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.

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Vlingo Virtual Assistant

Google

Price: Free

Other versions: $1.99 to remove ads

Vlingo Virtual Assistant
Vlingo Virtual Assistant

What it does: Send messages, make calls, find businesses, search, update social networks, find information, launch apps, get directions, hear incoming messages, book a hotel, buy movie tickets, get a taxi.

Why you might want it: Vlingto Virtual Assistant is easy to use, has a clutter-free interface and offers a bit more functionality than Google Search. If you're particularly interested in voice commands for updating social networks, launching apps and sending messages, but don't care about calendar/appointment functionality, this could be a good choice. When I was searching for businesses, it came up with a nice list with address and phone options as well as distance from current location, which can be a more useful interface than a cluster of points on a map.

Drawbacks: I found that my questions didn't have answers a fair amount of the time: "Who won the Academy Award for best picture in 1972?" just got me a "No answer found" (although there is also a search button to check the Web). Functionality is still limited; weather forecast requests just launched a Web search, for example, without any special response. It also does not go to specific websites or URLs.

Bottom line: This is a useful app; but as an assistant it has its limits if you're trying to answer questions, monitor appointments or get the weather forecast.

Wolfram|Alpha

Wolfram Alpha

Price: Free

Other versions: $1.99 to remove ads

Wolfram|Alpha
Wolfram|Alpha

What it does: Answer questions on an enormous range of subjects via its knowledge base (as opposed to searching the Web), including tech subjects such as computing, science, basic math, statistics and data analysis. It's got numerous other topics covered, too, such as geography, weather, nutrition, finance, socioeconomic data and health/medicine.

Why you might want it: For $1.99, you get easy access to what is essentially an encyclopedia on steroids, one that can do calculations for you as well as find detailed answers to loads of natural-language questions.

Drawbacks: Usage requires an extra step or two compared with most other apps: First you speak your question, then the question appears for you to look over (although it's often difficult to see more than a few words at a time), then you tap go; if you want to ask another question, you've got to erase the previous one question first.

Bottom line: Siri also taps into the Wolfram|Alpha knowledge base to answer questions, and I can see why. This is a great app and is worth more than its $1.99 pricetag (even though you can use the Wolfram|Alpha website for free).

Conclusions

While there's no exact Siri equivalent for Android, there are a number of options for getting fairly robust voice-activated assistant functionality. The Android options fall short in managing and answering questions about appointments, but actually surpass Siri by allowing apps and websites to be opened by direct voice command, something Siri doesn't do.

My favorite sort-of-Siri app for Android so far is Speaktoit Assistant. It still has a way to go -- its calendar functions can't match Siri's and it's unable to answer many questions by doing much more than a Web search. Plus, as a beta, it can be glitchy at times. But I found it generally easy and fun to use, although patience is still needed as bugs are ironed out. For instance, it's unable to pinpoint my location using 3G/4G; it can use only Wi-Fi.

I found Eva to be too complicated for general use, although it's quite compelling as a tool to create custom voice commands to open specific website bookmarks. It would be a much better app with improved natural-language understanding so users don't have to remember so many specific commands.

Jeannie/Voice Actions Plus has potential but is still rough around the edges when it comes to voice recognition and UI. Iris and Skyvi are currently fairly limited but worth keeping an eye on as their developers work to add features -- with Skyvi an interesting possibility as a voice front-end to the very useful Wolfram Alpha knowledge database.

Other apps such as Voice Search, Vlingo and Wolfram Alpha will round out your Android device's ability to respond to voice commands and queries. And who knows? Maybe someday, all these capabilities and more will be baked into a future version of the Android OS or a single assistant app.

Sharon Machlis is online managing editor at Computerworld. Her e-mail address is smachlis@computerworld.com. You can follow her on Twitter @sharon000, on Facebook, on Google+ or by subscribing to her RSS feeds:articles | blogs .

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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