Catching Siri: An in-depth look at voice command apps on Android

Catching Siri: An in-depth look at voice command apps on Android
Obviously, the big hoopla these days is all about Siri and voice commands with your mobile device. Of course, Apple was not the first company to introduce voice commands or dictation on mobile, but Apple has done three very important things with Siri:

  1. Marketed it to the max - This is where Apple shines, and it has done it again with Siri. Google has had Voice Actions on Android for about 2 years now, and even before that there was always the Vlingo app. Siri even started out life as an app on iOS, but Apple bought it, integrated it, and has marketed it as the premier feature of the iPhone 4S. Whereas, many Android users probably still don't even know that Voice Actions exist. 
  2. Used natural language - As we have said, Apple was not the first to put voice commands or dictation to market, but bringing together the natural language AI of Siri with the voice recognition power of Nuance has created an elegant solution that can speed up many mundane tasks. 
  3. Anthropomorphized the iPhone - People tend to feel awkward having a one-sided voice interaction with their phone, but Siri mitigates that issue by replying to requests with a voice of its own. Add on the wit and snark - the personality - and it feels more like interacting with a person than a device. 

These things are important, because these are the points that put Siri ahead of all challengers both in the minds of many consumers (because of the marketing), in actual performance (because of natural language), and give users a more human connection to the product (anthropomorphism). As we've talked about, this was not a feature designed to catch up to what Google was offering, but a system designed to leapfrog all voice command options and give the iPhone 4S a killer feature. 

Of course, all that said there are options for Android users looking to approximate what iPhone users have in Siri. There is no one-stop solution just yet, but there are options that can come close, and each caters to the specific needs a user may have. 

Text input/dictation

The first stop on our tour is in text input and dictation. Android users have the built-in Google dictation option, which comes on all Android 2.3+ devices. It does a pretty good job, and can learn over time to understand your voice better. And, as we've seen with the Galaxy Nexus announcement, Android dictation will be real-time starting in Ice Cream Sandwich. Google's offering is certainly good enough for voice commands and searches, but it can be annoying for dictation, mostly due to non-existent auto-formatting. However, as we all know, Siri is powered by Nuance, which has been building its voice recognition database for over a decade with its Dragon Dictate software and other software. And, Nuance does have its own alternative keyboard on Android called FlexT9. 

FlexT9 combines Nuance voice dictation with a Swype-like gesture keyboard, which came from Nuance's acquisition of ShapeWriter. So, in noisy situations, you have the speed of a gesture keyboard, but in quieter situations, you also have dictation which is the most accurate available for Android. Now, even though Nuance powers both FlexT9 and Siri, Apple has been able to get some bonuses which Android users won't find. FlexT9 offers a better experience than Google's stock voice recognition for the simple fact that FlexT9 has a much larger word database, which is filled with tons of proper nouns including companies, celebrities, etc. But, while FlexT9 is great at auto-capitalizing proper nouns (Google dictation doesn't even capitalize proper names), the trick to capitalize other random words by preceding it with the trigger "cap" or "cap next" doesn't exist in FlexT9 and only works for Siri users. Additionally, if FlexT9 doesn't understand what you've said, it likely won't return anything, whereas Siri will return a best guess and allow you to choose alternate options if the best guess is incorrect. 

Also, it should be mentioned while that voice recognition accuracy is largely dependent on the software backing it, a large part is also based on the quality of the microphone and ambient noise filters available on your device. Apple obviously worked hard to have a quality microphone and good noise filters on the iPhone 4S, because even in noisy situations the recognition is fairly accurate. 

