Siri kicked off the voice-enabled personal assistant trend, but she now has two big reasons to look over her shoulder: Cortana for Windows Phone, which is smarter in some ways, and Google Now, which many Android users have come to love.
To see which assistant is best, we took Cortana, Siri and the Google Now assistant for a test-drive, using the iPhone 5s on iOS 8.1, the HTC One M8 on Windows Phone 8.1 Update 1, and the Samsung Galaxy S5 (Android 4.4.4). After six rounds of competition, evaluating everything from speed and accuracy to the interface and special features, it turns out that Apple is still in the lead.
Siri: Apple's Siri is a fully voiced assistant that's been available to iPhone users since the inception of the iPhone 4S, offering users the freedom to ask questions, set up appointments and reminders, and interact with the sassy digital diva by setting up a nickname and more.
Cortana: Microsoft's assistant is based off of the character of the same name from Microsoft's Halo video game franchise. Featuring voice actress Jen Taylor, Cortana is available to anyone using Windows Phone 8.1. In some cases, you'll receive your results with a computer-generated voice that is, admittedly, a lot less interesting than Taylor's.
Google Now: Google Now is all about easy access and simplicity. When triggering voice commands, you can simply say, "OK, Google…" and then give your command. Like Siri and Cortana, you can look up info online, but Google Now is also good at delivering personal recommendations based on your search history and preferences.
There are many factors that go into choosing a personal digital assistant, but the voice of the assistant is a big draw. On one hand, you have a recognizable voice actress handling Microsoft's Cortana, but Siri's iconic speech is well-known throughout the world as being nearly synonymous with the iPhone. Failing instant recognition, Google Now has made a name for itself with the "OK, Google" prompt that's used in so much of its advertising.
Of the three contenders, Siri arguably distinguishes itself the most, with customizable voices that even allow you to choose a male voice if you don't like the original female one. Cortana is locked to implement Jen Taylor's dulcet tones, and Google Now offers no customization options.
Voice Winner: Siri. Most digital assistants happen to be female, but the fact that Siri allows for a male voice is intriguing.
For people who require hands-free usage, voice activation of a phone's personal assistant is a huge plus.
Google Now beat Apple and Microsoft to the punch with its always-listening feature, which allows users to activate Google Now at any time by saying "OK, Google." The drawback to this type of activation, however, is that it is only available on higher-end phones right now, although more phones are starting to get the feature.
With the release of iOS 8, Siri received the ability to be activated by voice command when the phone is connected to a power source by saying "Hey, Siri." Although this feature doesn't have the versatility that Android offers, it's still great for hands-free usage in a vehicle or at home.
Cortana doesn't currently offer hands-free activation on any model of Windows Phone. However, according to Microsoft, models of its Lumia line with Snapdragon 800 series processors (Lumia Icon, Lumia 930 and Lumia 1520 confirmed so far) will be updated late this year to utilize a passive voice activation for Cortana with the arrival of the "Lumia Denim" firmware update.
Voice Activation Winner: Google Now. Android's assistant offers the widest voice-activation access.
Simply hold down the home button on any iPhone, iPad or iPod touch that's compatible with Siri, and the digital assistant will promptly ask for your input. This one-touch activation is very appealing.
Cortana is activated by holding the magnifying-glass-shaped search icon on the main screen even without unlocking the screen. You can also tap the Cortana tile on the home page. However, the screen still must be on. Siri can be activated regardless of the screen's status.
Google Now varies among Android devices, but typically is activated by swiping up from the home on-screen key. You can also tap the Google Search app to open Google Now. This is an adequate solution but can be confusing, since it's different on each phone.
Winner: Siri. Out of the three, Apple's assistant was the easiest to use and required the fewest motions.
Cortana's and Siri's interfaces look similar, but Google Now is a bit more involved. When activated, Cortana and Siri present a plain screen prompting users to speak a command. Google Now involves a cards layout that tries to anticipate what you might want.
You don't need to tell Siri much about yourself. When you activate the digital assistant, a black screen will be adorned with a wavy white line along the bottom and white text that reads, "What can I help you with?" in the center of the screen.
A tiny question-mark icon sits on the bottom-left corner. When tapped, it brings up a variety of suggestions for how to use Siri. Options range from "Call Brian" or "Tweet my location" to "What movies are playing?" or "Remind me to call Mom."
