Do it yourself
    28 June 2018

    James Francis

    All you need to know about talking to machines

    Pressing buttons is so last year! Here's what you need to know about Apple's Siri and the Google Assistant.

    Pressing buttons is so last year! Today’s mobile user is spoilt for choice among virtual personal assistants (VPAs), those apps that let you tell your phone what to do. But that doesn’t mean these VPAs are all the same, so we asked our phones some hard questions. This is what we found.

    Apple Siri

    Siri has been around since 2010 and she still sets the benchmark for virtual personal assistants. You can say ‘Hey Siri’, or press and hold the navigation button. This grabs the app’s attention and it will do what you say next.

    How does Siri sound?

    Siri talks with a good South African accent, though with a machine-like edge that makes you aware it is a computer you are talking to. Only a woman’s voice is available in a local accent and the SA brogue is not as smooth as the other accent options. Still, she certainly sounds like a local lass!

    Can Siri talk about the weather?

    Siri is chatty about the weather, giving a look at the forecast right now and what to expect as the day progresses. It also pops up a useful chart courtesy of the Weather Channel. You can ask a follow-up question such as "and tomorrow?", and you can get quite specific, such as asking the temperature in a spot at 6am tomorrow morning.

    Can Siri take notes?

    Siri is pretty slick with note taking and you can even give basic commands such as "next line" to go to the next line. Just don’t pause or it stops writing. You can keep the channel open with some humming, though! Siri could keep pace with our bad covers of rap songs, but got almost none of the words right. That may just be because our raps are awful, though!

    Can Siri play a song?

    Not unless it is through iTunes. Siri has only recently allowed third-party apps to use its commands, and many such as YouTube are not yet supported.

    Can Siri send a Whatsapp message?

    Yes, it can! Whatsapp is one of the few third-party apps that integrates with Siri, so it’s a simple matter of saying who to send the message to, what it should say and then send it – all without touching the phone.

    Can Siri tell a joke?

    No, Siri does not know jokes. It even tells you that when you ask. If you keep pushing, it will attempt a joke and give up. In fact, Siri is not very giving at all. Ask who Siri is and it will tell you it doesn’t like talking about itself. It won’t even sing a song. Siri is grumpy.

    Google Assistant

    It’s not a leap to consider Google Assistant as the biggest competitor to Siri’s crown, and some already argue that Google’s VPA is the best one around. That’s despite only being released last year – it does build on 2014’s Google Now, but this is a brand-new assistant. To access it, say "Okay Google" to your phone or hold in the home (middle) button.

    How does Google Assistant sound?

    At the moment Google Assistant only has one voice option, which sounds a bit like a British woman. There is no setting for changing the voice and if you ask the Assistant about it, it replies: “I’m afraid I can’t sound very manly at present. Watch this space.”

    Can Google Assistant talk about the weather?

    Utilising weather.com data, Google Assistant seems quite certain about the weather. It even gives a written text comment, such as "Looks pleasant outside" or "Take an umbrella". It also tracks follow-up questions. But Google Assistant can’t seem to give time-specific weather information.

    Can Google Assistant take notes?

    Can it? Good question… Google Assistant has no problem responding to "take a note", which can be assigned to the built-in Memos app. But blink and it will stop recording your musings. Also, Google Assistant failed to keep up with dictating our bad cover of rap songs. Of its 99 problems, talking too fast seems to be one!

    Can Google Assistant play a song?

    Assuming you don’t have a music app installed, what does Google Assistant do when you ask to play a certain song or artist? Here the integration with other apps is pretty neat, allowing you to choose one of several apps. We chose YouTube, so it then found and played the track there.

    Can Google Assistant send a Whatsapp message?

    Google Assistant works very well with Whatsapp, even asking us who is the correct person to message. An added perk is that the screen will show responses you can use, either by saying them of tapping on them.

    Can Google Assistant tell a joke?

    Yes, and as expected, they are bad jokes. What did the toilet say to the other toilet? You look a bit flushed. Why is a pet tree better than a pet dog? Its bark is quiet. Google Assistant then offers buttons you can press to get another joke – or you can just ask it for one more. As a bonus, you can ask Google Assistant to tell you something fun and it usually does. It will even sing a song.

    The verdict

    • Virtual personal assistants still have a long way to go before we'll start considering serious relationships with them, but Siri and Google Assistant are great time savers if you use your phone a lot.
    • Google Assistant allows more integration with third-party apps, while Siri has a more considered approach, favouring Apple's own apps above others. 

    James Francis