Siri for Android -- sort of

We test a variety of Android apps that offer some of the functionality of Apple's Siri voice recognition feature.

Although I'm happy with my Samsung Galaxy S II Android phone, I've also got a bad case of Siri envy. I, too, would like a "personal assistant" that responds to natural language requests such as "Move my meeting from 3 to 4." And I'm sure I'm not alone, as the millions of Google search results for "Siri for Android" attest.

Can you create a Siri-like experience on an Android smartphone? Not exactly, as there's no single app baked into the OS that can handle a similarly wide range of requests using free-form natural language. However, it is possible to get a fair chunk of Siri's functionality. Unlike iPhone 4S users, though, you'll need to gather together a couple of different apps if you want to issue a wide range of voice commands on your Android device.

On the other hand, there are a couple of things Android voice-activated apps do that Siri can't -- for example, use "launch " commands and head directly to websites.

I ran more than half a dozen contenders through their paces, testing them for various functions to communicate (make calls, send messages), organize (keep track of appointments) and find information. Read on to see some of the best options for creating your own subset of Siri for Android -- and which apps work best for what specific tasks.

Note: Along with apps from the Android Market and those usually loaded on Android devices, your phone may have additional offerings. For example, my Galaxy S II came with a customized widget offering Voice Command which, while limited, does a particularly good job with some tasks such as sending email or displaying weather forecast Web search results.

Apps that speak back to you

Several current Android apps have potential to be well-rounded assistants, although most appear to be works in progress. In other words, while some of these may appear limited in their scope, they will probably improve rapidly.

Eva

BulletProof

Price: $8.99

Other versions: Eva Intern: Free for 28 days

Eva
Eva

What it does: Eva performs a large number of tasks, such as giving directions and stock quotes, announcing incoming calls, making calls, creating expense reports and managing contacts. It searches multiple sites, including Google, Wikipedia, Amazon, eBay and others. Eva uses a female voice for responses; if you prefer a male voice, you can use Evan and Evan Intern.

It's the only one of all the apps I tested that allows you to customize website bookmarks, so you could, say, assign the name "Android blog" to JR Raphael's Android Power and then tell Eva to open Android blog. It also reads text messages while in background mode.

Why you might want it: This is the only app I've tested that's customizable, allowing you to assign specific applications or Web bookmarks for personalized voice commands. The latest update reads all the day's events from multiple Google calendars. And it lets you voice-search several sources, not only Google Web.

Drawbacks: Customization comes at a cost -- not only because of Eva's $8.99 pricetag, which is higher than the other apps covered here (although it is reasonable for a robust app), but because of its complexity. This app is more difficult to use than any of the others -- you have to run through a 3-minute training session when you first open it. The app also offers a list of 112 different help topics.

In addition, its natural language understanding is quite limited. "Add an event to my calendar" didn't work -- I had to say "Create an event." Instead of "Check my calendar" I had to say "What's on my calendar today?" "Find coffeemakers on Amazon" headed me to a map; I needed to say "Search coffeemakers on Amazon" to get the right search going. There's a lot to remember in order to use Eva.

It was unable to understand basic commands such as "Open Computerworld.com" without prior setup -- in other words, I needed to pre-save all the Web sites I want to visit by voice command.

The app also required me to change my default text-to-speech input from Samsung's to Google's system, which I didn't want to do. For one thing, Google won't capitalize the start of a sentence after a period when I'm dictating email (hey, I'm an editor; that matters to me).

Bottom line: One of the beauties of Siri is that it just works. Eva can do a lot, but its natural language recognition needs improvement -- the need to remember so many specific command phrases made using this app seem as much a chore as a help. However, if customization appeals to you -- it's a nice app for voice-activated opening of pre-assigned Web bookmarks -- you can try Eva Intern free for 28 days and then decide if you want to pay for the app. (According to the site, Eva Intern has the same features as the full-fledged Eva.) If the natural-language capabilities improve, I'd strongly consider buying.

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