If you don't speak your request, or you say it too softly, Siri will ask you to repeat yourself. To do that, however, you must tap the microphone icon on the bottom center of the screen.
Results appeared quickly and were often very clear, even asking for clarification as to which contact I wanted or to confirm that Siri had the information for a reminder correct. All in all, Siri's simplicity makes it very easy to use.
During setup, Cortana asks a series of getting-to-know-you, multiple-choice questions, such as, "How do you like to spend your evenings?" and "What do you read first in the newspaper?" She also asks you for your name and double-checks her pronunciation. The setup process is a bit long, but once it's complete, Cortana will know who your favorite contacts are, if you want it to set up reminders, what hours not to bother you, what you're interested in, where you work versus where you live, and how to present your news. Cortana files all these personal details in its Notebook.
Once activated, Cortana greets you with a dashboard, themed in blue. A blue circle sits on the top-left corner, and expands and retracts, as if breathing, but does nothing else. On the top right, you'll find a pair of musical notes and a three-line menu button. Below that are your personalized preferences. In my case, it was three top headlines for news. Below that, I could tap to hide the news or show more. As I scrolled down, I was shown the weather in my area and a trio of places I might want to go to lunch, both with options to show more.
The bottom of the screen features a white bar that says "Ask me anything" next to a microphone icon. You can type your question or ask it out loud, but to do the latter, you'll have to tap the microphone icon. When you do, a blank black screen opens with the blue circle in the center. Just below that are suggestions for what to ask Cortana, such as "Do I need a coat?" or "Take a note."
Just under that, in blue, you can tap to see more options for how to use Cortana. The suggested options aren't as long as Siri's, but there is an option to tap to get more ideas. I found the interface fairly intuitive, and results came back quickly. The integration with Verizon's Maps app seemed to be the least seamless part of my integration.
Opening Google Now displays a Google search bar at the top of the screen, with a microphone icon on the right. On the bottom left, you might see a little hand with a string tied around the finger. In my case, this was because I had a reminder set up in my calendar. On the bottom right is a magic wand for customizing your Google Now experience with cards.
Cards appear in the middle of the screen. These little boxes can display information without you asking for it. For instance, it can pull up sports scores, travel times, boarding passes, nearby attractions, upcoming appointments and more. Google is fairly good at knowing when each card is pertinent and pushing that one to the top.
During the customization process, you can tell Google how you get around town (walking, in my case). You can also tell it what sports teams and stocks you follow, the addresses for work and home, what cable provider and streaming services you use, as well as if you want weather updates or travel times. Each of these results in a card appears on your dashboard with relevant information.
Google's integration with Google Search means you can sort search results for answers to questions such as, "What does poison ivy look like?" to show you actual pictures, not just website URLs. You can also sort results, at the bottom of the page, for shopping, videos, news, apps, books, maps and phone features.
Interface Winner: Google Now. The Android assistant offers information you want before you can even ask. Plus, it can better sort your results.
Gathering Information: Speed and Accuracy
We asked all three assistants the same series of questions, to measure which one performed the best. Which one emerged victorious?
"Where can I see the movie The Equalizer?"
Siri (3.5 seconds)
Cortana (6 seconds)
Google Now (5.47 seconds)
Best Answer: Google Now. While Siri was a tad faster, Google offered a more comprehensive listing of theaters as well as a synopsis of the movie, as Google Now connects to more third-party services than just Fandango.
"Remind me to pick up the dry cleaning."
Siri (2.7 seconds)
Cortana (5 seconds)
Google Now (6 seconds)
Best Answer: Siri. In terms of quickness and ease of use, Siri wins here. After we made our request, Siri required the fewest number of clicks and taps to set up the reminder.
"Directions to Churchill Downs"
Siri (6.4 seconds)
Cortana (7 seconds)
Google Now (7.22 seconds)
Best Answer: Google Now. Now only did Google Now go the extra mile and vocalize the distance and travel time to the destination, it also gave additional pertinent information that the other two assistants did not.
"How tall is the Eiffel Tower?"
