Wouldn't you like to have your very own gofer dedicated to doing all the menial tasks you hate? That's a big part of the appeal of the iPhone 4S: Siri, the voice-driven virtual assistant, turns anyone with a couple hundred bucks into a CEO attended by a full-time lackey. But can you get the same kind of slavish devotion from an Android phone?
I've spent the past week auditioning all manner of Android virtual assistants, most of them free, including Google's Voice Actions app, the awkwardly named Speaktoit Assistant, and a digital "intern" named Eva that interrupted my conversations to hector me about upcoming appointments.
I've concluded that you can find decent virtual help on an Android phone, but the assistants available likely won't be as smooth and capable as Siri. Siri is like the classic executive secretary, always well-dressed and possessed of an elephant's memory and a dry wit. Android assistants are more likely to show up with their shirttails hanging out occasionally. They don't know how to do some things that Siri can do, and they usually won't get your jokes. But that doesn't mean they aren't helpful.
More Than Voice Recognition
Many people think of Siri and apps like it as being primarily voice recognition programs. But while deciphering what you say is important, what differentiates virtual assistants is what they can do after interpreting your speech. That's especially true of Android virtual assistants because most of them rely on the OS's built-in voice recognition capability.
Both Apple and Google send what you say to their servers, whose powerful processors decipher your speech and then send a text version back to your phone. Google's speech recognition is uncannily accurate. I found it superior to Siri's (though in fairness, I didn't spend nearly as much time with Siri as I did with my Android phone).
So virtual assistant from another differ from one another primarily in their ability to execute your commands after receiving them from the server. I put all of the helper apps I tested through a series of 18 tasks, from checking the weather and stock prices to sending an email message, mapping a location, and tweeting. My favorite assistants: Speaktoit Assistant and Google's Voice Actions.
I spent a lot of time last week talking to my phone and I found it oddly helpful that the free Speaktoit Assistant presented me with an actual (albeit animated) person that I could talk to. You can alter your assistant's appearance in myriad ways, including changing his/her sex, hair style, and nose size. Female assistants can wear anything from a formal gown more appropriate for a red-carpet event to a skimpy vest-and-tie combination that looks as though it belongs (temporarily) on a stripper.
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