NEW YORK (MainStreet) — Suddenly there are three major voice driven virtual assistants, because the race is on to let us ask for the information we want to know. Apple’s Siri has been widely used since October 2011 when it was introduced as standard on the iPhone 4S (it had been a freestanding app for a year plus). Google Now - Google’s rebuttal - was introduced in July 2012 and is standard on Android phones. (A stripped-down, emasculated app is available for iPhone.) Now Amazon has debuted Echo a freestanding personal assistant that costs $99 for Prime members, $199 for everybody else. Which is best?
Unlike the Apple and Google entries, Echo is not portable. It’s a tower - 9.25” x 3.27”, rather like a tall beer can - that needs to be plugged in. An associated smartphone app recaps your history with Echo - recent requests and results - but there currently is no way to bring Echo with you as you go about your day. Does that limitation eliminate Echo? For some, certainly, but for many a good assistant around the house (or office if you park it there) may be plenty.
What matters, really, is how well they deliver. To find out, we put ten questions to all three. Here are the results.
Q: What is the weather like in Phoenix?
Echo: "Currently 63 degrees. High 86, low 58."
Siri: "Here’s the forecast between now and [three weeks from now]." Data scrolls on an iPad screen.
Google Now: "It’s 64 degrees and mostly cloudy in Phoenix."
Result: Tie. All tell plenty about weather conditions.
Q: What’s the traffic?
Echo: "The quickest route is 31 minutes via AZ 51 and Bell Rd."
Siri: "Here’s what I got." Displays a Wikipedia write up on traffic.
Google Now: "Your work is 26 minutes away, light traffic. Here are your directions."
Result: Echo and Google win, but, note, in settings, it is easy to insert end points for a daily commute. Siri’s information was genuinely useless and navigation on Apple devices remains a frustration for many users.
Q: Who wrote The Maltese Falcon?
Echo: "Dashiell Hammett."
Siri: “Check it out.” Displays information about the authorship of the film, not the book that inspired the movie. Multiple writers are correctly credited including Dashiell Hammett, the author of the novel.
Google Now: “Dashiell Hammett wrote The Maltese Falcon.”
Result: Echo and Google Now tie, but Siri is not exactly wrong either.
Q: What is cholent?
Echo: "Solar is anything pertaining to the sun."
Siri: Displays links to web pages involving a family with the surname Chollett.
Google Now: "A Jewish Sabbath dish of slowly baked meat and vegetables, prepared on a Friday and cooked overnight."
Results: Cholent figures importantly in the tragic recent death in a fire of seven small children in Brooklyn.
Google Now got it exactly right. Apple and Amazon failed.
Q: Who is the mayor of Jersey City, N.J.?
Echo: “Sorry, I don’t have the answer.”
Siri: “I found this on the Web.” Displays the correct answer: Steven Fulop.
Google Now: “Steven Fulop is the mayor of Jersey City.”
Result: Siri and Google Now tie. Echo loses points for sheer laziness.
Q: How many calories in a Big Mac?
Echo: “550 calories.”
Siri: “About 520.”
Google Now: "467 calories in one item."
Result: McDonald's, which should know, said 530 calories. Give this one to Siri, with Echo maybe counting extra ketchup. No explaining Google Now's count which is off by 10%.
Q: Will Jeremy Clarkson's "Top Gear" continue to air on BBC?
Echo: Plays a sad sound of defeat.
Siri: Displays list of links to appropriate news articles about the flap over the British bad boy's most recent fracas with authority.
Google Now: Shows a similar list
Result: Siri and Google Now tie. Echo fails.
Question: Who is the world’s most important philosopher?
Echo: Sorry, I don’t understand the question.”
Siri: “O.K., I found this on the web.” Displays a list of links, to Yahoo Answers, among others. Includes a link to a poll of philosophers conducted in 2009 by University of Chicago philosopher Brian Leiter. The professionals list Plato as number one, with Aristotle a very close second.
Google Now: Shows much the same list as Siri, including the link to Leiter’s poll.
Results: Siri and Google Now tie. Echo in the rear again.
Q: Play Krishna Das.
Echo: Plays Krishna Das’s Hindu kirtan, “Ma Durga.”
Siri: “Sorry, I couldn’t find Krishna Das in your music.”
Google Now: “Touch to select an app from the list.” Displays multiple options including YouTube which we select. It goes to multiple videos featuring Krishna Das.
Results: Echo wins, follows by Google Now. Siri places last. Note: Echo links to the owner’s Amazon collection which, in this case, includes a few CDs by the American kirtan wallah. Amazon also seems determined to keep improving the device. It recently paired it with Pandora, so now it is easy to use it as an Internet age radio and the sound quality is surprisingly good. Siri doubtless would have done well had there been appropriate music in the user’s iTunes collection. Tip: expect best results wherever you have the most tunes on file.
Q: How do I make a reservation at Babbo restaurant in New York City?
Echo: “Sorry, I didn’t understand the question I heard.”
Siri: “When would you like it?” After getting an answer, Siri displays a list of quite good lower Manhattan restaurants - including Jane and Del Frisco’s. “Tap the one you would like to reserve." (Yelp and OpenTable are used as the booking intermediaries.) Babbo is not shown.
Google Now: Displays links to Babbo write-ups, offers no advice on reservations which, admittedly, are notoriously difficult to get.
Results: Echo loses, that’s clear. As for Siri and Google Now, it’s a toss up. Siri will get you fed. But, buried in the Google links, there’s probably info on how to get a rez at Babbo. Best advice: call the place, ideally a month in advance, and beg.
Final report card: Echo, plainly, brings up the rear. The lack of portability coupled with deep laziness makes it much less useful than either Google Now or Siri. Amazon can cure a lot of Echo’s sins simply by linking it to a good web search engine but, until then, it’s tough to recommend. It's all the tougher, because it costs extra, while Siri and Google Now are in effect throw-ins with phones we are already buying.
Similar grades were awarded by Greg Ratner, director of technology at New York marketing agency Deep Focus. In his scorecard, Google tops the list. "it's the most useful at an overall range of things," he said.
As for Siri, he shrugged, "Siri is not good at a lot of things. People use it for reminders or timers. I don't think a lot of people use it for web searches. It's not very good at directions, because it uses Apple Maps."
As for Echo, he sniffed, "most people don't see it as compelling. You are paying for functionality you get free elsewhere."
Brian Cohen, an executive vice president at Connecticut headquartered consumer promotional agency Catapult, offered a third perspective. To his eye, Echo is "very interesting -- it has a real shopping component." Use it, he suggested, to build Amazon shopping lists - effortlessly and by voice - and you will be rewarded by its ease of use.
Bottom-line: Google now has gotten pretty good. Siri isn't bad. If you are using neither, think again. Both - with little fanfare or notice - have become pretty good and that can put an end to a lot of fat-fingered typing and the useless information that flows across our screens.
Even Echo has its plusses, especially if you use it - not as a broad virtual assistant - but as an Amazon shopping assistant.
The real takeaway: Start using those voice assistants. They have become real labor saving tools.
—Written by Robert McGarvey for MainStreet