Siri (2.2 seconds)
Cortana (5.3 seconds)
Google Now (5.6 seconds)
Best Answer: Cortana. I enjoyed the way Cortana skipped the extraneous information, such as the Wikipedia article Apple fetched, or a Google Map, and went straight to the facts, which is the Eiffel Tower's height.
"Did the Maple Leafs win last night?"
Siri (2.8 seconds)
Cortana (4.2 seconds)
Google Now (5.22 seconds)
Best Answer: Siri. Not only did she know that the Maples hadn't played the night before, but two nights before. Her speed and overall presentation were optimal and better than those from Cortana and Google Now.
"What is the meaning of life?"
Siri (1.9 seconds)
Cortana (3.7 seconds)
Google Now (7.03 seconds)
Best Answer: Cortana. Both Siri and Cortana came back with witty and quick responses. But the Windows Phone assistant also produced Bing search results as well as a Wikipedia page for "meaning of life."
"Text message Josh 'Go with the flow.'"
Siri (4.2 seconds)
Cortana (5 seconds)
Google Now (8.01 seconds)
Winner: Cortana. I preferred the aesthetics of Cortana's texting setup to Siri's, simply because Siri's message didn't look like a normal iMessage or text I would send. Google Now completed the task but took almost twice as long as Siri and Cortana.
"What does poison oak look like?"
Siri (2.3 seconds)
Cortana (4.5 seconds)
Google Now (6.56 seconds)
Best Answer: Google Now. It may have taken the longest, but Google offers up the option to sort your Web results by URLs or images. And when you need to know what poison oak looks like, pictures are what you want.
"Schedule an appointment with Jason for Tuesday at 9 a.m."
Siri (4.7 seconds)
Cortana (6 seconds)
Google Now (7.22 seconds)
Winner: Siri. Creating appointments was quick and to the point; it really just came down to timing on this one, as all three worked well.
"What will the temperature be this Monday?"
Siri (3.3 seconds)
Cortana (3.2 seconds)
Google Now (7 seconds)
Best Answer: Siri. Apple's digital assistant went the extra mile: Even though I didn't ask to see the rest of the week, it showed me anyway, saving me some time. Google Now replicated the information in a similar way, but it took almost twice as long to execute the task.
Gathering Information Winner: Siri. In many cases, Cortana delivered more accurate and useful weather information, but Siri wins this round on speed alone.
All three assistants can perform some basic and more complicated tasks. You can tell each of these assistants to open an installed app, identify a song that's currently playing, track your stocks, set an alarm, show you the weather and much more. But each has its own special weapons as well.
Microsoft's assistant is smart enough to know not only your name, but also the names of your contacts. You can then use Cortana to set a reminder to be displayed the next time you communicate with a particular person, such as, "Wish Joey a happy birthday."
Plus, Cortana excels at allowing users to continue to ask contextual questions. For instance, if you ask, "Are there any pizza places in Louisville, Kentucky"? you can follow up with questions like, "Which are nearest to me?" and "Which ones are good?". In other words, Cortana can follow your line of questioning. Google Now and Siri also provide this feature, but they can't follow more than three or four questions.
Because Apple deeply integrated Siri into iOS (as opposed to having it be its own app), it's much snappier with requests. And when you're dealing with Apple apps such as iTunes and iMessage, Siri provides a more cohesive experience than her competitors. Siri also integrates with third-party services. For instance, it connects to OpenTable to book dinner reservations on the fly and Fandango to help you buy movie tickets.
Google's assistant is the only one of the three that features an always-on mic, so it's quick to respond when you say, "OK, Google."
I also like the Cards user interface, which displays quite a bit of extra information you want that isn't readily available through Siri and Cortana's home screens.
Unique Abilities Winner: Draw, Siri and Cortana. Apple's relationships with third-party apps such as OpenTable help to make Siri a more useful assistant, but I really like that Cortana is smart enough to present info based on contact info.
Overall Winner: Siri
Siri was the first digital personal assistant, so Apple has had time to perfect it. For instance, Apple has added voice options, one-touch activation and integration with third-party apps. It's starting to play with voice activation as well.
However, Google Now has mastered the voice activation game, and offers more information at a glance before you have to ask. As the new kid on the block, Cortana still has a lot to learn, but it is off to a promising start. But when it comes down to it, the ability to answer our questions quickly and correctly is the heart of what we want from a personal assistant app, and Siri is simply the best.