[3/22/13: Updated with video.] Since Apple launched Siri, iPhone's exclusive voice-activated assistant, in 2010, no other smart phone has come close to the iPhone in understanding and executing complex voice commands. But my informal look at two Android-based voice assistants suggest that Apple's assistant now has some serious competition, even if neither yet qualifies as a Siri killer.
I've been using free versions of Speaktoit Assistant and Robin the Siri Challenger on a first-generation Motorola Droid Razr, comparing them to Siri running on an iPhone 5. Like Siri, both apps let you speak to them using natural language and, by default, respond with sultry female voices.
The Speaktoit interface adds an anime-style avatar, whose gender, voice, and other features you can customize. An upgrade is available for a Premium version of Speaktoit—$2 monthly or $20 per year—that provides more customized commands, more voices, and other features.
Robin (which is still in beta) appears only one way: as a giant "R" button that automatically launches along with Google Maps (you can push it to engage) . Robin allows you to change her default female voice to male.
Both apps worked well enough out of the box and improved as they gained access to my social networks and other accounts. But both apps were battery killers that drained my battery within about 2 hours of intensive use, compared with about 6 hours for the Droid Razr in normal mixed use.
Here are my impressions:
General engagement. Both apps seemed fairly competent in understanding and executing my commands. Speaktoit was far more involved with events on my phone than either Robin or Siri—a characteristic that often became annoying. Like an over-eager assistant, the app worked tirelessly in the background, continually reminding me of pending appointments, alerting me of incoming text messages, and even offering to read them to me.
Robin was not as "aggressive," though her programmers gave her a bit more sass. For example, when launched, she would say something like, "Hi there, Mike. Oh, this is going to be fun."
Like Siri, both Android assistants handled off-the-wall questions with a degree of whimsy. For example, I asked Robin if she was Canadian because of the way she pronounced again as "agane," and she responded, "I can be if I work hard at it."
But neither matched Siri in responsiveness, reliability, and third-party-app access. Unlike Siri, which always launches when you hold down the iPhone's home button, these apps sometimes needed a second or third prodding. They also occasionally crashed—something that has never happened with Siri on the iPhone 5 I've been using for several months. And while these apps rarely had trouble opening up Facebook and Twitter, they balked at opening other third-part apps, such as the New York Times and Flixter—something Siri does without hesitation.
Calendar appointments. Entering calendar appointments is among the most tedious chores you can perform on smart phone. Both apps made that task simple. Speaktoit was slightly better, though, at canceling appointments. Robin automatically entered events on my phone's local calendar, while Speaktoit asked for access to my Gmail account. This made me a little uneasy because there doesn't appear to be a way to manage account permissions after they're granted, either on the phone or on the Web.
However, neither was as consistently reliable or able to absorb as many meeting details as Siri could on the iPhone 5.
Social networking. Both apps were able to post most of my comments to Facebook and Twitter with few errors, a capability once reserved for Siri. But I again encountered some disturbing surprises regarding account access, this time with Robin.
While Speaktoit always asked me to log in to accounts before she used them for the first time, Robin somehow had access to my social-network accounts without asking permission. What's more, when I casually asked Robin, "What's happening on Facebook?", she began reading aloud the posts in my news feed. Siri, which is "hard-wired" to iPhone's Facebook app, handled Facebook posts with equal ease and less hesitation.
GPS navigation. Robin, which launches with Google maps, was a step ahead of Speaktoit, immediately going into Driving mode after I said "navigate to" and the address. Speaktoit always asked me to choose either Google Maps or the Web browser before proceeding. Both apps let you store work and home addresses, so that you can simply say, "navigate home" or "navigate work."
Not surprisingly, because of their connections to Google Maps, both apps were better than Siri at finding dictated addresses—especially those not already in Contacts.
Searches. Both apps were fairly competent for general searches, such as finding pictures of landmarks like the Eiffel Tower or searching for local businesses. But, unlike Siri, neither was to dive very deep. For example, when I asked them to find local show times for the movie Skyfall—an easy feat for Siri—the most either would do was show me a list of nearby movie theaters.
Speaktoit was able to accurately perform simple calculations, such as adding numbers or telling my how many ounces were in a pound. The frequently flummoxed Robin would simply perform a Google search when asked similar questions.
Bottom line. If you've can spare the extra battery power, these apps offer a fun and occasionally practical way for Android smart-phone owners to engage their devices, especially when typing is not an option. But neither app has the chops, at least yet, to dethrone Siri.
In all my informal tests except Map-based navigation, Siri made it clear she not only had better access to personal account information, but also was able to understand spoken language more accurately and put queries into better context. And those advantages helped her yield more meaningful results in less time. Of course, that's easier to achieve when one company (Apple) has designed the app, operating system, and hardware.