I'm an Android girl who loves her iPad mini and her Amazon Echo. I also plan to be the first to bow before Skynet, once Judgment Day truly arrives. But I want to make sure I'm backing the right robot voice. I said "Hey Siri" and "Alexa" more than 300 times to determine which of these two virtual assistants, bordering on AI, truly represent Cyberdyne Systems in its infancy, or whether I should just wait for Google Home.
Using an iPhone 6s with Hey Siri enabled and an Alexa-powered Amazon Echo, I asked questions to determine each assistant's intelligence, speed, versatility and personality while both were connected to the same Wi-Fi network. I tested voice-recognition abilities at 1 foot and 11 feet; in a quiet room and in a room filled with static noise. I spoke slowly and distinctly, and at times I rushed through my words without raising my voice. And I asked the same questions many times.
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Both Apple and Amazon offer special features, and so I wanted to know if their respective helpers could play me music, go shopping, give me directions, control my smart-home gadgets and keep me generally entertained.
What I learned? Siri is deaf and Alexa is dumb. But you can teach stupid.
Smarts (25 points)
Alexa, which connects to Wikipedia for most of its general knowledge, isn't nearly as smart as it could be. Alexa simply couldn't answer four of the 14 research questions I asked — mostly things you might Google, such as "How long is The Avengers?" and "What was the worst movie last year." Amazon's smart assistant also taps into all the major sports leagues, NPR, BBC, CNN, Wall Street Journal, HuffPo, Slate, Washington Post, Fox, Bloomberg, The Economist, Discovery and TMZ for news.
Alexa was also pretty terrible at understanding contextual questions. For instance, when I asked "Where is the Jungle Book playing?" it was ready with a ton of options nearby. But when I asked "What about X-Men Apocalypse," I was met with confusion. Alexa knew the eighth president of the U.S. was Martin Van Buren, but when I followed that up with, "Who was the 10th?" it didn't understand my question.
Siri was better at answering contextually, but not by a lot. It could answer one follow-up question about food, weather or sports, but not about general knowledge. And it couldn't answer two follow-ups.
Oddly, Alexa and Siri have different ideas about who someone's asking about when the name Harry Truman is mentioned. When I said, "What is Harry Truman's middle name?" Alexa thought I meant Harry Randall Truman, who died in the Mount St. Helen's eruption in 1980 after refusing to evacuate. Siri thought I meant President Harry S. Truman, which to me seemed the more obvious choice.
When Siri understood me, it was smarter. It pulls sports info from Yahoo and the various sports leagues. Simple trivia-like questions pull data from Wolfram Alpha's huge store of knowledge, and when that didn't suffice, Siri would simply serve up Bing search results. Apple's virtual assistant offered a more precise conversion of 5 miles into meters by going out to the hundredth decimal point with an answer of 8,046.72 meters, instead of Alexa's 8,046.7.
Alexa has better taste than Siri, however. When asked for Italian restaurant recommendations in the area (New York City's Flatiron District) Siri's first choice was Frank in the East Village, 14 blocks away. It only gets a 3.5 star rating on Yelp. Alexa recommended Via Emilia, which is only a couple blocks away and has 4 stars on Yelp. Danny Meyer's Maialino might have been a better choice, but it's still an improvement over Siri's suggestion. In fact, if you don't say "good Italian" and only say Italian, Siri would have sent me to the Olive Garden.
Uniquely, you have the power to make Alexa smarter, an ability Siri doesn't have. Through Amazon's Skills section of the Alexa app, you can connect to specific websites and services. For instance, if you enable the NYC Status skill, Alexa will pull data provided by 311 about alternate side of the street parking rules, school closings and garbage collection. Enabling 1-800-Flowers lets you order a bouquet with your voice. So far, there are more than 1,000 Skills to choose from created by developers. Apple is rumored to be rolling out a similar dev program for Siri later this year.
Winner: Siri. Apple's assistant is smarter for now, but Alexa has the potential to get better.
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Voice Recognition (20 points)
Alexa understood me 99.9 percent of the time, but Siri caught only 52 percent of what I said. That may be due to the fact that Amazon does a better job of teaching its assistant to understand people.