Voice command

Dictation is only part of the equation, though. The other side of the coin is voice command. As we mentioned earlier, the big evolutionary feature of Siri is in the use of natural language. Using keyword initiated voice commands have been around for a long time, but it seems likely that Apple avoided this option because it puts a distance between the user and device. Apple has always been determined to make users feel connected to their products. That was the reason behind putting a handle on the top of the original iMac, as well as putting the tapered edge on the iPad to entice users to just "scoop it up" instead of feeling a need to be careful in lifting the device. By using natural language combined with Siri's witty responses, Siri and, by extension, the iPhone 4S itself becomes anthropomorphised a bit and feels more like a personal assistant than just a smartphone. This is something that most Android options can't match, although some are trying. But, for straightforward voice commands, there are a number of options. 

A couple tips to start: all Android voice command apps use the Google voice recognition system. While Google's voice recognition isn't quite as good as Nuance, it is pretty accurate, and it gets better the more you use it, which is a big benefit. And, when you aren't dictating, issues like capitalization don't matter, so it tends to work well enough for voice commands. 

The power of Android: Customization

Another thing to note is that because this is Android that we're talking about, customization options abound. The number one option to look into if you want to jazz up your virtual assistant is with the SVOX app, which allows you to change the default voice of the text-to-speech engine. The default is okay, but definitely quite robotic. SVOX offers 5 different options for US english, and it offers over 40 voices in more than 25 languages in total. You do have to purchase the voices for $3, but you can get a 2-week free trial of any voice, so you can see if you like it or not. 

Another nice option is an app from K&J Software with the uninspired name Voice Control without Internet. We know that with a name like that it doesn't need much explanation, but it basically acts as a limited functionality backup in case you don't have a data connection, but still want the benefits of some voice commands. The app supports just a few commands: send message, check e-mail, open browser, open calculator, make a phone call and Google Map. Of course, without an Internet connection it doesn't seem necessary to open your browser, Google Maps, or check e-mail, but it's a nice start.

Also, there are extra tricks available to you if you set up mobile sharing on Twitter or Facebook. A few of the apps will allow you to update your status with a command, but some won't. However, all have commands to send text messages, so if you go into your account settings on either Twitter or Facebook and set up the mobile phone options, you can update your status with a text message. And, doing this with Twitter is a good idea anyway, because it adds options above just updating your status to be able to follow or unfollow users, DM someone, or retweet a user's newest tweet. Be warned though, these options require texting to a short-code number, which isn't supported by some SMS apps like Google Voice.

Inherent advantages and disadvantages of Android apps over Siri

As we said, Siri was not the first voice command app to hit the mobile ecosystem, but as is often the case with Apple products, Siri took systems that worked "well enough" before and made it into something that connects with people rather than just works. The other big thing that Siri did was disintermediate Google from the search equation. Often, this works well because of integration from Wolfram Alpha and other services, but there are things that are flat out missing from Siri. One big thing is that location-based searches don't work in some regions (like Canada), whereas location based searches on Android are always funneled through Google Maps, which has most of the world covered. Additionally, Google is just more reliable than Siri right now. There have been a number of prolonged Siri server outages since its release, whereas we have never heard of an outage with the Google speech servers, and the only time we couldn't contact Google servers was when we had no data connection.

A disadvantage to most of the Android options is that they are almost all built on Google Voice Search speech recognition, so, aside from any issues you may have with Google's recognition accuracy, almost all of the apps we tested will not work unless you have Google Voice Search installed. The only exception to that rule is Vlingo, which of course predated Google Voice Search (and Siri of course) on mobile platforms, and uses its own speech recognition software on the back end. Additionally, most Android options for voice command are still based on limited keyword and keyphrase sets. Siri mimics natural language recognition by accepting a far wider array of keywords and phrases, and most Android options have yet to catch up on that, though they are trying.

To make this whole process a bit easier, and because there are so many options to cover, we're splitting the results into 3 categories: Don't bother, The Meh, and La Crème. In total, we've gone through 8 different apps all trying to offer the best voice commands on Android, although there are far more than 8 options available in the Android Market. It shook out pretty well too, there are 3 apps in the "don't bother" section, 2 for "meh", and 3 were "La Crème." Let's get this party started!
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