As if managing our interpersonal relationships weren't already challenging enough in this digital day and age, now we have to worry about talking to artificial people as well. The rise of virtual assistants has been surprisingly swift, and the market hasn't slowed down yet. But with so many choices for intelligent agents, the question is, Where do you put your trust?
So here's a rundown of the current state of the art in the top three virtual assistants: Alexa, Siri and Google Assistant. We tested them on an Amazon Echo, iPhone 7 and Google Home, respectively, using a battery of questions to determine each of their skill levels.
While they offer many of the same features, each assistant has its own advantages and disadvantages — and, of course, the assistants' software-based nature means that they're all evolving at a rapid clip. But, as it stands today, this is how they fared.
Editor's Note (5/31/18): This story was updated to reflect changes to each of the assistants' abilities. Although the overall standings have not changed since the original story, both Google Assistant and Alexa have gained additional points, and widened their lead over Siri.
Back in the "old days," when I had a question, my parents would tell me to look it up. (Disclaimer: My parents were both librarians, so this wasn't unexpected.) These days, you can just ask a computer. So, we asked each of the digital assistants to answer a battery of 20 questions of general knowledge.
In a change from our previous standings, Alexa just edged out the Google Assistant in this category. It answered more questions correctly than either Siri or the Google Assistant, and often gave context and-or cited a source website for the information. It fell down only on a couple of questions: It couldn't tell me who held the record for stolen bases in baseball, and it gave me the current secretary-general of the U.N. when I asked about the first person to hold that post. However, it was the only one to correctly identify what most scholars believe to be Shakespeare's first play, and did the best when asked about the airing schedule of a variety of TV shows.
Google AssistantSiri fared the worst in this department, though Apple employees have previously defended their assistant as not having been designed to answer trivia questions. In more than a quarter of the questions I asked, Siri on the HomePod apologized and said it couldn't even answer my question, and in a few others it provided irrelevant information (listing reviews of action figures when asked about the length of the movie The Avengers) or useless information (when asked about what Harry S Truman's middle name was, it "helpfully" answered, "The full name of Harry S Truman was Harry S Truman"). However, it did provide the best info on last year's ALCS results, though it also gave me the same answer about the ALCS when asked about the stolen- base record holder.
Siri on an iPhone and Alexa on an Amazon Echo.
The Google Assistant was pretty close to Alexa, generally giving solid, fast answers with context, though its knowledge of the TV schedule was not as good. It was the only one to correctly identify the first secretary-general of the U.N., however, and provided the most complete information about the distance between the Earth and Jupiter.
General Knowledge standings: 1. Alexa; 2. Google Assistant; 3. Siri
Music & Podcasts
Music should be a strong suit for any smart assistant. Each of the three obviously integrates with its own music services, and in some cases ties in with third-party offerings as well. A request to play the Rolling Stones' "Paint It Black" was handled adroitly by Alexa (because I subscribe to Amazon's Music Unlimited streaming service) and Siri (where the song is in my library). The Google Assistant gave me an internet radio station based on my request, but I also don't subscribe to Google Play Music, the company's paying music service.
Both Google Assistant and Alexa responded to my request to play upbeat '80s music by playing a station that matched that description. On both the iPhone and the HomePod, Siri gave me a cryptic response and didn't play anything, though that may be because I don't have a $9.99-a-month Apple Music subscription.
SiriPlaying podcasts was more of a hit-or-miss affair. While all three assistants easily played the most recent episode of Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me!, they struggled a bit with a more obscure podcast. When I requested the most recent episode of the Dragon Friends podcast, Alexa misinterpreted it; Siri resumed the most recently downloaded episode on my phone when I said "latest"” but responded correctly when I changed the query to "newest"; and Google Home came through with flying colors. Google Home also handily played the most recent episode of The Incomparable podcast, which Alexa and Siri balked at.
Google Play Mini and Google AssistantBoth Google Home and Amazon Echo offer multiroom audio functionality, including creating groups of speakers via your smartphone. Alexa also supports audio playback from some music services to Sonos speakers, while Google Home can communicate with any Chromecast-connected speaker.
With recent updates to iOS and the HomePod, Siri can also play audio on speakers anywhere in your home that support AirPlay 2, including those connected to an Apple TV.
However, both Google Assistant and Alexa are also built into a number of third-party smart speakers, whereas if you want Siri in a smart speaker, the only option is to purchase Apple's HomePod.
