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

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.

How to tell it to:

-- Create custom voice-activated bookmarks: "Assign a new bookmark." (The app will explain how this works, then launch your default browser. You navigate to the page you want, then return to Eva and give the page a name.)

-- Use the bookmark: "Open <bookmark name>."

Iris

Dexetra

Price: Free

Other versions: None

What it does: This alpha app currently calls, texts, does Web searches, chats and looks for contacts. There are voice-recognition placeholders for tasks that will presumably be implemented soon. If you say "Go to Computerworld.com," for example, for now it just responds "Thanks for that Web address."

(And yes, the name is indeed "Siri" in reverse.)

Why you might want it: Although Iris is somewhat limited now, downloading it will let you monitor future versions as developers add new capabilities. And the "Ice Cream Sandwich Inspired UI" is nice and uncluttered.

Drawbacks: This is still listed as an alpha project and it performs that way -- a recent 2.0 version was rolled back to version 1.2 due to problems. And functionality is limited -- I had trouble getting it to do basic features such as making calls or sending texts, although it did a nice job on the weather and could answer, "Why is the sky blue?"

Bottom line: Iris isn't particularly useful -- yet. It is worth keeping an eye on as it gets more mature and moves out of alpha.

How to tell it to:

-- Do unit or currency conversions: "What is <amount><units> in <different units>?" or "How many <one type of unit> in <another type of unit>?"

Jeannie

Pannous

Price: Free (with ads; product was formerly called Voice Actions)

Other versions: Voice Actions Plus: $2.99 (without ads, faster responses)

What it does: Makes calls, sets alarms and reminders, sends messages, social networking, records audio and video, answers questions, does some translations, searches multiple sites, answers questions and more. Jeannie is ad-supported and free; if you want to get rid of the advertising, Voice Actions Plus is $2.99, ad-free and pledges prioritized faster responses, a beta "listen in background" feature and increased stability.

Why you might want it: Jeannie has the functionality of Google Voice but adds spoken responses and many more features. For example, it will search on specific sites such as Amazon, eBay and Wolfram Alpha, not just Google. It also translates from English to common languages such as Spanish, French and Chinese. (Google Translate handles more languages and translates written as well as spoken text.)

Drawbacks: Not all the functions work as promised. The app appears to be able to add items to my calendar but it doesn't seem to work if I say I don't want a reminder. (The developer's website says calendar functionality is coming.) And the horoscope started reading me HTML tags.

I had more trouble with voice recognition using both Jeannie and Voice Actions Plus than others I tested -- especially before changing the default voice recognition from Samsung to Google -- but I still had issues even after switching.

Bottom line: Although this app does a lot, problems with voice recognition and the user interface made it frustrating at times. For example, it's difficult to figure out how to phrase queries. On the app's Market page, the developer says the paid version will soon offer Nuance's technology for better voice recognition -- and if that happens, I'd give the app another try.

How to tell it to:

-- Translate: "Translate <English phrase> into <language>."

-- Search sites besides Google: "Search <Amazon or eBay> <what you're searching for>."

Skyvi

BlueTornado

Price: Free

Other versions: None

What it does: Gives info "about everything from local businesses to food nutrition," according to its developer. It also accesses Facebook and Twitter, and offers some "personality" by attempting to offer humorous responses. For example, ask it to marry you and it answers, "You seem nice, but I'm not into humans in that way."

Why you might want it: This app taps into the Wolfram Alpha knowledge base to answer questions and is also designed to do Facebook and Twitter social networking by voice command.

Drawbacks: An app that answers "What's the weather forecast?" with "Definition: noun: a forecast of the weather" and "Open my email" with "How old are you?" needs some work on parsing natural-language commands. In addition, it does not open apps, make calls or send emails, and the Wolfram responses are much more limited than with Wolfram Alpha itself.

Bottom line: Although Skyvi bills itself as Siri for Android, it is currently missing a number of basic assistant functions. Hearing an occasional humorous answer to a question may be briefly amusing, but the personality here isn't impressive enough to make up for the lack of communication or Web navigation.

How to tell it to:

-- Answer a question: "How far is it between <place> and <place>?" or "What's <number> percent of <number>?"

Speaktoit Assistant

Speaktoit

Price: Free

Other versions: None

What it does: Speaktoit Assistant is not Siri, but it's a useful beta that's still under development. It's easy to use and has reasonable functionality. Speak your request and the Assistant answers questions, finds info, launches apps, does social networking, checks the weather, looks at your day's appointments, adds appointments (but can't yet edit or remove them), sends messages, makes calls, plays music, does simple math and more.

