This Siri competitor for Android can be trained - for a price

No matter how good the virtual assistant -- be it Siri, Google Now or third-party apps -- there are going to be times when it can't do what you want. Sometimes that's because its skill sets are limited; other times its just a communications problem and the software didn't understand your version of the command.

What does it do? Speaktoit Assistant's new premium service aims to tackle that second problem by allowing the Assistant app to learn new commands. For example, instead of having to say "open TripIt" to access your installed TripIt app, you can train the Assistant to open TripIt whenever you say "Do I have any trips coming up?" or "Check my travel."

There are two types of training that Assistant understands. One is to give it a new phrase for a command it can already do: open apps, check your calendar, search for information and so on. The other is more of a party trick: Have it give a specific response when you ask it something. So, baseball fans can have Assistant respond with their favorite teams to the query "Who's going to win the World Series this year?"

Speaktoit Assistant training screen

 Training can be done either by typing or speaking. There's a special area for typing in the command and results you want (see screenshot at left), or you can simply say something like "When I say 'What are my tasks today?' you open Remember The Milk."

The service is currently available for Android and is slated to come to iOS and Windows Phone, and costs $2/month or $20 annually.

What's cool about it. It's nice to be able to say what you want to your Assistant instead of having to remember the phrases or trigger words it uses.

This could be particularly useful when you want to open a lengthy URL without speaking the entire URL out loud.

And it might be amusing to, oh, ask Assistant "Who is the best quarterback in the NFL?" and annoy my Patriots-fan friends by having it respond, "Eli Manning."

What needs improvement. The idea is a good one, but the implementation is still a little rough.

Not all training attempts worked for me. For instance, "Check my mail" gave me "How do you want the email to read?" and when I tried to teach it to open Gmail with that command, I was told "I can't quite do that yet, but be patient. I'll know how in the near future."

I suspect that's due in part to some reserved words or phrases that trigger a response. That is, there's likely some keyword-recognition -- i.e. when it hears 'mail,' it tries to compose a message -- in the Assistant's "understanding" as well as natural-language processing. For instance, when I tried asking Assistant "When does Daylight Saving Time start in the U.S.?" -- a query both Siri and Google Now understood -- Assistant simply responded with the current time.

I also found myself wishing for several options that are now missing. One: There's no way to edit existing commands -- when you use a command and get a learned response, there's a link that lets you delete that command, but not modify it. And two: I sorely missed having a list of all my existing customized commands. It would have been helpful to refer back to my new commands over several days to help me remember exactly what I'd added, since a small variation in phrasing isn't going to be understood.

Bottom line. I give Speaktoit credit for trying to improve its third-party Siri rival. However, I found it a bit frustrating trying to remember exact phrase versions of my new commands and getting it to do exactly what I want. I'd wait to pay for the service until it's more polished. But if you're hankering for a trainable app now, you can give the premium service a try for a month at $2 and see if it meets your needs.

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