Music & Podcasts standings:1. Alexa/Google Assistant/Siri (tie)
Integration with home-entertainment equipment is one of the coolest parts of virtual assistants. Alexa now lets you control your Amazon Fire TV, Fire TV Stick or Fire TV Edition, including opening apps, jumping around in time, playing and pausing, and more. Google can likewise control playback on a Chromecast-connected device, including TVs with Chromecast built in, though it offers only a few services, and you have to link some of the apps via your smartphone first. Additionally, Alexa and Google Assistant can control devices using a third-party intermediary like Logitech's Harmony Hub.
Amazon Fire TV and AlexaSiri is in a peculiar position here. As of a recent software update, you can use Siri on your iPhone or the HomePod to control music and podcast playback on an Apple TV or other AirPlay speakers; but it can't handle any other functions, such as turning the device on or off, opening apps or playing videos.
Apple TV 4K and Siri RemoteThe current line of Apple TVs has Siri built in via the remote, which lets you do much more, like skip around in a video, turn on captions and open apps. But it's less convenient if you need to find the remote, and Apple TV-based Siri offers no third-party integrations.
Continuing with the entertainment track, I tried to use the assistants to order movie tickets for Solo, which ended up being kind of a disaster on all three platforms. Alexa relies on a Fandango skill, which is slow, incredibly literal, and can't book tickets for reserved seating. Siri on the HomePod couldn't help me, though on my iPhone it let me tap through a few screens and eventually launch the Fandango app. Google seemed to fare the best in giving me showtimes for my nearby theaters; however, it can't buy tickets via your voice on the Google Home yet—though it does work if you're using the Assistant on your phone.
Entertainment standings: 1. Alexa/Google Assistant (tie); 3. Siri (but it's close)
Ordering Food, Making Reservations and Getting Recipes
Food's an important part of any equation, so I tried a handful of queries related to ordering food, making reservations and getting recipes. All three assistants offered me recommendations for a good Indian restaurant, but only Siri on the iPhone offered to take action on it by letting me call for reservations or getting me directions.
Google AssistantNone of the assistants could place an order for Chinese food; at best, they provided a list of restaurants nearby, at worst, Alexa tried to order me packages of food from Amazon. At least Siri on the iPhone could offer to call a place for me. Making reservations at a restaurant worked through Google Assistant, Alexa or Siri on the iPhone, which all used OpenTable to walk me through the process (though it requires a multistep process). However, while the iPhone worked fine, Siri on the HomePod couldn't handle reservations.
In the "chocolate chip cookie recipe" test, Google passed with flying colors, even walking me through the recipe step by step. Alexa came in second, offering to send the recipe to the Alexa app, but it also offered multiple recipes. Siri on the HomePod couldn't help me, and on the iPhone, it just kicked me to a web search.
Ordering Food standings:1. Google Assistant/Siri/Alexa (tie)
Buying things via your voice seems like it should be a good idea, but in practice, it still feels cumbersome. Alexa should and does have the advantage here, thanks to its tight integration with Amazon's shopping catalog. It adroitly handled "order some more paper towels," though it had trouble when I requested a copy of Destiny 2.
Google AssistantGoogle did just as well, though I had to first accept new terms and conditions for its shopping service; it then offered to order me paper towels from Stop & Shop and Target, and offered a copy of Destiny 2 from Target.It also let me add items to my shopping list later if I didn't want to add them then. Siri came in dead last: on the HomePod, asking for paper towels got me a result about a nearby pizza place, and it acknowledged it couldn't help me with Destiny 2. On the iPhone, it launched a search in the App Store when I asked for Destiny 2 for Xbox One and kicked me to a search of nearby Bed Bath & Beyond for my paper towels.
Online Shopping standings: 1. Alexa/Google Assistant (tie); 3. Siri
Sometimes you're tired of talking to a robot and want to talk to a real person. Fortunately, all three virtual assistants now include features that put you in touch with your contacts.
Alexa lets you call and send voice or text messages to any other Alexa user in your contacts (including those who have only the smartphone app); you can also call any phone number or any contact whose phone number you have. Once you've set it up, the call will even appear to come from your home phone number. If you have an Echo Show, you can also make video calls to other owners of Echo Shows or those using the smartphone app.
Google Home likewise lets you make calls to people in your contacts via the phone, though you have to configure it so it appears to come from your Google Voice number, another number or an unlisted number. However, Google Home doesn't let you send text messages without a workaround using IFTTT.