To set up the Echo, you say 20 ordinary commands that Alexa would have to react to. If that's not good enough, you can run the Voice Training program in the Alexa app. Also, in your History of the Alexa app you can tell Amazon if Alexa has misunderstood you during any single interaction. To set up Siri to use hands-free, and in an effort to make sure it can understand you, you simply say "Hey Siri" a handful of times.
Winner: Alexa. It wasn't even close.
Availability (10 points)
Siri is specific to Apple products. It is a native part of iPhones (4s and up), iPads (3rd generation and up), iPods (2012 and up), Apple Watch, Apple TV and via the Siri remote. Plus, you can access it through vehicles that support Apple CarPlay. That includes cars and trucks from Acura, Audio, Cadillac, Chevy, Ford, GMC, Honda, Hyundai, Kia, Mercedes, Mitsubishi, Subaru, VW, Volvo and more.
Amazon started inside of the company's hardware, but it has recently broken free into third-party devices. Right now, you can access Alexa on the Amazon Echo, Echo Dot, Tap, Fire TV, as well as the Triby smart speaker, CoWatch and Pebble smartwatches, and through the Roger and Lexi apps (iOS and Android). Plus, Ford announced in January that it would connect its vehicles to Alexa soon.
Winner: Alexa. Amazon’s ecosystem is stronger and growing.
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Smart Home Control (10 points)
Both Amazon and Apple are good at smart-home control. Alexa started life as part of a smart speaker, spreading control out to other devices. It now natively supports smart-home products, including those from Samsung, Philips, Wemo, Insteon, Wink, Lutron, Triby, Insteon, Caseta, Lifx, Haiku, GE, TP-Link, Levitron, iHome, Nest, Ecobee, Sensi, Honeywell and Lyric.
With iOS 9, Apple introduced HomeKit, which lets you use Hey Siri to control various gadgets, even when you're not at home. Currently, that includes support for smart-home devices from Ecobee, Philips, Anova, First Alert OneLink, Canary, Elgato, Lutro, Schlage, Flir, Logi, iDevices, Withings, iGrill and Chamberlain. However, HomeKit doesn't work directly with Nest; you’ll have to use a workaround if you want to control the thermostat with Siri.
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You can make either service handier to have around the house through the IFTTT (If This Then That) web service. For instance, with a simple recipe you can connect Harmony and Canary devices to Alexa, or Wink and Wemo to Siri.
Winner: Siri. The abilities are comparable, but Alexa doesn't work remotely.
Speed (10 points)
Alexa delivered answers (or lack of answers) in 1.93 seconds, on average. Siri took a noticeably longer 3.45 seconds to answer my questions. The longest wait was 7 seconds, which seemed like an eternity. I started to wonder if Siri had even understood me.
Winner: Alexa. Siri is significantly slower.
Directions (5 points)
Siri was designed to be a smartphone tool, so giving directions is a no-brainer. It taps into Apple Maps to provide turn-by-turn directions on foot, on public transit or by car with traffic and timing taken into consideration. It took three times for Siri to provide directions to my house because she didn't understand me, but the route it finally came up with was direct and accurate. It gave me directions to the Statue of Liberty and San Francisco the first time I asked.
Alexa can give directions only to home or work. So it can tell me what the traffic is like on my commute, and offer suggestions on the best route to take. But it couldn't tell me how to get to San Francisco or to the Statue of Liberty.
Winner: Siri. You get directions to more places.
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Music (5 points)
Alexa started life inside a speaker, and music playback is part of its core DNA. Within the Alexa app, you can connect directly to Amazon Prime Music, Spotify, Pandora, iHeartRadio and TuneIn. If you enable skills such as House Band, you can expand that list to include the JRiver Media Center music server. By connecting to IFTTT, you can create a recipe for listening to any web-based music service.
Siri is much more limited in its music selection. It can play music already on your phone through Apple Music. You can tell Siri to open other music apps, but the smart assistant can't control playback.
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When I asked both assistants to play "Hotel California" by the Eagles, Alexa quickly complied, but because I didn't own the song on my iPhone, Siri couldn't help me. Siri could play "21" by Adele, but so could Alexa.