Why you might want it: This app offers a number of different functions and decent natural language recognition -- for example, you can usually issue your commands using a variety of phrases. The developer is responsive to bug reports and seems to be working to upgrade and improve the app.

Plus, you can access the app via a long press of your phone's search button so you don't need to find its icon or widget in order to use it -- not unlike accessing Siri by a home button double-tap.

Drawbacks: There was at least one time when Speaktoit was unable to answer a question that it had previously responded to. It also occasionally had trouble connecting to its home server.

The calendar functionality needs improvement, as it only can read one Google calendar in an account (which is problematic if, as I do, you use multiple color-coded calendars to separate business and personal appointments); it also occasionally missed items on my default calendar.

It also took a very long time to find my location when I used 3G or 4G on my Galaxy S II (although it was fine using Wi-Fi). And when it comes to appointments, I'd advise using Speaktoit to open your calendar, not read it to you, because it didn't always find all my appointments (although it did a decent job of adding new events).

Bottom line: Speaktoit Assistant is fun to use and is the speak-back app that I've been using the most. Just remember that it's not a final product yet.

How to tell it to:

-- Add calendar events: "Create/add appointment/event <event title> on <date> at <time>."

-- Do simple math: "What's <simple math calculation>?"

-- Get the time elsewhere: "What time is it in <place>?"

-- Launch an app: "Open <app name>" or "Launch <app name>."

-- Open the camera app: "Take picture."

Apps that respond to voice commands

If you're primarily interested in having an app that just responds to spoken natural-language requests without speaking back, there are other apps that are more mature and reliable, but limited in terms of what portion of Siri's functionality they can match.

Google Search / Voice Search

Google

Price: Free

Other versions: None

What it does: Despite the names, these apps do more than just search the Web. Both use Google's Voice Actions for Android to allow you to use your voice to create and send messages (email or text), play music, call either your contacts or a business not in your contact list, go to a website, view a map, get directions or write a note. The difference between the two: Voice Search has a voice interface only; Google Search offers either voice or text input.

Why you might want them: Google's apps offer a handy way to navigate the Web, send messages, get directions and make calls as well as search. They're especially good at making calls -- they first check your contacts and then perform a search for businesses not already in your list.

Drawbacks: There are things these apps don't do that you might expect from an "assistant," such as adding calendar appointments, updating social networks or launching most non-Google apps. Not surprisingly, most information you seek will end up coming from Google, which may not seem any more useful than heading to Google.com.

Bottom line: These apps are worth having and using for many basic interactions with your device, but they're not enough if you want a speech interface that acts more like an assistant.

How to tell it to:

-- Make calls: "Call <name><home/mobile>" or "Call <business name><town>."

-- Send texts: "Send text to <name>." (You can then speak the message body. Double tap to bring up a keyboard to edit the message before sending.)

-- Go to a Web site: "Goto <Web site name or address>."

-- Play music: "Listen to <artist/song/album>" or "Play <artist/song/album>."

-- Convert currency: "How many <currency type> in <amount of other currency type>?" or "<amount in one currency> in <another currency type>."

-- Get the weather: "What's the weather in <place>?" or "What's the weather forecast for <place>?"

-- Find nearby businesses: "Nearby <business type>" or just "<business type>."

-- And, of course, search Google: "<search phrase>."

Vlingo Virtual Assistant

Google

Price: Free

Other versions: $1.99 to remove ads

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.

How to tell it to:

-- Launch an app: "Open <app name>" or "Launch <app name>."

-- Send email: "Send email to <name> message <body of message>" or "Email <name> subject <your subject> message <body of message>."

-- Find nearby businesses as a list: "Nearest <type of business>."

Wolfram|Alpha

Wolfram Alpha

Price: Free

Other versions: $1.99 to remove ads

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).

How to tell it to:

-- Get information: Ask your question.

-- Do math calculations with percentages, decimal points and/or fractions: "What is <calculation>?"

-- Get stock prices: "<company name> stock price."

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 Twitter @sharon000, on Facebook, on http://www.facebook.com/SharonMachlis or by subscribing to her RSS feeds: articles| blogs.

This story, "Siri for Android -- sort of" was originally published by Computerworld.

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