SiriSiri on the iPhone wins the day by virtue of being on a phone. You can make calls to contacts, compose and send text messages to any contact, and have text messages read back to you. Unlike Google and Alexa, Siri can also make international calls outside of North America and call emergency services. You can compose and send an email message, which neither of the others can handle, and Siri offers third-party calling and messaging for some apps, like Viber and WhatsApp. On the HomePod, options are somewhat more limited: you can send texts to your contacts, but not make calls, send emails or use third-party services.
Communications standings: 1. Siri; 2. Alexa; 3. Google
When you're ready to leave the house, you may be tempted to use a virtual assistant to find your best route.
Siri on the iPhone does very well with directions. Not only can it give you a sense of how long it takes you to get someplace, it can also offer you directions and automatically start GPS navigation. While it can get transit directions as well, it does a mediocre job of answering questions about traffic, since it just kicks you to its Maps app.
SiriSiri on the HomePod, by comparison, can give you an estimate of time and a suggestion of a major route (via what highway, for example), but it can't send directions to my phone — either automatically or by request — which seems like a missed opportunity. It also can't handle public-transit directions, or give you traffic descriptions by area. Although when I asked about traffic on the local interstate, it was honest about its shortcomings and gave me information about traffic leading to the interstate, which is at least something.
Google Home did very well, giving solid time estimates in most cases. Its public-transit suggestions were pretty reasonable, and it did the best in giving me an overview of traffic information. It can also send directions to the Google Assistant app on my phone, where it's easy to start navigation from Google Maps, Apple Maps or Waze.
Alexa's at the bottom of the heap here. When I asked it how far away Boston Common was, it gave me the answer as the crow flies. Alexa's directions to the airport were no more helpful, and it was unable to handle public transit. When I asked about traffic on the local interstate, it instead wanted to direct me to a highway in British Columbia, some 2,500 miles away.
All three, however, totally whiffed my request about what time my next bus left.
Directions standings: 1. Siri/Google Assistant (tie); 3. Alexa
Smart-home devices have become one of the major pieces of integration with virtual assistants; all three platforms have focused some time and attention on this. All three work with a huge breadth of connected products, and many third-party products work with at least two, if not all three, platforms.
Google AssistantOf the most common smart-home products, the biggest exceptions might be Nest's smart thermostat, which is not currently compatible with Apple's HomeKit, and the Harmony Hub, which doesn't work natively with HomeKit, either.
It can seem close to a wash: In most cases, you can find a competing product that does work with the platform in question. In each case, it's wise to check Apple's, Amazon's and Google's full list of supported devices to see if the device works with the platform in question. At the moment, Alexa and Google are about even, and Siri is pretty competent, even if it's missing a couple of major partners.
Smart Home standings: 1. Alexa/Google Assistant (tie); 3. Siri
A voice assistant isn't worth much if it doesn't work where you want it. In addition to its broad offerings from the Dot to the Echo Show, Amazon also has the most third-party partners for Alexa, since you can buy a cheaper speaker from the likes of Anker. Or, if you need better sound quality, you can purchase the Sonos One, which has Alexa built in (and will reportedly add Google Assistant at some point). Even phones such as the HTC U11 and the Moto X4 have Alexa (the X4 has Google Assistant, too).
Sonos One with AlexaGoogle has released smaller versions of the Home, including a cheaper unit (the Mini) and one with better sound quality (the Max). Google is also working with third parties, and the Google Assistant will be broadly available on smartphone platforms, including Android and iOS, though features are somewhat limited on the latter.
Apple, however, has widely distributed its virtual assistant to all of its devices, including the iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch, Apple TV and Mac. It has only a single smart speaker, the HomePod, which sounds great, but it is limited in what it can do with Siri.
Apple HomePod with SiriHowever, the one place that Siri does rule is in availability by country. Apple's voice assistant is available in more than 30 countries and 20 languages — and, in some cases, several different dialects. (It's worth noting that not all of its features are available in every region.) Google Home, by comparison, is available in only seven countries and can speak only English, German, French, Italian and Japanese, though it does support multiple versions of some of those languages. Alexa can manage only English (U.S. and U.K.) and German, though it is available in many countries.