Winner: Alexa. Amazon's assistant plays with more services.
Shopping (5 points)
Alexa helpfully ties directly to your Amazon account, which means you can use it to shop on Amazon. You can create a shopping list and renew purchases you've previously made. Alexa can track packages and buy music as well. But it won't help you shop anywhere else, yet.
Siri doesn't yet have voice-controlled shopping abilities. You can use Siri to create shopping lists that live in the Notes app, but that's where its merchandising smarts stop.
Winner: Alexa. Siri isn’t good for shopping.
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Range (5 points)
On only one occasion, at 11 feet away, did Alexa fail to understand my words. However, when I was 11 feet away, Siri understood me only 47 percent of the time. To be fair, Siri, which is largely restricted to iOS devices and Apple Watches at the moment, isn't designed to be used from across the room the way Alexa is. At less than a foot, Alexa still understood me better though.
Winner: Alexa. Amazon’s assistant can go the distance.
Humor/Easter Eggs/Personality (5 points)
Siri has some serious sass. I appreciated that her responses were varied and clever. For instance, when I asked how the Cleveland Cavaliers did in their last game about 10 times in a row, her responses changed, pointing out that Cleveland "crushed," "stomped," "destroyed" the Toronto Raptors. Alexa just told me the score and when they play next. When I asked about the weather in Dallas, Siri pointed out that it didn't look good; Alexa just gave me the forecast without any editorializing. Generally speaking, Alexa was more scientific and straightforward in its answers.
Both virtual assistants were built with a family-friendly, corny sense of humor. But I preferred Alexa's jokes. When I asked Siri to tell me a joke, it told me to "get siri-os." Alexa said, "What did the magician do when he got angry? He pulled his hare out."
Both virtual assistants have plenty of Easter eggs to find. Alexa's tend toward the geeky side, which I appreciated. Saying "Beam me up" and asking about the meaning of life gets Alexa to offer some great pop culture responses. Siri just wasn't as hip with nerd culture, but asking it to divide 0 by 0 gets you a pretty hilarious response.
Winner: Tie. While Siri is sassier, Alexa's geek cred is higher.
Alexa is the better of the two smart assistants.
Siri may offer better answers to questions and have the more fun personality, and it enables smart-home control with your voice just like Alexa. But Amazon's assistant is more versatile, helping you shop, play music from multiple services and a lot more via 900-plus "skills." Plus, Alexa is available on a wider array of devices. Amazon's assistant is also more likely to understand you and give you quicker answers from anywhere in the room. Siri will likely improve with iOS 10 — and it should be coming to the Mac — but for now Alexa is better.
I want to call out two inaccuracies in the article that will probably be helpful.
First, actually, apple has intentionally crippled homekit remotely. Have you tried it? It turns out, you can't use siri to control your home remotely UNLESS you own an apple TV. If you own one, you may not have realized this. Since my lutron caseta application works just fine remotely, I'm having trouble believing this is necessary, but it's definitely a limitation. Of course the echo can't hear you when you're outside the house so it doesn't work, of course! Not the same as intentionally crippling it. My alexa isn't even on the same wifi network as my smart home devices so amazon is doing everything through the internet and associated accounts. Apple may be using wifi to interact. Both have their pros and cons from a security and reliability perspective.
The other inaccuracy: Actually you need to try siri with apple music enabled. With apple music enabled, you'll find that you can voice call out pretty much any song in the library of congress (close exaggeration). Realize: Amazon has a similar benefit when you are a prime subscriber, as I have been for years. I have both an echo / amazon prime... and the iphone/apple music combo. I have been pleasantly surprised by Amazon (they even have the Partridge family- don't ask)... but the Siri/Apple music combo is actually scary amazing. And of course if you have thousands of songs you've "ripped", those are all available too.
Anyway, thanks again for doing this important research, which I hope will drive more competition to get this important function right. I have become a big Alexa fan because besides the accuracy, is a "hands off" technology. So coming in the house with hands full, she's turning on the lights for me and doing a few other things before the grocery bags are even down. Love it.