Cortana and Google Now from responding to other people's voices
Siri has an option that allows you to train it to so that it can respond more selectively to just your voice. Go to Settings/General/Siri and then turn Hey Siri off, and then on again. This prompts you to repeat a number of phrases so that Siri can learn to recognise your specific voice, and once I'd used this on my iPhone I found that Siri no longer responded to any voices other than my own.
Cortana provides a similar training option, but it also includes an option that allows it to respond 'to anyone' - perhaps if you're using it on a tablet that you share with other members of your family. You can train OK Google too, and some of the latest Android phones also allow you to create a profile for a 'trusted voice' that can be used to give commands even when your phone is locked.
Siri vs Cortana vs Google Now vs Amazon Echo: Which is fastest?
One thing to remember is that all these voice-control systems require an internet connection, which can be either Wi-Fi or mobile broadband. Voice recognition technology requires huge amounts of processing power in order to accurately analyse human speech, which could slow down even the fastest smartphone or tablet. To speed things up these digital assistants offload your voice commands to powerful servers on the internet. Your words are then analysed and the appropriate response is downloaded to your device.
That can cause delays, but we actually found that Siri and its various rivals all responded pretty quickly. Cortana was perhaps the slowest, though - and wasn't helped by its habit of flashing rapidly changing strings on text onto the screen, which create the impression that it's having trouble figuring out what you've just said. And, on our Lumia phone, we also found that Cortana would sometimes pause briefly to update its notebook feature before responding to our commands, which could be annoying at times.
Siri vs Cortana vs Google Now vs Amazon Echo: Methods of activation and 'always on' options
Siri, Cortana and OK Google can all be activated in two ways. Pressing and holding the Home button on an iOS device activates Siri, while Cortana and OK Google let you tap a microphone icon on the screen.
However, all three systems also provide an always-on option, which tells your phone or tablet to constantly listen out for a key phrase, such as "Hey, Siri" or "OK Google", which it recognises as the start of a new command. The Amazon Echo will keep listening as long as it's turned on, although there is an option to turn its microphone off if you want to.
Many people have asked how these always-on option might affect battery life on their mobile devices - and, in fact, most older iOS devices only allow you to use the Hey Siri option when they're connected to a power supply. But when we left our iPhone SE and Windows Lumia 950 running with these options turned on we found that they drained less than 1% of extra power from the battery each hour. In addition, Siri and Cortana both get turned off automatically when your phone battery drops below 20%, so you can probably leave them on all day without worrying too much.
Siri vs Cortana vs Google Now vs Amazon Echo: Controlling the smart home
Of course, the ultimate aim with these voice-recognition systems is a Star Trek future where you control all sorts of devices with your voice commands. Apple's got that future firmly in its sights, and the ability to use Siri to tell the new Apple TV to "find films with Tom Cruise" or "play Game Of Thrones season 3 episode 7" shows the future potential for voice-recognition technology.
Apple's HomeKit allows you to extend Siri's voice controls on to other devices too, such as the Philips Hue lighting systems, or Elgato's Eve thermostat controls. Unfortunately, there aren't many other companies that currently support HomeKit and it's the Amazon Echo that really seems to be making the running here. The Echo allows manufacturers of other devices to create 'skills' that can be used to control their devices, and the Echo already works with a wide range of home-automation devices from companies such as Philips, Nest and Samsung.
Siri vs Cortana vs Google Now vs Amazon Echo: Which is the best voice-control tech?
Siri's flexibility and accuracy with colloquial language does make it one of the outstanding personal digital assistants in the mobile arena, but there's no doubt that it's got plenty of competition. And with Microsoft extending across a wider range of devices, and Amazon trying to take a lead in home automation, Apple and Siri will have their work cut out to decide which digital assistant will control the home of the future.