Availability standings:1. Siri; 2. Google Assistant; 3. Alexa
Reliability is important for any sort of assistant, virtual or not, and in my totally scientific testing (ahem!), I kept track of how often I needed to repeat myself or rephrase a question for an assistant to get it. In my experience, all did pretty well, occasionally requiring a repeated or rephrased query, but generally answering most requests promptly and to the best of the devices' abilities.
Of course, it can be quite confusing if you have multiple people in a household, so each assistant tries to tackle this problem in its own way. Both Google Home and Amazon Echo now offer multiple voice profiles, where you can train the device to recognize your specific voice and provide some degree of personalized response based on this.
Google's Voice Match is the most sophisticated, offering personalized calendars, flights, payments, photos and more; you can even set your own default media services. However, I have not infrequently encountered problems with it recognizing my voice, refusing to give me access to my information until I've retrained my Voice Match. Alexa, meanwhile, offers only personalized shopping, calling and some media options at present.
Apple has taken a slightly different approach with Siri: Before you activate the ability to use the "Hey Siri" wake phrase, you must train Siri to recognize only your voice. That prevents Siri from giving your personal information to someone else, as well as avoiding multiple devices being triggered by one phrase.
However, Siri on the HomePod tends to respond to any "Hey Siri" request if it's in range, unless you are using your iPhone. And it doesn't have any sort of multi-person features, which sends it to the bottom of the standings here.
Voice Recognition standings: 1. Google Assistant; 2. Alexa; 3. Siri
Built-in features are all well and good, but sometimes there's a feature you really want to add that just isn't part of the package. In that case, you may need to turn to a third party, and that's one place where these platforms differ significantly.
Alexa has more than 30,000 third-party skills. Not all of these skills are great, but chances are you can probably find something to meet your needs. And, if you can't, you can always create some basic integrations using the IFTTT web service, or create your own simple Routines via the Alexa app. The company also offers templates for some simple apps, such as game shows and information for houseguests, via its new Alexa Blueprints feature.
Google has taken a different tack with what it has dubbed "Actions." The Google Assistant claims it features more than a million of these, but they basically include all possible queries from both first- and third-party offerings, so it's hard to make a straight comparison with Alexa's library. It also offers the best integration with IFTTT, letting you create custom skills without any real knowledge of programming.
Siri, in typical Apple fashion, works with only a small handful of third-party apps that Apple has approved. At present, this involves only a few features, including calling and messaging, ride-hailing, sending money and creating to-do lists. There's also no real support for IFTTT, so if Siri doesn't do what you want, you're stuck.
Extendability standings: 1. Alexa/Google Assistant (tie); 3. Siri
In our final tally, the Google Assistant brought home the most total points as well as the most first-place wins, narrowly edging out Alexa. Siri, meanwhile, fell into third place in both measurements.
Each assistant received 3 points for first place in a category, 2 points for second, and 1 point for third.
|General Knowledge||1st (3 pts)||2nd (2pts)||3rd (1 pt)|
|Music||1st (3 pts)||1st (3 pts)||1st (3 pts)|
|Entertainment||1st (3 pts)||1st (3 pts)||2nd (2pts)|
|Ordering Food||1st (3 pts)||1st (3 pts)||1st (3 pts)|
|Online Shopping||1st (3 pts)||1st (3 pts)||3rd (1 pt)|
|Communications||2nd (2pts)||3rd (1 pt)||1st (3 pts)|
|Directions||3rd (1 pt)||1st (3 pts)||1st (3 pts)|
|Smart Home||1st (3 pts)||1st (3 pts)||2nd (2pts)|
|Availability||3rd (1 pt)||2nd (2pts)||1st (3 pts)|
|Voice Recognition||2nd (2pts)||1st (3 pts)||3rd (1 pt)|
|Extendability||1st (3 pts)||1st (3 pts)||3rd (1 pt)|
|# of First Place Wins||7||8||5|
But despite the success of the Google Assistant, there is no one-size-fits-all winner when it comes to voice assistants. Your best pick is the one that succeeds at the categories most important to you, working with the devices you want, in the ecosystem you use. And with the rapid pace of innovation in all of these technologies, it's hard to go wrong by spending time with any of these voice assistants. Even if none of them know when exactly my bus will get here.
Credit: Tom's Guide/Google/Amazon/Apple/Sonos
- Amazon Alexa Guide: Tips, Tricks and How-Tos
- The Best Products That Work With Amazon Alexa
- Siri vs. Alexa: Why Amazon Won Our 300-Question Showdown